The fog of uncertainty that has hung over preparations for this winter’s Ashes tour could start to lift over the next few days as England’s players are sent details of the Covid restrictions that will apply to their trip to Australia, and finally learn about the quarantine and bubble conditions that will be imposed upon them as they play five Tests in six weeks across five different states.
During lengthy negotiations between the ECB and Cricket Australia the prospective tourists had sought assurances that their families would be able to travel. With Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, now promising “no special deals” their primary concern has shifted to the conditions they themselves will face. The key question is whether they will have a degree of freedom once they complete their initial quarantine on arrival in the country, or whether they will be expected to live in strictly enforced bio-secure bubbles.
“If you ask me if I would be happy to get on a plane to Australia in November, I would say yes,” Stuart Broad said last week. “But if another player called me and told me they couldn’t commit, I would totally accept it. Let’s try to make it as comfortable as possible for us because if you go somewhere like Australia and have to bunker down, you won’t enjoy being in one of the greatest places on earth – and aren’t going to win at cricket either.”
Though restrictions are likely to vary between different states, the ECB is braced for some withdrawals should strict bubbles look necessary. Last month, shortly before the birth of his second daughter, Jos Buttler suggested that he might be among them. “You have to be open to saying no,” he said. “It would be incredibly disappointing if some players feel like they can’t do it, but we’re in a world at the moment where that is a possibility.”
Dan Lawrence, the 24-year-old Essex batter, said this week: “I’ve got no reason not to go to Australia and if I was selected I would go in a heartbeat”. England are likely to select an expanded squad to allow their players greater flexibility, and should they need further reinforcements would have the option of plundering the England Lions team that will be in the country in December for a match against Australia A.
Australia have largely closed their borders to foreign visitors since March 2020, and a deal that gives the families of visiting cricketers greater freedom than the country’s residents would be politically unpopular. But those conditions could change during the Ashes series. The country’s minister for trade, tourism and investments, Dan Tehan, reiterating on Wednesday that international borders would reopen once 80% of the population is fully vaccinated, which he said would happen “at this rate by Christmas at the latest”.
So far only Portugal, the United Arab Emirates, Malta and Singapore have reached that figure, and as of Wednesday only 38.85% of Australians were fully vaccinated with another 20.97% having received one dose. At current rates, Australia could hit their target before the end of November.
On Wednesday the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, told reporters he had discussed the situation with his Australian counterpart, who “totally got the point that for cricketers it is very tough to ask people to be away from their families over Christmas [and] undertook to come back and see if he could find a solution.”
Morrison swiftly played that down, saying “there’s no special deals there. Those who are coming for … their profession, which is playing cricket, I don’t see the difference between that and someone who’s coming as a skilled, qualified engineer or someone who’s coming to be ready for study.”
When India’s cricketers arrived for their tour of Australia last November they were given some latitude, serving their 14-day “soft quarantine” in the five-star Pullman Hotel at Sydney Olympic Park while some players’ families were allowed into the country as members of the touring party.
England’s current itinerary is believed to start in Queensland with quarantine at a Gold Coast resort, with the first Test due to get under way in Brisbane on 8 December.