Covid-19 cases are on the rise in the UK and on Monday, government restrictions were eased even further. Entire teams have been forced into self-isolation in county cricket, with Derbyshire forced to cancel their final two T20 Blast group games due to a lack of available players. Tom Harrison, the ECB's chief executive, was firm in emphasising last week that the mental toll of bubbles meant they were no longer feasible, but the Hundred - which starts on Wednesday night - can ill-afford a spate of cases over its four-week group stage.
It is a familiar scenario for those involved in the competition who have worked in franchise cricket over the last six months. Andy Flower, who will coach the Trent Rockets men's team, is one of them: he was in India working as Kings XI Punjab's assistant coach when the IPL was curtailed in May, either side of which he coached Multan Sultans to the PSL title, initially in Pakistan and then in the UAE after an outbreak among players caused a postponement.
"I've been away from the UK for three-and-a-half months," he tells ESPNcricinfo via Zoom, shortly before finishing his 10-day hotel-room quarantine period. "We talk about adaptability being really important for players in the short formats of the game and it's equally important for us on the coaching or leadership front. One of the most important aspects in having a good chance in a franchise competition is adaptability.
"Almost every franchise in every competition is being affected by late pull-outs - the Hundred is obviously being seriously affected at the moment. We had a recent situation where Wahab Riaz - who came in for Nathan Coulter-Nile - had a visa problem and won't be available for the first few games [Marchant de Lange has been signed as his replacement]. That's an obvious example of having to be flexible and understanding at this time."
Not that it has affected Flower's success. He comes into the Hundred on the back of a remarkable run of results coaching franchise teams, just under two years after leaving his role at the ECB: he has won the PSL, taken St Lucia Zouks to their first CPL final, and led teams to first and second-placed finishes at the Abu Dhabi T10.
Success with Multan was unexpected after they had started slowly in the Karachi leg of the PSL. "We did come from almost nowhere," he says. "The conditions in Abu Dhabi were much fairer and made for better, more interesting cricket and suited our attack more. [Blessing] Muzarabani, the tall fast bowler from Zimbabwe, was central to our plans and was a revelation for us; Imran Tahir was solid as a rock and generally inspirational; and Sohaib Maqsood was a major difference in our fortunes."
His role at Trent Rockets, he admits, is "a bit of a play to nothing". As things stand, he is only due to coach them in the first season of the Hundred following Stephen Fleming's withdrawal for family reasons, and has inherited a squad already picked by Fleming, Mick Newell (general manager) and Kunal Manek (analyst). He had a meeting with Lewis Gregory, the Rockets' captain, during the Karachi leg of the PSL about the tournament and has been in regular contact with him throughout England's white-ball series against Pakistan.
He has had some time to think through the nuances of the new format, but expects tactical trends to evolve gradually through the group stages. "I've been involved in T10 as well so I'm used to an even quicker, more attacking form of the game but I'd imagine it's going to be similar to T20 - though might feel slightly different in that we've got these 10 balls from one end. There might be a few tactical differences and if you can get the edge on the opposition through understanding those better and quicker, then that's what we need to do.
"An area where it will feel different to T20 is the option [for one bowler] to bowl 10 balls in a row, so how do you deploy some of your more powerful resources like Rashid Khan? When he operates for his IPL side, he bowls overs 8, 10, 12 and 14 in the middle and usually people find it hard to attack him. Getting a feel for the Hundred and what it's like to bowl 10 balls in a row and how effective that is, we'll have to assess that in real time."
"I'm a very big supporter of a premier short-format competition for England. We all know the power and reach of the IPL, various other countries have excellent franchise competitions. England needed its own"Andy Flower
There are a few details to iron out within the squad. Joe Root is likely to be available for the opening rounds and Flower is yet to decide which order the top four - Root, Alex Hales, D'Arcy Short and Dawid Malan - should come in. He is hoping that the strong Notts core of five players plus assistant coach Paul Franks will be able to exploit their high-scoring home ground to their advantage, though cautions against the idea that every game will be a run-fest. Franks will be joined by Mal Loye (batting), Tom Smith (bowling) and Nic Pothas (fielding) on the coaching staff, while Flower is particularly pleased that Jonathan Trott - a mainstay of his successful England side - has recently been appointed in a backroom role.
As for his star batters, Flower is enthusiastic about the opportunity to deal with Hales again, having worked closely with him as a young player making his way in international cricket during his time as England's head coach and tracked his recent progress in franchise leagues. "I've always been a real fan of his batting," he says. "His skill against spin is undervalued; not only the power game, but he's a good off-side player, and willing to sweep against spin when he needs to.
"I feel for him, actually, because we all deserve second chances in my opinion. I'd don't know what goes on behind closed doors with England but I can't see why he would be ostracised any longer. One thing he's done pretty well is that he hasn't let it affect his form and I applaud him for that - he's able to focus on what he needs to, as opposed to being distracted by the topic.
"I'm not quite sure how we'll go with the top four but they'll all had lots of success. I think Root is an excellent T20 cricketer, actually - one of his greatest strengths, ever since he first played for England, has been that he plays at a tempo that the match or situation or his team requires. His understanding of the game is that good that he can do that. [Root and Malan] are both intelligent and skilful cricketers who will do what's required of them."
And as for the raison d'être? Does Flower think English cricket needs the Hundred? "Without a doubt," is the unequivocal response. "I'm a very big supporter of a premier short-format competition like this for England. We all know the power and reach of the IPL and there are various other countries that have excellent franchise competitions. England needed its own. It's really important financially for the ECB and for the future of the game in this country that it works.
"It's great that a women's competition is operating at the same time with the growth of the popularity of the women's game in the UK. And the better standard of cricket is good for the future of English cricket: playing under pressure in a competition with a global reach is good for all these young English cricketers. We've seen what it's done for young Indian cricketers, and I can only imagine that this is going to be a very good thing for English cricket."
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98