Cricket Australia walks Ashes tightrope amid England concerns over Covid regulations | Geoff Lemon

If exemptions are made by the federal government to accommodate England’s retinue, criticism will be inevitable

While outwardly circumspect, Cricket Australia remains bullish that the Ashes scheduled to start in December this year will go ahead. This is despite reluctance from some England players to take on the tour, alongside suggestions that cricket’s most prominent Test series be postponed to the following season. On Saturday the England and Wales Cricket Board released a statement addressing player concerns.

At issue is the stringency of Covid-19 regulations in Australia, where a failed vaccination program has led to ongoing hard quarantines and a halving of the international arrivals cap to about 3,000 people a month. England’s visit would follow on from the T20 World Cup that begins in the United Arab Emirates in October, meaning players with both engagements face four months of quarantine-bound touring without seeing partners or children.

The 2017-18 Ashes also faced the threat of cancellation when CA refused to renew contracts for players while trying to strong-arm them into an altered pay deal. Of course that didn’t work: cricket boards need cricketers more than the other way around. Thus accommodations will equally need to be made for English players who have already spent the pandemic era playing relentlessly while cocooned in “biosecurity” that has largely meant slowly going mad in a hotel room. Restrictions in the UK have now lapsed, but this means more cricketers are contracting the virus or being marked as close contacts en route to additional periods of isolation.

CA’s confidence comes from the time yet in hand and a good working relationship with the federal government, which can give arrival exemptions where deemed to be in the national interest. The previous season’s marquee series against India was able to go ahead and included touring family members, and that started before a vaccine was publicly available anywhere in the world. By this December, England’s tourists will be fully vaccinated, as will much of the Australian public. The federal government has talked about relaxing quarantine and other restrictions for vaccinated people, and by December the travel cap may expand.

If not, it is politically inevitable that the government will be criticised for exempting England’s retinue. The bottleneck means there are still Australians overseas who want to come home, often stranded in cases where the cost of flights has gone from three figures to five. None of the English party would take space in the cap: their visas, quarantine, and probably transport would be outside existing systems, arranged and funded by CA. But there is a valid argument that if Australia can accommodate the tourists, it should be able to raise capacity for returnees. There’s no way to make it palatable if citizens are missing another Christmas while English families are allowed in for a holiday.

The alternative is that the federal government refuses exemptions to all but the players and coaches. But, in an Australian summer where the pandemic will hopefully be held at bay, and where people will want the pleasures of life to resume, it would be more foolish to be the government that cancels the cricket than to be the government that lets it go ahead. Pleasant distractions are exactly what those in charge will want – the alternative is a focus on Canberra.

Even if we deflate the hype, the Ashes is the oldest Test rivalry and still the biggest. CA’s finances are built on four-year cycles: profits when England or India tour, losses in the other years. More broadly, each series is worth hundreds of millions of dollars in national impact. This will take a hit if no England supporters can travel out to watch, which is the most compelling argument for postponement to a time when borders will be open. But local crowds are still likely to attend, and the longer-term future holds no guarantees.

The Ashes is too big to fail. Both boards know they must get it away. The ECB owes CA for following through with an England tour earlier in the pandemic, and the former’s statement is a classic example of acknowledging what someone isn’t happy about while planning to go ahead with it anyway. “All stakeholders are committed to putting player and staff welfare as the main priority and finding the right solutions that enables [sic] the England team to compete with the best players and at the highest possible standard that the Ashes series deserves.”

Of course some players might decide to pull out, but then Ben Stokes has just done the same from an imminent Test series at home. An Australian audience doesn’t much care about who is in an England team as long as they lose. The overwhelming likelihood is that England will arrive in one form or another, and Australia will do what it takes to get them in. Too much rests on that to do anything else.


Geoff Lemon

The GuardianTramp

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