Ashes will only go ahead if enough leading England players tour
The England and Wales Cricket Board has warned counterparts in Australia that the Ashes tour is not a done deal as it pushes to secure the best possible conditions for the players.
On Sunday evening, England’s players and support staff were presented with plans for the 11-week trip in an online briefing that included representatives from Cricket Australia. This was designed to address concerns over the off-field freedoms they will experience, what occurs in the event of a snap lockdown while on tour and the question of whether families can join them.
While some progress was made during what one source described as “sensitive” discussions, issues clearly remain for a group of players who must now decide their availability over the coming days.
The ECB said: “We remain in regular and positive dialogue with Cricket Australia over these arrangements as the picture is constantly evolving. With health and wellbeing at the forefront, our focus is to ensure the tour can go ahead with conditions for players and management to perform at their best. We will continue talking to our players this week to share the latest information and seek feedback.
“Later this week the ECB Board will meet to decide whether the conditions in place are sufficient for the tour to go ahead and enable the selection of a squad befitting a series of this significance.”
Though widely taken as an act of brinkmanship designed to iron out the final remaining pinch points, the statement came after Tim Paine, the Australia Test captain, last week said he “didn’t care” which England players made the tour and that the Ashes would go ahead “whether Joe Root is here or not”.
Paine’s remarks were poorly received by England players who have recently been without Ben Stokes (taking an indefinite break for mental health reasons) and jaded from 18 months in biosecure bubbles. No men’s side has undertaken more than England’s 53 all-format fixtures since the start of the pandemic. Australia have not played a single overseas Test during this time.
It may well be that with a number of states on track to hit an 80% double-vaccination rate by December, life in Australia is more comfortable than England’s players fear. There could also be softer quarantine periods for any family members wishing to join the tour, even if the Australian government is wary of a public backlash over any perceived special treatment.
England’s players are looking for solid assurances now, however, and not least the multi-format cricketers – including Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood – who flew to Oman on Monday to begin quarantine and preparations for a T20 World Cup campaign that starts in Dubai on 23 October.
While Eoin Morgan’s white-ball team is striving to win a second global tournament in two years, England’s red-ball specialists – including Root, Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson – and a separate Lions squad that will serve as warm-up opposition are due to fly to Australia at the start of November. They will then quarantine in a Gold Coast resort that allows outdoor training time.
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The full squad will be united after the T20 World Cup – the final is on 14 November – with a further three weeks of training and intra-squad matches before the first Test in Brisbane on 8 December.
The tour is then due to move on to Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, with the location of the fifth Test – currently slated to start in Perth on 14 January – still up in the air due to stringent inter-state quarantine regulations in Western Australia.
A reported £106m value to CA means the Ashes are still widely expected to go ahead even if one or two England players pull out. However, by stating that the head coach, Chris Silverwood, must be able to select a squad “befitting a series of this significance”, the ECB has, theoretically at least, opened up the prospect of players withdrawing en masse to force a postponement.
This comes at a particularly acute time with the ECB and the England Player Partnership still in negotiations over the next set of central contracts and a new points-based system that dispenses with the old red/white-ball deals and will instead pay players according to their cross-format value.