Durham and Edgbaston have emerged as further options as international venues for England this summer.
At present Emirates Old Trafford (Manchester) and The Ageas Bowl (Southampton) are the favoured options as the ECB look into achieving something close to a bio-secure environment which would allow them to fulfil their international programme of fixtures despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Crucially, both grounds feature on-site hotels, training facilities away from the main playing area and enough space to accommodate the needs of medical testing teams. If there is to be any cricket played in England this year, both grounds look almost certain to feature.
But it is understood the ECB are keen to give themselves further options. In particular, they feel they may need separate venues for training facilities and perhaps practice matches. They also remain keen to fulfil the women's international fixtures. In all, eight international teams (England, Ireland, Australia, West Indies, Pakistan, England women, South Africa women and India women) were scheduled to play in England in the 2020 summer.
To that end, the ECB have invited grounds to enter a tender process which, in effect, has reopened the major match allocation process for 2020. ESPNcricinfo understands that both Edgbaston and Durham are keen to offer their services as required. In both cases, it appears the clubs are motivated by a desire to assist the game at its time of crisis more than any attempt to exploit the situation for their own advantage. There is unlikely to be any significant benefit in hosting such games without the prospect of spectators.
Edgbaston's offer is not a surprise. While the ground does not feature an on-site hotel, it does have four dressing rooms, four access roads, media centres on each side of the ground and a large car park which is already in use as a drive-through Covid-19 test centre that could easily be adapted accommodate the needs of the cricket community. It also features a nursery ground that could be used for training purposes while a match is in progress.
Accommodation options include student flats that line one side of the ground while Birmingham City Council is experienced in hosting events such as political conferences and is confident the Hyatt hotel, in the centre of the city, can effectively be turned into the sort of secure environment required.
Durham is an especially intriguing option. The club was stripped of its status as a Test venue in late 2016 as the ECB punished it for a perceived failure to manage its finances. But such factors will not be considered in the current crisis and it is understood they are a favoured option for this particular purpose.
It's not hard to see why, either. For perhaps the first time, Durham's relatively rural location could be an advantage as the area is not a hot-spot for Covid-19 cases while the access road, the A1, does not suffer from the same traffic problems as some other options. While there is no on-site hotel, there are several within a short distance - notably Ramside Hall, which also offers leisure facilities such as golf which would prove popular with players - while the ground also has the space required for the medical testing and training facilities. It is regularly used as a blood donation centre.
Although it's thought the ground is more likely to be used as a training facility than a match venue, it is not impossible it could be used for both. And, if it were seen to come to the ECB's aid at a time of need, it might well be that any long-term ban on their hosting Tests would be waived.
While several other grounds - the likes of The Kia Oval, Headingley and Trent Bridge - have excellent cricketing facilities, there is a fear they lack the space to cater for other requirements. Most of all, a great deal of room is required for the medical testing facilities that are going to be absolutely central to the viability of any sport.
It remains too early to predict the venues or the fixture list with any degree of certainty but there is cautious optimism the men's international season could start as early as July 8 and include all six Tests and 12 limited-overs internationals that were originally scheduled.
One thing the ECB have ruled out is playing on hybrid pitches. The use of such surfaces, which typically consist of 10 percent plastic plugs to encourage the growth of grass roots, might have alleviated the demands on the two grounds likely to be used for international games this summer. Their usage to date suggests they last longer than conventional surfaces and recover more quickly. But it is felt there has been an insufficient level of research into the surfaces at this stage and the ECB have confirmed they will definitely not be using them in international cricket this year.