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Paul Stirling fears players will pull out of tours as 'financial reasons' dictate Covid rules

Acting Ireland captain says bubble life leaves players feeling like they're being "manoeuvred on a chessboard"

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Paul Stirling takes throwdowns before the match, Ireland vs Zimbabwe, 4th T20I, Bready, September 2, 2021

Paul Stirling takes throwdowns  •  Sportsfile via Getty Images

Paul Stirling has said there is "no doubt" that large numbers of players will pull out of tours and tournaments if they continue to operate in tight biosecure conditions, suggesting that Covid bubbles no longer feel like they are about "our health and safety" and instead are only in place for "financial reasons for companies, organisations and franchises".
Stirling has played overseas in the Hundred, T20 Blast, PSL, LPL and Abu Dhabi T10 in the last two years as well as touring regularly with Ireland. He contracted Covid-19 in Florida at the end of December following their T20I series, and has now joined up with the rest of Ireland's squad - minus four Covid-positive team-mates and their interim coach David Ripley - in Jamaica ahead of Thursday's second ODI against West Indies.
With Andy Balbirnie among the positive players - along with Lorcan Tucker, Simi Singh and Ben White - Stirling will stand in as captain for the rest of the series. Speaking during his pre-match press conference on Wednesday, he said that while his introverted character meant he had coped with bubbles, there is "not too much rope left" for many players around the world.
"Will players pull out? One hundred percent," he said. "There's no doubt about that. I think the restrictions are now no longer as much to do with our health and safety as they are to do with making sure that competitions go ahead and financial reasons for companies, organisations, franchises and making it work from that point of view.
"When that starts happening and that transition is so apparent, and you feel as a player that you're just being manoeuvred on a chessboard, that's I think when people are going to be pulling out, fairly swiftly. That's probably not far away, or else rules will be broken as you go.
"As a whole, we've done pretty well. Not that you can blame anyone else but it would seem like we've had our camp in a good way, our discipline was good, we were sticking to the rules which is easier said than done sometimes.
"We had a pretty good record and I think whenever cases came out, we nipped it in the bud. This is the first time where it's lingered. I don't know any teams that have completely avoided it, so it's maybe time to start moving on in that direction a bit quicker."
Ireland's players are in a strict bubble in Jamaica but were not at the start of their tour in Florida, where they had to abide by Covid protocols as part of a "managed environment". It was not enough to keep the virus out of their camp, with their ODI series against the USA abandoned at short notice after players' family members tested positive, but Stirling denied that the decision to avoid draconian protocols had been a mistake.
"I don't think the tour would have gone ahead [in a strict bubble]," he said. "Going away over Christmas in a different country - if you're going to propose that with a full bubble like we're in now, who's going to say yes to that? It could only be relaxed.
"And I say relaxed: it's being allowed outdoors, it's eating outdoors, it's 15 minutes in places to get your essentials. I wouldn't say it was extremely enjoyable. It was certainly the way that we see it going forward - that as an absolute bare minimum as to what we're allowed to do.
"Everyone reacts differently to news of positive tests. Even if you're negative, you've got that anxiety of 'will it be me next?' This just seems to be one of those ones where it feels like our turn. It is tough if you're not used to it. You're away from home, you're not sure if you're going to get home.
"Hopefully this is going to ease out with time this year. I don't think there's too much rope left with the players with having these bubbles as we go forward. The next three-four months, an easing of these sort of protocols would be pretty high on our list."
Stirling said that he was fit to play on Thursday despite suffering from "two dodgy days" while self-isolating in Miami, and feeling like he was "in the Highlands in South Africa" while jogging at his first training session in Jamaica.
"From a health point of view, I'm feeling good," he said. "I'm glad it's over - the people who have had it are so glad they've already had it because that takes you off for six months [due to natural immunity] where we can focus on cricket. We've got [T20 World Cup] qualifiers coming up [in Oman in February] and the last thing we want is this sort of environment where people are unsure."
Andy McBrine (concussion) and Mark Adair (foot) are both expected to be available for Thursday's game, while Singh and White could be available for Sunday's third ODI if cleared by medical staff.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98