England's Test tour of Sri Lanka has been called off at the request of the ECB, due to the growing threat of the the COVID-19 pandemic, but on the understanding that it will be rescheduled at a later date.
The news came while England were playing their final four-day warm-up match, ahead of the two-Test series which had been scheduled to get underway in Galle on March 19. Play continued for a few minutes after the announcement, before the players left the field at 3.40pm local time.
The match was duly abandoned with the Sri Lanka Board President's XI on 150 for 3 in their first innings.
"After overnight discussions between our teams in Sri Lanka and the SLC, the decision has been made to postpone the series and bring players and support staff home. Our aim will be to reschedule the series," said an ECB spokesman.
The ECB had been in regular contact with the Sri Lankan and British High Commissions, in addition to Sri Lanka Cricket to address a "highly evolving" situation. SLC are understood to have offered to play the series behind closed doors, but the ECB pushed for a full postponement, making the case that their players would not have been in the right frame of mind for a Test series. The decision was, said the ECB, "beyond cricket".
The spread of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka is currently less intense than in the UK, with three confirmed patients to date. However, amid the tightening or closing of borders, and the cancellation of international travel, England's desire to get home to their families, and their concern for elderly relatives, was a key factor in the decision.
''Due to the COVID-19 pandemic worsening globally, and after discussions with Sri Lanka Cricket, we have today made the decision to return our players to the UK and postpone the forthcoming Test series between Sri Lanka and England," the ECB said.
"At this time, the physical and mental wellbeing of our players and support teams is paramount. We will now look to bring them home to their families as soon as possible. These are completely unprecedented times, and decisions like this go beyond cricket.
"We would like to thank our colleagues at Sri Lanka Cricket for their outstanding support and assistance throughout this situation. We look forward to returning to Sri Lanka in the very near future to fulfil this important Test series.''
The postponement will be a financial setback for SLC - England tours are highly prized, not least because some 3000 fans were due to begin flying in this week. However, the hit will not be as severe as might ordinarily have been the case, because this tour falls outside the contract agreed with the host broadcaster, Sony, even though it forms part of the World Test Championship.
And given the WTC points at stake, there is an increased incentive for a rescheduling. However, the exact date may not be pinned down for some time, however, largely because so much of the schedule has been thrown into chaos by the pandemic. At this stage, a potential gap in England's crowded itinerary could come in January 2021, ahead of their five-Test tour of India.
England's next scheduled Test series is against West Indies in June, but that too is in serious doubt, with Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK's chief scientific adviser, saying on Wednesday that the anticipated peak of the virus in the UK is "10-14 weeks away, maybe slightly longer".
The first of England's three Tests against West Indies is scheduled for June 4 at The Oval, a date that is currently 12 weeks away, in the middle of the expected peak period. West Indies' opening tour match is set for May 22, against England Lions at Taunton.
The T20 Blast is scheduled to start on May 28, with the group stage running until July 12.
"We are considering the question of banning major public events such as sporting fixtures," Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister said, describing the virus as "the biggest public health crisis in a generation".
MCC v Essex, the Champion County - the traditional curtain-raiser to the English season - had been scheduled to take place in Galle immediately after the Test match, on March 24. However, that has now been cancelled, along with the MCC World Cricket Committee meeting in Colombo, slotted for March 28 and 29.