Coronavirus testing checkpoints and isolation units could become features at grounds around the country this summer as English cricket explores the possibility of staging major matches behind closed doors.
As things stand there will be no professional cricket in the UK before 28 May at the earliest, and the England and Wales Cricket Board is drafting possible schedules while it waits for the government to give sporting events the green light.
There are no guarantees that crowds will be allowed into grounds when this comes, however. When announcing the delay last week the ECB revealed it was looking into “starting the season behind closed doors” and “giving sports fans the opportunity to watch live broadcast action”.
Steve Elworthy, the tournament director for last year’s World Cup who has since become the ECB’s director of events, is charged with exploring the logistics of this and has outlined the challenge.
“We’re mapping out what international matches would look like behind closed doors,” Elworthy says. “The advice around mass gatherings [before the current period of lockdown] was 500 people or fewer. That was guided by the potential impact on critical services like paramedics and doctors.
“You would likely have to work within that number, which includes teams, match officials, support staff, broadcasters and media, commercial partners, safety and security teams, third party suppliers, replay screen operators, [the teams that control] the LED boards, ground staff, catering and more.
“Then you have to think about medical provisions, creating a safe and sterile environment around that venue, so that everyone who comes into the venue is clear. So it’s how you test them at the gate, the isolation units that you have to put in. These are all the considerations we are thinking about.”
The ECB’s medical team is devising a protocol for how testing would work, as well as possible isolation booths for temporary use while anyone testing positive for Covid-19 waits to leave the ground.
There can be around 1,500 people working on a normal major matchday, but it is believed this headcount can be shrunk to some 350 with no spectators, aided by the reduction in stewards and catering. However, Elworthy’s events team must also consider transport and accommodation logistics for players, staff and officials in a way that ensures the desired “sterile” bubble is not only upon arrival at the stadium.
While operational manuals for staging domestic cricket behind closed doors will also be produced, internationals have the added complication of travel for the touring teams. Much hinges on the resumption of flights and the lifting of travel restrictions, such as quarantine periods.
There are four sets of visitors scheduled in the men’s game this year – West Indies, Australia, Pakistan and Ireland – each with scheduling issues to consider should fixtures need moving, while England’s women are due to host South Africa and India.
“We’re now thinking of all these things, the risks posed, and it just gets bigger and wider,” Elworthy says. “But if that is the situation we are faced with then we will deliver on absolutely every single one of those to make sure it does happen.”
The ECB, at the start of a new £1.1bn rights deal and with cash reserves greatly diminished of late, is clearly desperate to get cricket back on for its broadcast partners and sponsors, but Elworthy insists the decision to stage matches will not be blinded by the economic need.
“One thing you have to consider is the national mood. You might be able to deliver a match but would it be the right thing? Operationally we believe we can deliver anything but we have to have an eye on that. You don’t just operate in a bubble, you need peripheral vision.
“[And] making sure everyone is in a safe environment is front and centre of the discussions. We have had good conversations with the new chief exec of the Professional Cricketers’ Association, Tony Irish, as well as county directors of cricket. Player and official safety and comfort is paramount.”
A veteran of six global tournaments that stretch back to the 2007 World T20 in South Africa and awarded an MBE in 2018, Elworthy says the current situation is “without a shadow of a doubt” the most challenging he has faced, not least because the start date and length of the 2020 season remain unknown.
His team was not totally blindsided, at least, with the subject of a global pandemic arising during contingency planning for last year’s men’s World Cup – “the issue of bird flu came up, as an example” – even though terrorism was considered the greatest threat to the tournament at the time.
Unlike a global event that has a rigid window in the international calendar, a home summer at least provides scope for flexibility (barring a fully cancelled season). There are, however, four domestic competitions to be staged: the County Championship, the T20 Blast, the One-Day Cup and The Hundred.
One or more may be forced to lie fallow for a year as the ECB prioritises the money-spinning white-ball formats but the viability of The Hundred’s inaugural season is about more than its ability to generate cash.
Intended to inject fresh impetus into the sport, the 100-ball competition may yet be better served by a 12-month delay given the potential loss of overseas stars and crowd restrictions. Elworthy, who will oversee its delivery, is not blind to the challenges here but is reluctant to be drawn on its immediate future.
“No one has a crystal ball. We know what The Hundred is intended for and the power of what it can deliver. There will be considerations for all competitions and a process to go through but I would be hesitant to write off anything at this stage.
“We don’t know when we’ll get the green light to get back on and playing. You must make sure you have done all your critical thinking and planning so when you reach that point and know how much season is left, you deliver as much cricket as possible and as coherently as possible.
“One thing you can guarantee is that sport is one of the greatest unifiers. We will come out of this and it will be front and centre of pulling the country together. That’s the power of the sport and cricket has a huge role to play in that.”