Winning in Australia is a tough assignment and England will want their best players to be available for the tour © AFP
The men’s Ashes series is due to get underway in just under four months in Brisbane but the ongoing impact of the pandemic is making it a challenging process to pull together and has even raised questions as to whether it will go ahead or be postponed. It may still be some time before key decisions are reached, but for now, here’s a reminder of where things stand.
Is the Ashes really in doubt?
In the current world there is doubt or uncertainty over so many things. It remains highly unlikely that the series won’t take place, although perhaps a little less unlikely than a few months ago. The financial impact for Cricket Australia – even if they could arrange a substitute series – doesn’t bear thinking about and then there’s the logistical nightmare that would be created if it was pushed back a year. It’s not just a case of Australia and England rearranging things among themselves.
What are the major issues?
The biggest sticking point is the ability of the England players’ families to be able to join them for at least part of the tour – probably over Christmas and New Year – as is traditional on Ashes tours. There’s also uncertainty, for both sides, over what bubble arrangements might be needed during the series and how much freedom players will have. The multi-format England stars who are involved in the T20 World Cup face up to four months away (and those that opt to head back to the IPL even longer). For those only involved in the Ashes it would likely be around two months away in Australia. As the pandemic rolled into its second year the ECB, as with many boards, made it clear that the mental health of the players would be a priority.
Could England tour without a number of players?
In theory they could pick a squad from those willing to tour but head coach Chris Silverwood is understood to be very firm in wanting his best players available. England’s Test side is not in the strongest of health as it is, especially in the batting, and winning in Australia is a tough assignment. It’s 9-0 to Australia over the last two series they have hosted. Rightly or wrongly legacies and careers are judged by the Ashes. However, it may have to be accepted that not every first-choice player will travel.
Why is it so hard for families to join?
While some countries are opening up, Australia’s international borders remain firmly shut (as do New Zealand’s) with strict caps on the number of arrivals. Currently, anyone entering the country still has to spend two weeks in quarantine, although there have been exemptions for sports teams to train in that period. It also means no supporters from overseas. Even if families were permitted to join they, too, would need to quarantine. Sports teams, and those associated with them, are negotiated with the federal government above the current cap on arrivals (around 3000 per week) but it remains a controversial topic with more than 30,000 Australians overseas who want to return home.
The Ashes has long been scheduled for this year, why is it an issue now?
Largely because there is never any certainty in the current landscape. Twelve months ago it would have been hoped that by now there may have been more progress on opening up in Australia but that hasn’t been the case. England have also been far and away the busiest team during the pandemic with the knock-on effect on the players, most recently highlighted by the withdrawal of Ben Stokes from the India series.
What’s the Covid-19 situation in Australia at the moment?
On a global scale, the numbers remain very low but the country is currently going through one of its most challenging times of the pandemic as it tries to manage the Delta variant. Sydney is in the midst of a lockdown that could extend towards October while Melbourne is currently in its sixth since last March. Brisbane was also recently locked down as state governments try to quash outbreaks due to the country’s slow vaccine rollout which has currently only covered about 20% of the population. There is hope that by November or December that could be pushing 70%, which may remove the need for lockdowns and some quarantine requirements, although plenty of targets have already been missed. Currently, international borders are not expected to open in any meaningful way until the middle of 2022.
The likes of Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins would not have played any long-form cricket before the Ashes © Getty Images
Didn’t the India tour get away okay last year?
It did, but it was a tense lead-in before the squad arrived. The New South Wales government came in at the last minute to offer the quarantine arrangements after Queensland backed out to leave the tour under threat. And, as with the Ashes, there was also tension over the ability of family members to travel. In the end the government granted a number of places for them but it was very last-minute and this year there may not be the ability to wait that long for an answer. England want clarity on the situation before the end of their home season. The final two Tests against India were also effectively played under quarantine to enable the final match to take place in Brisbane due to a Covid outbreak in Sydney, although limited crowds were still allowed. However, it is the success of last season, where they were able to keep the series on schedule, that leaves Cricket Australia confident they can do it again.
What’s the Australian team’s situation around the Ashes?
Although they are the home side, it’s certainly not without challenges. The players involved in the T20 World Cup will have to quarantine for a fortnight when they get home which if they go deep in the competition (leaving aside debate around their T20 pedigree) overlaps with the start of the one-off Test against Afghanistan in Hobart. It means the likes of David Warner, Steven Smith, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood would not have played any long-form cricket before facing England.
What has been said so far
There have been calls from some of the louder voices for the tour to be scrapped while two former England captains, Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss, have agreed that the families have to be able to travel. Late last month, Cricket Australia said that planning was continuing. “With the Ashes four months away, we are currently planning the operational requirements of this tour and working with the ECB on the proposed make-up of the England touring party. As was the case last season, CA will work constructively and in partnership with government to deliver the summer of cricket, while ensuring the health, wellbeing and safety of the community.”
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo