England v West Indies Test series acts as a possible blueprint for coronavirus cricket

Test cricket is set to resume for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, with England and the West Indies tonight playing the first of three Tests at Southampton’s Rose Bowl. 

The series will be seen as something of a benchmark for cricket bodies around the world as a way to get the sport underway again in a viable manner as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage around the world.

However, to get the Tests played at all, a number of compromises have had to be made, meaning the game might look a little different.

Additionally, the players have had to be sequestered away in isolation to ensure they are COVID-19 free.

What rules have been changed?

Facing pressure from an English public keen to hit the village green, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson infamously described a cricket ball as “a natural vector of disease” in justifying not allowing social cricket to return.

While those measures have now been walked back somewhat, the International Cricket Council is acutely aware of the dangers of having 11 or more people regularly handling one item.

So the governing body has banned spit-polishing the ball, which as any drill sergeant will tell you is a favourite method for getting leather to shine.

“If a player does apply saliva to the ball, the umpires will manage the situation with some leniency during an initial period of adjustment for the players, but subsequent instances will result in the team receiving a warning,” the ICC said.

“A team can be issued up to two warnings per innings but repeated use of saliva on the ball will result in a five-run penalty to the batting side. Whenever saliva is applied to the ball, the umpires will be instructed to clean the ball before play recommences.”

It could lessen the impact of the vaunted England pace attack, which relies heavily on swing (both conventional and reverse), particularly in home conditions.

Teams will also be allowed a “COVID-19 replacement”, which will operate similarly to the recently introduced concussion replacement that delivered us Marnus Labuschagne’s breakout Ashes performance.

If any player starts displaying symptoms, teams will apply and the match referee will approve the nearest like-for-like replacement.

How else has coronavirus changed the way the game looks?
While the ban on spit-polishing makes sense, the coronavirus shutdown and ongoing issues will affect things in smaller ways that may not seem so obvious.

Normally, for a series between England and the West Indies, umpires would be flown in from other Test nations to ensure neutrality, but that’s not exactly possible at the moment.

Due to travel restrictions, the pool of umpires is effectively limited to those in the UK at the time of the series.

That could mean some of the officials are less experienced than usual and, as a result, teams have been given a third review per innings, in anticipation of more incorrect or questionable decisions.

And lastly, with cricket boards around the globe taking a financial hit due to coronavirus, the ICC has relaxed its rules on advertising on Test kits.

For at least the next 12 months, teams will be allowed to charge sponsors for a 32-square-inch piece of advertising real estate on the front of their shirts to recoup some of their losses.

Considering the outcry evoked by the advent of numbers on Test whites last year, it will be interesting to see how it is received and if that 12-month timeframe is really the end.

So how are they doing it?

As has been the case with the Premier League football, the Test matches will be taking place behind closed doors.

However, for obvious reasons, a five-day Test match creates vastly different challenges from a 90-minute football game.

As such, the ECB have created two bio-secure venues where the games will be able to take place, the Rose Bowl and Old Trafford.

The first Test, at Southampton’s Rose Bowl, was chosen due to its out-of-town setting, the availability of a practice pitch in the same complex, an adjoining golf course for some socially distant recreation and, crucially, an adjoining hotel.

The second and third Tests will be played at Old Trafford, which also has a hotel on site.

“The way we have structured the ‘bubble’ is that it can operate under the most extreme circumstances,” Elworthy said.

“All of our planning has been based on the worst-case scenario, from an infection and a rate-spike point of view. So external factors should not affect that because, if you are secure within the venue, and you don’t break the confines of that venue, then your game should be able to go ahead with no problems at all.”

Players in isolation

Thirty England players have been locked away from the general public in a COVID-free hub at the Rose Bowl for almost three weeks, where they played an internal, three-day practice match.

The West Indies arrived in England in early June, and have since been cloistered at Old Trafford for a three-week quarantine period before travelling down to Southampton earlier this week to begin final preparations for the first Test.

Venues have been divided into designated zones to separate the two teams, match officials, ground staff and the media. Any movement between the zones is strictly limited.

Writing for the BBC, England bowler Mark Wood said the hotel quarantine felt “a bit like a sci-fi movie”.

He detailed how before entering the bio-secure venue players were scanned and had their bags sprayed with disinfectant.

No room keys have been issued, with players using an app on their mobile phones to open hotel room doors.

Players also sit at separate tables to eat their meals, and follow arrows stuck to the floor to create a one-way system.

The accreditation contains a chip that tracks a player’s movements too, so if anyone does test positive, their close contacts can be easily identified.

So what does this mean for cricket going forward?

Administrators around the world will be keeping a keen eye on events in England to see whether the ECB can pull this off and keep players, staff and the media coronavirus free.

The ECB are clearly confident this will work, releasing an updated summer schedule yesterday.

Pakistan is already in the country ahead of a three-Test series at the Rose Bowl (twice) and Old Trafford in August, followed by three T20 internationals, all at Old Trafford.

Ireland have also been locked in for three T20 internationals at the Rose Bowl in late July-early August.

The ECB said a limited-overs tour from Australia was still on the cards for later in September, but currently “remain postponed, with discussions ongoing”.
Will Australia operate in similar bio-secure zones?

Australia is currently set to host the West Indies and India for separate three-match T20 series in October, before the Test summer begins in Perth against Afghanistan on November 21.

According to the schedule, India will then return to play four Tests through December and early January.

Whether the teams would be able to travel around the country as normal though, is an unknown.

Earlier in the year, the BCCI appeared open to playing the entire series at one venue, with Adelaide Oval the proposed ground, in part due to the 138-room hotel that is expected to be completed on September 25.

However, at present, even with the increased number of cases in Victoria, the COVID-19 situation in Australia is very different to the UK, which has had more than 280,000 cases and 44,000 deaths from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University figures.

And as the AFL and NRL have shown over the last couple of months, playing matches under certain conditions is very possible in Australia.

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