Covid subs could allow cricket safe return but replacement rules should remain strict | Vic Marks | Sport

England’s Test series against West Indies and Pakistan look ever more likely to happen, albeit behind closed doors. We await confirmation from the government that this will be permitted even though it may be that the resumption of international cricket has not been at the top of their list of priorities of late.

Meanwhile in the offices of the England and Wales Cricket Board and the International Cricket Council the details of the necessary protocols for playing a Test in such extraordinary times are being finalised. They must try to anticipate every eventuality although the guidelines may not include mandatory 60-mile journeys as an eyesight test for umpires. Among many other precautions, a plan of action is needed should any of the players be laid low with the virus during a game.

Such plans may well spawn a new category of cricketer, “the Covid sub”. If there was a widespread outbreak, no doubt the medical experts would have to abandon the match or the series. But if an individual player tested positive then he would immediately be isolated and could easily be replaced by a Covid sub. This would not be a trailblazing change, but merely an extension of the concussion substitute regulation introduced to English domestic cricket in 2018 and then adopted by the ICC in July 2019.

There have been six instances of a concussion sub in international cricket so far and the most memorable – at least for English and Australian fans – was the first. On 18 August last year Marnus Labuschagne strode out to bat at Lord’s in a bit of bother as a concussion sub for Steve Smith, who had been hit on the head by a Jofra Archer bouncer in Australia’s first innings.

The regulations require “a like-for-like” replacement, which is difficult to satisfy when the concussed player is the uniquely gifted Smith, but Labuschagne was a batsman who bowled a few leg-breaks, so there could be no complaints. In the final innings of the match with early wickets tumbling, Labuschagne, in what would be his sixth appearance in a hitherto modest Test career, batted for two and a quarter hours while making a polished 59 and the game was saved. He had to stay in the Test side after that.

There were three more half-centuries for Labuschagne in the Ashes series and last winter in Australia he amassed scores of 185, 162, 143 and 215 in Tests against Pakistan and New Zealand. But for the concussion sub regulation it is possible that Labuschagne, who averages 63 in Test cricket, might still be waiting for his recall.

Until his appearance with bat in hand at Lord’s, substitutes could only field or – with the opposing captain’s permission – keep wicket in Test cricket. They could not bat or bowl. Indeed cricket remains just about the only team sport that does not embrace the liberal use of substitutes – with good reason.

One of the delights of the game is the delicious balancing act every captain has to undertake when selecting his final XI. Of course he wants that extra batsman/ bowler to cover any situation but he must choose which way to go before the start of the match and live with that often agonising decision thereafter.

England’s Vikram Solanki fielding after becoming cricket’s first super sub

England’s Vikram Solanki fielding after becoming cricket’s first super sub. Photograph: Graham Chadwick/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

In 2005 – for one year only – tactical substitutes were allowed in ODI cricket. Vikram Solanki became the first “super sub” on 7 July at Headingley when he replaced Simon Jones after 31 overs of the first innings of a match between England and Australia. It was a very poor idea, which was reckoned to favour the team winning the toss as well as removing the captain’s perennial dilemma and the authorities had the good sense to ditch it quickly.

Over the years there has been a better case for the use of substitutes as a consequence of ill-health and injury, though this would have denied us such epic tales as Lancashire’s Eddie Paynter getting out of his hospital bed, while still suffering from tonsillitis, and hitting a valiant 83 in the enervating heat of Brisbane, an innings that ensured an England victory in the Bodyline series of 1932-33.

There have been several instances since of England sides being stricken with stomach problems in the subcontinent when the use of substitutes would have been handy – on one occasion this almost prompted a Test debut for Henry Blofeld on the 1963-64 tour of India (he was reporting for the Guardian at the time).

More recently a bug tore through a chunk of the England team during the first Test at Centurion in South Africa last December but no replacements were possible once the match had started, unless a player was deemed by the medics to be concussed. This raised an obvious question: should substitutes now be allowed when a batsman breaks a finger or a bowler becomes injured – like Jimmy Anderson in the first Ashes Test of 2019? What is the difference between a badly torn calf muscle and a bang on the head?

My instincts are that we should be wary of expanding the use of substitutes in cricket. It might become another source of chicanery prompting a few bogus injuries along the way. I might permit the reintroduction of runners for injured batsmen, since this is so often a source of entertaining chaos and is consequently rarely used by sides seeking to gain an advantage.

As for Covid subs, I would definitely allow them at a time when the authorities and their cricketers are busting a gut to provide us with some international cricket, however bizarre and forlorn the surroundings. I just hope they will never be needed.

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