George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
The ECB has confirmed it is in talks with the PCB about a short tour to Pakistan in late January or early February. The tour, first revealed as a possibility by ESPNcricinfo last week, is likely to consist of three T20Is and would be England's first visit to Pakistan since late 2005.
Speaking on Friday*, PCB chief executive, Wasim Khan, said he was "quietly confident" that the series would go ahead.
"We have a good relationship with the ECB people," Khan said. "There was no deal struck when we went over to England [in July] but it's been a constant communication, chairman to chairman, CEO to CEO. The British High Commissioner has done a fantastic job in getting this on to the table for us as well. You need lots of people pulling in the right direction, and we are quietly confident. We'll support the ECB in all their assessments, everything they need to do, to try and get that series on in January.
"I wrote to them on the 12th of October, on behalf of the PCB, inviting them to Pakistan. There was clearly a statement from the ECB acknowledging that we'd written to them. It's now just waiting for the formal response, and within that we'll talk about what the next steps are, which will be the Covid assessments, security assessments, all of those things that need to be ticked off. But there's a huge will from the ECB to come and do this because they know the importance for the global game but also cricket in Pakistan."
While England are not currently scheduled to tour Pakistan until late 2022, the PCB issued this invitation in the hope that England may have around a week between their tour of Sri Lanka, which is currently planned for January, and their Test and limited-overs series against India, which are due to take place from late January and into March.
The ECB appears keen to make the tour happen. Not only is it grateful for Pakistan's recently concluded tour of England - Pakistan's players were obliged to spend several weeks in lockdown due to Covid-19 protocols - but it is mindful of the powerful message such a tour would send to a country which was starved of top-flight cricket for many years due to security concerns.
"After discussions with the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), we can confirm the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has received an invitation in respect of a short white-ball tour to Pakistan during the early part of 2021," the ECB said in a statement. "We welcome the fact that international cricket is returning to Pakistan and are committed to doing what we can to help this develop further.
"As with any proposed tour that takes place at this time, the safety and welfare of our players and staff is paramount. As such, there are a number of factors that need to be taken into consideration, including the proposed protocols in relation to Covid-19 bio-secure bubbles, the proposed levels of security around the team, as well as the feasibility of undertaking this tour against the backdrop of an already busy schedule of international cricket for the England men's team.
"We will be liaising with the PCB, and as well as other partners over the coming weeks to work through these considerations, before a final decision will be taken in due course."
Quite a few pieces of the jigsaw will have to come together before the tour can be confirmed. For a start, the ECB is likely to need to prioritise obligations which are already scheduled - the Sri Lanka Test series was originally meant to be played in March 2020 - and there is still some doubt over where the games against India will be played. While it looks overwhelmingly likely the fixtures will be played in the UAE due to prevalence of Covid-19 in India, the BCCI is yet to officially acknowledge this. Due to the political tensions between the countries and current health requirements, it may also prove problematic to travel directly between Pakistan and India in the limited time available.
Recent reports from security consultants suggests that confidence in this regard have risen considerably. While security for the tour would no doubt be extremely tight, there has been an acceptance within the ECB for some time that the tour in 2022 was viable. The PCB will also need to satisfy the ECB's medical team that its plans for a bio-bubble are adequate. As has become standard in recent years, players uncomfortable with going on the tour are likely to be allowed to skip it without consequence.
If the tour does take place, it may be considered something of a coup for Khan. British-born Khan has come in for criticism from some aspects of Pakistan's media since he was appointed to the role almost two years ago. But he has forged a strong relationship with Tom Harrison, his counterpart at the ECB, and has worked hard to assuage the security concerns touring teams had until recently. If this tour goes ahead, one of the key aims of his time with the PCB will have been achieved.
*October 16, 1.30pm BST - This story was updated with Wasim Khan's quotes