England’s Test cricketers have been told to expect daily temperature checks, regular Covid-19 swabs and possibly nine weeks away from their families under ambitious plans to get the series against West Indies and Pakistan played.
Joe Root’s side had their first briefing about the “bio-secure” measures due to be in place this summer on Tuesday and learned that a squad of up to 30 could be chosen for a run of six Tests at the Ageas Bowl and Old Trafford from 8 July.
While the plan is still fraught with hurdles and subject to guidelines for all sports being approved by central government, there is a growing belief at the England and Wales Cricket Board that the two grounds, with their on-site hotels, could see the risk of playing behind closed doors mitigated to an acceptable level.
It would require a huge commitment from the players, who would be asked to assemble at the Ageas Bowl on 23 June and may have to then stay together until the proposed third Test against Pakistan at the end of August.
After initial testing, they would spend the first week training in small groups before an inter-squad match that serves as a warm-up for the first Test against West Indies. The enlarged squad of around 25-30 players for both teams would facilitate this, with the tourists playing their practice match either on one of the two pitches at the Ageas or a nearby club ground.
It will also give England scope to rotate their players during what will be a gruelling run of six Test matches in just over seven weeks – not least the fast bowlers, who will need their workloads managed – but a good number could spend this extended spell away from loved ones without actually winning a cap.
If infection rates drop nationally there is a chance the players might be permitted to return home for a few days before the first Test against Pakistan – pencilled in for 5 August – but this may still require relatives to isolate for a spell ahead of their arrival.
England are also hopeful of playing their ODI series against Ireland during this brief window at the end of July, although any movement between the two squads is also likely to be subject to some form of quarantine beforehand.
Preventing physical contact in the camp is unrealistic given the sport’s dynamics but the squad will still be expected to observe the social distancing instructions in place during their aborted tour of Sri Lanka in March, where handshakes were replaced by fist bumps and hygiene measures were beefed up.
As well as this there will be daily temperature checks to screen for Covid-19 symptoms and testing every few days, while physical contact with the outside world will be almost entirely cut off. Life in the so-called “bubble” has been described as a scaled-up version of the PMOA, the restricted area at international matches that are policed to prevent would-be corrupters gaining access.
To this end it is understood that the skeleton staff who work at the two grounds and their adjoining hotels will operate in small groups; should one staff member go down, colleagues who are in the same sub-team would also be taken out of circulation and placed under quarantine.
Overall it is a huge undertaking – one that looks unlikely to be replicated for domestic cricket – and remains delicately poised. But with forecasted losses of around £380m in the event of no cricket this summer, the ECB is throwing every resource possible at the project in the hope it succeeds.