Steve Elworthy, the ECB’s director of events, believes that the plans for July’s Test series against West Indies are robust enough to withstand a second wave of Covid-19 outbreaks, following this week’s announcement that the Ageas Bowl and Emirates Old Trafford have been chosen to host the three games.
Speaking on Sky Sports’ Cricket Show, Elworthy went into greater depth on the rationale behind the selection of the two venues, both of which have on-site hotels – which was the primary reason why grounds such as the Kia Oval, where the first Test of the summer had been due to get underway today, were ruled out in the ECB’s search for “bio-secure” environments.
West Indies are due to arrive in England next week, with their initial training block set to take place at Old Trafford before England themselves gather at the Ageas Bowl in the build-up to the first Test on July 8. The two squads will then practice in closer proximity in the days leading up the match, before relocating to Old Trafford for the final two matches of the series, commencing July 16 and July 24 respectively.
And while there have been concerns in the local media that Manchester, in the north-west of England, is particularly susceptible to a surge in Covid cases, Elworthy is confident that the series will go ahead without a hitch, especially if the ICC agrees to sanction the introduction of like-for-like replacements in the event of infection within the secure environment.
“The way we have structured the ‘bubble’ is that it can operate under the most extreme circumstances,” said Elworthy. “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.”
The likeliest opportunity for that bubble to break will come when the teams make the 220-mile journey from Southampton to Manchester, but Elworthy justified the need to vary the conditions in which the series is played from the point of view of cricket “integrity”, and also to provide a change of scene for players, support staff and media who might otherwise be confined to one place for up to a month.
“If you were to hold your first two Test matches at the same venue, you could end up possibly winning a series in the same conditions in the same venue, back-to-back,” he said. “We felt that, to win a series, you should have to win it in two separate sets of conditions.
“We’re trying to reduce the amount of time that stakeholders or groups of people are locked down in [a particular] venue for periods of time,” he added. “We’re trying to cover as many of those bases as possible.”
The Ageas Bowl, Elworthy added, had been chosen for the series opener because its out-of-town location includes a full-sized practice pitch, situated right next to the main venue. “We wanted both teams to be able to practice and train and prepare for a Test match, and having two full grounds available to be able to train was key.”
The provisions for bio-security, as outlined by the ECB when announcing the match allocation, include controlled access at the perimeter of the venues, as well as on-site medical screening and testing provisions, including designated areas for isolation of anyone presenting symptoms.
“It’s not only the players we thinking about,” said Elworthy. “With circa 250-odd people within the venue, any one of them could possibly test positive in a period of a five-day Test match.
“They would immediately be put into isolation, and our on-site Covid medical practitioner and Public Health England would be informed immediately,” he added. “And that player or person would then be put into isolation for a period of time based on the government guidance and the medical overlay.”
Earlier this week, West Indies confirmed their squad for the England tour, and while it will be missing three players who chose not to travel due to fears of infection – Keemo Paul, Shimron Hetmeyer and Darren Bravo – Elworthy preferred to focus on the 25 names who had chosen to trust the contingencies that have been put in place.
“Everybody was given the right to make their own decision, and that’s not the first time that’s happened across cricket, even with the England team at times,” he said. “But I look at it glass-half-full. It’s incredibly positive that we have a West Indian squad of 25 players who are coming to compete in a Test series against England. I think that’s fantastic for the game.
“It’s incredibly challenging putting this all together, but at the same time I think it’s hugely, hugely rewarding for the game. As a cricket family, we’ve got to come together on this to make it work.”