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Sheffield Shield edges back from Covid-19 precipice but uncertainty will remain

Cricket Australia hopes to be able to complete a full top-level domestic schedule, with the season set to extend well into April

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
Back in May, at the height of Cricket Australia's anxiety about the impact of Covid-19 on this season, draft plans for the Sheffield Shield had it pared back to just five rounds, all played after the conclusion of the BBL.
As for as the pointy end of the red-ball portion of the summer, the weeks leading into the Test series with India, the national selectors would have been compelled to stick with what they knew. The chances of anyone emerging from domestic ranks with a rush of runs or wickets in the domestic competition would have been non-existent.
In subsequent weeks, either side of the exit of CA's former chief executive Kevin Roberts, Shield scenarios gradually returned to something a little more recognisable, even if there was far from universal agreement about exactly how it should look.
The requirement for a 10-round competition plus a final is inked into the MoU between CA and the Australian Cricketers Association: as of Saturday, the tournament will begin with four rounds across three grounds in Adelaide, with the remainder to be played in 2021 in what the high performance chief Drew Ginn hopes will be a far less regimented patchwork of border and health restrictions. As it is, Ginn said that the domestic season would be stretching far deeper into April than usual, while plans will be reassessed every two weeks.
"There's been lots of permutations. I'd be safe to say I've seen a spreadsheet that's just grown in columns across the page," Ginn said. "We started out to play a full domestic home and away summer and play everything we possibly could. Five months ago we started looking at the various scenarios we might be confronted with, so we worked that through not only with the states but also the ACA, and it's safe to say some of the potential scenarios weren't really palatable to anyone.
"Our intent has always been to run the full competitions and maximise cricket as much as possible. We're also fitting in with our other priorities, and India's a massive priority for the international season for us and we're really excited to see that come to life, and the Big Bash and WBBL. State cricket fits in with those other competitions as a really important backbone for what we do, but scheduling conversations and scenarios have been mapped out extensively.
"We're dealing with changing situations with government restrictions and changing situations with Covid-19. We'll keep assessing on a two-week cycle, just to make sure we're adapting and doing what we can, and if anything throws up a spanner, we'll deal with that as it comes."
Reflecting the array of different regulations in place across the country, not all states will have things as easy as others. Victoria's squad is currently in hotel quarantine at Adelaide's Playford hotel, with training restricted to groups of four transported under guard to the nets. By contrast, South Australia have the benefits of home comforts, while the New South Wales squad departed earlier than originally scheduled on Thursday in advance of a slight rise in Covid 19 cases in the state: the better to make the trip before the state border has a chance to be closed again.
Each match will be live streamed with sufficient quality to also be made available through CA's digital streaming partner Kayo, owned by Foxtel. Still more promising is the prospect that, unlike those pessimistic May forecasts, the Shield may end up being played to a more complete duration than it was last season, when the final round and the final were both cancelled to hand the trophy to New South Wales.
"Anything is possible, but we're planning on the back end of the domestic summer to be complete," Ginn said. "We're optimistic that the borders will keep improving. We have planned in the rounds we're going to play, not only in Shield but also the one-day cup and the WNCL as well.
"We can't do a whole lot about Covid-19, so if things get dramatically worse, that'll be the thing that jeopardises that opportunity. Running to the end of April is an adaptation we've created already, so conversations about what that has to be like if we get further restrictions, we'll do, but we have to be optimistic that things will improve."
All parties concerned, whether they be CA, the states, the players or support staff, are ardently hoping that the hubs required for the first four rounds and potentially the BBL will not be necessary for the back end of the season. But given the wide spectrum of possible scenarios that the Shield has been subjected to over the past few months, all are wary of further change.
"When you look at the entire season, there's a lot of hub time that could be experienced by players, coaches and staff, so that's not our preferred scenario," Ginn said. "We are prepared for it if it has to happen.
"We're planning for the back end of the season to be much more free in terms of border restrictions, and much more like a normal domestic competition - in a Covid-19 environment so we'll still be staying as safe as we can - but the main thing is we'll keep assessing that as we get closer to the BBL period. Fingers crossed we're running things much more in line with what we do traditionally, but we do have flexibility."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig