England’s plan to stage international cricket this summer involves hiving off players from contact with other personnel at the ground and forming exclusive “contact clusters” to reduce the risk of Covid-19 sweeping through the camp.
Under detailed plans seen by the Observer, the proposed series against West Indies and Pakistan in July and August will be staged behind closed doors at “bio-secure” venues that are split into zones, with movement between these kept to a minimum.
Players and support staff will make up what is known as a “functional area” – one of a number of such groups working on site – and have the option to create smaller social pods within this called “contact clusters” that allow individuals to further relax in the company of others who have committed to it.
It means, as well as regular testing for coronavirus and daily screening for symptoms, the enlarged 30-man squads will need to stay mindful of how they move around and interact with others during an extended spell living at either the Ageas Bowl or Old Trafford, the two Test grounds with hotels on site.
Such extreme lengths to put on matches highlights the desperate need to get cricket on screens this summer and prevent the England and Wales Cricket Board suffering a devastating financial loss. But there is growing optimism the two sets of Test tourists are willing to make the journey and put their players in such extreme lockdown conditions.
Further talks with Cricket West Indies are due to take place on Monday, while an initial conference call with the Pakistan board on Friday, which included the head coaches Misbah-ul-Haq and Chris Silverwood, has reportedly resulted in Pakistan committing to three Tests and three Twenty20 matches.
There remain myriad details to work through before the ECB can get government approval, and the proposed tours will ultimately hinge on how the national picture looks in the coming weeks as lockdown measures in the UK begin to be relaxed.
The International Cricket Council must rule on whether players who have completed quarantine periods and cleared all testing can apply saliva to the ball. If not, some form of legalised ball-tampering may be required.
Drafted by the ECB’s science and medicine team, an introductory outline circulated to the counties explains the process of a return for professional cricket that, from Wednesday, will see the first of 30 England players report back for individual training under phase one. But it also lays out the principles of how a bio-secure venue may operate on match day.
After phase two, where training is permitted to take place in small groups, players and support staff from both sides would enter an “island site” – a cricket ground with a hotel – for phase three and, following initial testing for coronavirus, they will then live and train on site but only within strictly designated zones.
Ashley Giles, England’s cricket director, has confirmed they are looking at ways England’s players can leave and re-enter the so-called “bubble” given a block of nine weeks away from friends and family that covers preparation time, practice games and the six proposed Tests, starting at Hampshire’s Ageas Bowl on 8 July.
However when the squad is together in the ground and part of a regular testing and screening programme it forms what is called a “functional area”, one of a number of separate personnel groups that also include venue staff, the ECB events team, groundstaff, broadcasters/media and match officials within an overall headcount of around 300.
These FAs must each stick to their designated zones within the hotel and stadium and though two such groups may find themselves down to operate in the same zone at times – for example players and ground staff on the outfield before the start of a match – contact between them must be kept to an absolute minimum.
The system is designed to create clearly defined distance between FAs and, in theory, prevent the spread of Covid-19 should it penetrate the ground. Perhaps the most intriguing element of the plan is the concept of “contact clusters”, where individuals within an FA group can create their own exclusive sub-group.
The principle here is that individuals within a “contact cluster” avoid anything but essential contact with those outside of it and so can relax within what is called “a circle of trust”. How this applies to the social dynamics of two playing squads that will both be up to 30 cricketers-strong remains to be seen.
While the introductory document states an intention to create isolation areas for individuals who become ill, as well as exit strategies and contact tracing, a full medical protocol for how a possible outbreak may be tackled has not yet been shared and will be crucial to receiving sign-off from the government.
England’s players have had a number of the details above explained to them already – one told the Observer it was “mind-blowing” – but much will hinge on convincing West Indies, the first set of tourists, they will be safe to leave the relatively untouched Caribbean to fly to one of the pandemic’s hotspots.
Giles has already admitted the plans have a number of “pinch points” that need fully ironing out before they can be put back to the government, while the bill for creating these bio-secure venues and flying two touring teams into the country on charter flights will run well into seven figures.
However with the ECB facing losses of £380m in the event of no cricket being staged this summer – and six Tests worth an estimated £120m in broadcast revenues – the governing body is throwing every possible resource at getting international cricket back on television.