Covid-19 positive hits England party ahead of Women's Ashes start
Heather Knight says preparations have been "pretty average" less than a week out from T20Is
England captain Heather Knight has admitted to "concerns and anxieties" among the touring party in Australia after news of a support staff member testing positive for Covid-19, the latest disruption to their preparations ahead of the Women's Ashes.
The unidentified individual received a positive result in the second round of PCR tests conducted since England's arrival in Australia. They are now in isolation and will remain in Canberra while the group moves on to Adelaide ahead of the T20I leg of the Ashes, which starts on Thursday. No other positives have been reported, with a further round of testing to be carried out before the team flies by charter on Monday.
England have been in Australia for less than a week and were already having to rejig their plans after the schedule was changed in the run-up to departure - the T20Is were brought forward, ahead of the one-off Test, due to quarantine requirements for the Women's World Cup in New Zealand.
They then saw their first outdoor training session affected by torrential rain, with Knight describing England's build-up so far as "pretty average".
The discovery of a positive Covid case in the camp has added to the restrictions England are under - although two scheduled intra-squad warm-up games in Canberra this weekend will still take place - amid an atmosphere of extreme caution before the World Cup.
"We were prepared for this," Knight said, "I think it would be pretty naive to think we wouldn't be affected by it [Covid-19] but there's concern and anxieties from the group. We've had to live under pretty strict protocols since we've arrived, we've only been allowed to socialise outdoors for exactly this reason, to try and limit the spread.
"It's going to be a nervous 24-48 hours, but the PCR tests we've done already have all come back negative. Fingers crossed. It was always going to be affected by Covid. We've had to 'safe live' for two weeks in the UK, from Christmas pretty much, just in order to get out here. It's been a colossal effort."
With Covid numbers in England having surged during December after the arrival of the Omicron variant, players were told to limit contacts to those within their household ahead of departure for Australia - leading to some unusual training routines. Alongside the changes to the Ashes itinerary, Knight said it been "quite hard to focus on the cricket".
"It's not been ideal, that's for sure," she said. "The lead-up has been pretty average, but that's all out of our control. For those two weeks before we left England we could only train as individuals, with our households, so we've had mums feeding bowling machines, boyfriends slinging, girlfriends slinging, dads batting, and supporting our training. As you can imagine it's been pretty comical, but also not ideal preparation for a series of this magnitude.
"We found out that with that quarantine in New Zealand, our preparation's going to be a bit shorter. Getting our heads around that and trying to find ways to get ourselves ready, physically and mentally, has been a little bit hard, and then you throw Covid in there and shifting goalposts with the World Cup as well, as you can imagine it's been quite hard to focus on the cricket.
"It didn't help that the first training session it rained cats and dogs. We haven't had the best preparation but what we've got to do is try and make the most of it."
Changes to regulations while the squad was in the air mean players are currently unable to eat together at restaurants outdoors, although Knight was hopeful of that being relaxed at some stage.
"Restrictions are in place to try and protect the integrity of the series, but we also need to make sure that we look after players and staff and everyone who's out here as well," she said. "We need to find that balance between trying to keep the integrity of the series and staying as safe as possible but also feeling like you can live within the restrictions with a tiny bit of freedom, which I think is important."
The switch to beginning the series with three T20Is has meant changes to planning - in particular how to get overs into the bowlers ahead of the Test - but Knight also suggested that T20 was her side's "strongest format" and represented an opportunity to start the series well. She also said the disruption may help to "take the pressure off" against the No. 1-ranked Australians.
"Of course there's a frustration but it's the times we're living in at the moment," she said. "It's very challenging to tour with Covid around. The restrictions we've been under have changed as well, so just being adaptable to that has been quite tricky. As soon as you get your head around something, something else changes.
"But we've got no other option but to try and make the most of it and do the best we can. Maybe it will take the pressure off, we've just got to find a way to free up, go out there and throw caution to the wind a bit. Mentally it's going to be tough but we're doing everything we can to try and get ourselves prepped and ready for the first game."
England are looking to reclaim the Ashes for the first time since 2015, with three T20Is, three ODIs and a Test to be played under the multi-format points system. The touring party includes an England A squad, who will provide warm-up opposition before playing their own fixtures against Australia A.
Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick