Tom Harrison says ECB 'working closely with Cricket Australia' to ensure Ashes goes ahead

ECB chief reiterates importance of player welfare with Australia's Covid rules possibly preventing families on tour

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
ECB chief executive Tom Harrison, England v Pakistan, 1st Test, Lord's 4th day, May 27, 2018

Tom Harrison says every effort is being made to ensure players' well-being and the Ashes going ahead as planned  •  Getty Images

Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, says that England and Australia will use every diplomatic channel available to ensure that this winter's Ashes can go ahead as planned, in spite of the players' fears that their families may not be permitted to travel due to Australia's stringent Covid-19 restrictions.
The prospect of a postponed Ashes tour has become increasingly realistic in recent weeks, amid concerns that a number of England's senior players - in particular multi-format players such as Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Mark Wood - would be reluctant to head straight from the T20 World Cup in the UAE to Australia, and spend up to four months away from their young families.
Several former England captains have expressed their reservations about the tour taking place in such circumstances, most recently Andrew Strauss, who captained England's last victorious Ashes tour in 2010-11, and said this week it would be "unrealistic" to expect the players to tolerate such lengthy enforced absences.
Harrison, however, in a briefing before the start of the second LV= Insurance Test between England and India at Lord's, insisted that the ECB's "people first" policy would remain intact in spite of the "critical" importance of an Ashes tour to the finances of international cricket. He added that the lengths to which the board had gone to ensure a smooth passage for this summer's series, including representations to the Prime Minister's Office to enable India's families to travel, was proof that the sport's hotline to government was open, and that the relevant authorities were listening.
"Managing player welfare, keeping players safe and with their families near and around, has been a real key theme through this pandemic," Harrison said. "We've taken the view that people come first, and we will continue to take that approach as we continue to navigate this crisis for as long as it takes.
"We are working very closely with Cricket Australia, and I had my latest conversation with my counterpart at CA yesterday," Harrison added. "We are speaking every few days on this matter. All the right conversations are happening at government level in Australia, and we will be using our own diplomatic channels in the UK to ensure that the view of the players and the ECB, because we are jointly approaching this, [is put across]."
The financial implications of an Ashes postponement would be devastating for Cricket Australia, and by extension the global game, as the ECB recognise all too well given the efforts they made to fulfil their home summer fixtures in 2020 - including three-Test series against West Indies and Pakistan, and white-ball visits from Ireland and Australia themselves.
All of those fixtures took place in bio-secure bubbles behind closed doors, and were worth in excess of £120 million in TV revenue alone. However, the mental toll that the effort took on England's players was considerable, with Stokes' withdrawal from this summer's India series the most significant evidence yet that such strictures are unsustainable.
Speaking last month, Harrison defended the loosening of England's Covid restrictions for this year's Tests, saying that asking the players to go "'once more unto the breach dear friends' … isn't an acceptable place for responsible employers to continue to go". And he was adamant that that attitude would continue to dictate their efforts to keep the Ashes on track.
"This is not players asking for anything unreasonable," he said. "We are asking the Australian government to give some leniency, frankly, because it's going to be important for us to ensure that we can give comfort to the players. That their families are going to be able to be in Australia, and that those conditions in which they are quarantined will be reasonable, and enable the players to be at their best in that Test series.
"It's a conversation that's going to take place over the next few weeks. We are not going to have an answer by the end of this Test, for example. But I am very confident we will get to a place where we can fulfil our obligations to tour."
While Harrison acknowledged that Australia's complex mix of state and federal legislation made the negotiations trickier than they might otherwise be - Sydney, for instance, is currently in an extended state of lockdown - he remained hopeful that cricket's traditional status within Australian society will help to ensure that the various levels of government can come up with a workable solution.
"The Ashes is so important to global cricket, much like an England-India series, but even more so in certain parts of the world," he said. "The integrity of the Ashes is going to be paramount, and we've expressed that, and Cricket Australia understand this too. This is not an adversarial conversation, it's one which we're doing together.
"To a lesser extent the Australian players have had to endure bubble existence, but they know exactly what it's about. They were here last year, they've just been in Bangladesh, and know only too well what it's like to be in these environments. It's a little unsustainable to ask people to continually go to that extent, particularly in a country which has taken a hardline approach to border control.
"There's always political overlay in these matters," Harrison added. "But the Sports Minister in Australia is a very senior cabinet position… sports has a level of influence, I think, which is greater than it is in this country too.
"We've got all the right people paying all the right levels of attention to the importance of this debate, and to the critical nature of making sure we answer these questions that we are reasonably asking, to ensure we can get everything right, and that we can all look forward to a very exciting Ashes series in Australia this winter."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket