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Cricket must 'learn to live with Covid, or we will lose players', warns ECB chief executive, Tom Harrison

England chief defends relaxation of bio-secure environments despite mounting risk to series

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Tom Harrison, the ECB's chief executive  •  Getty Images

Tom Harrison, the ECB's chief executive  •  Getty Images

Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, has defended his board's decision to relax the bio-secure environments that were a feature of England's behind-closed-doors campaign in the 2020 home season, arguing that the mental health and well-being of the players in its competitions requires the game to "learn to live" with Covid-19, rather than seek to prevent further infections within team environments.
Speaking at a media briefing ahead of the opening match of the Hundred on July 21, Harrison warned that it was the duty of boards all around the world, and not just in the UK, to take greater heed of the concerns of their players - many of whom have endured months at a time away from their friends and young families in a bid to ensure that the competitions upon which the game's revenues rely can be safely completed.
However, with concerns already mounting about the viability of England's five-Test series against India, amid the knock-on effects of Rishabh Pant's positive Covid diagnosis and further infections within the India camp, Harrison insisted that all teams would be obliged to "accept some risk" in return for the day-to-day freedoms that enable elite sportsmen and women to produce their best performances.
"We want people feeling good about going out and playing in whatever tournament they're playing in, whether that's the Hundred, whether that's a Test series against India, whether that is county cricket and the RL50," Harrison said.
"We want people to be feeling like their life is delivering for them, both at home and as professional cricketers, men and women. We don't want to be closeting players in such a place where they feel like the only role they play in their life is to is to go out and bat and bowl for whatever team they're playing."
"I think that's a bad place for us to be," Harrison added. "We have to be understanding about what it is to be a responsible employer, to be able to get the best back from players. That's by treating them like adults, and talking and communicating openly about how we best mitigate the impacts of this ongoing pandemic."
While Harrison's rhetoric was laudable, it did not, however, directly address the key issues facing the English cricket season in the coming weeks - namely the relaxation of the UK's remaining Covid restrictions on July 19, two days before the Hundred begins, but the continuation until August 16 of the current Public Health England provisions surrounding Test and Trace, which require the close contacts of a person who tests positive for Covid to go into self-isolation for a period of 10 days.
Such provisions have already caused havoc in English cricket in the past weeks. Last week, England were required to field a brand-new squad at 48 hours' notice following seven positive cases in their original line-up for the Pakistan series, while Kent took the field with a team of second XI players in the County Championship fixture against Sussex that finished on Wednesday.
In the same round of games, Essex's hopes of defending their twin red-ball titles were effectively ended when Derbyshire had to abandon their fixture mid-match, before subsequently pulling out of their remaining fixtures in the Vitality Blast. The demand on players has caused doubts about the viability of the entire Royal London 50-over competition, which runs concurrently with the Hundred, despite Harrison's insistence that there were "no plans to draw a red line" through its staging.
But despite the long-term strategic importance of the Hundred, which Harrison reiterated was a bid to "make the game more meaningful to more people", the summer's immediate priority remains the staging of the India series, which begins at Trent Bridge on August 4, and is worth an estimated £100 million in broadcast revenues alone.
Asked whether England's Test players - among them Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Joe Root - would be able to feature in the Hundred, given the risks involved, Harrison admitted that the plans for their participation had not yet been finalised.
"We are working through that at the moment," he said. "Clearly we've got to make sure that we protect the India series but also it's important they take part in the Hundred.
"The thinking is around their travel, their accommodation, how do we make sure they're not in close contact with anyone outside of the environment, do we need to put additional protocols around them? I'm expecting them to play at the start of the Hundred, so once we finalise that this week, we'll know exactly how many games they will be available for."
Stokes admitted earlier this week that players were willing to make more "sacrifices" to keep the show on the road, but Harrison accepts that there are only so many times the ECB can come back to its players with demands to dig deeper for the cause - with tours of Bangladesh and Pakistan coming up this winter, closely followed by the T20 World Cup and the Ashes in Australia.
"It is the most important series, then we've got another 'most important series' coming up, and then another directly after that," Harrison said. "The reality is, for international players, this is just the next stage. There's a sense that this conveyor belt just keeps going. We have to learn to offer players that ability to be mentally fresh, and that means operating within the protocols, in a way that means accepting some risk but, in return, getting the full support of players.
"You want players turning up in these 'most important series' feeling fantastic about the opportunity of playing for their country," he added. "They are not going to be able to achieve that if they have forgotten the reasons why they play.
"You've got to listen to what they've been telling us, and it's been very clear to most boards around the world that we need to listen more to the voice of the players. Because they've got lives too and in some cases very young families, who they've been pulled apart from for very long periods of time.
"I'm afraid there comes a point where it's no longer an acceptable answer to go again, 'once more unto the breach dear friends'. I don't believe that is an acceptable place for responsible employers to continue to go. So it's about balance."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket