The ECB are preparing themselves for the possibility that portions of the English domestic season could be played behind closed doors, postponed or cancelled outright, as the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to sweep the game.
In the wake of this morning’s postponement of the Test tour of Sri Lanka, and in light of the UK government’s estimate that the peak of the virus is still 10-14 weeks away, the ECB is now making contingency plans with its financial, logistical and scheduling implications to the fore.
England are scheduled to play three Tests against West Indies, with the series starting at The Oval on June 4. That date is currently 12 weeks away, in the middle of the expected peak period. The T20 Blast is scheduled to start on May 28, with the group stage running until July 12.
The greatest concern for the ECB, however, would be any disruption to their new flagship tournament, the Hundred, which is set to run from July 22 to August 14, and marks the much-anticipated return of English cricket to domestic television, with the BBC having secured rights to a portion of the tournament.
“We are undertaking a number of steps to prepare for potential outcomes that an ongoing situation with COVID-19 might bring for the cricket community here in England and Wales,” said Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive.
“In conjunction with our partners across the network, we are building contingency plans across a number of possible eventualities. Our main priorities are to ensure we scope out the landscape for financial, logistical and scheduling implications.”
A raft of UK sporting events have fallen victim to the virus in the past 24 hours, including the suspension of all domestic football leagues in England and Scotland, as well as Scotland v Wales in the latest round of Six Nations’ rugby fixtures.
And while Prime Minister Boris Johnson stopped short of issuing an outright ban on sporting events at a press conference on Thursday, he admitted that such a move is under consideration, which could wreak havoc with the English cricketing summer.
The cancellation of the West Indies Test series would be a significant financial blow for the ECB, who are also scheduled to play three Tests against Pakistan and limited-overs series against Australia and Ireland.
The T20 Blast, meanwhile, generates a major proportion of most counties’ income. And while it is possible that the tournament could be pushed back further in the summer – possibly at the expense of the final rounds of County Championship fixtures – there is precious little room in the schedule for change.
More immediately, the County Championship is scheduled to start on April 12. While crowds are typically relatively low, they regularly exceed 2000 at certain grounds, and the main demographic of match-going fans is elderly, increasing their vulnerability to the virus.
It is possible that games – almost all of which are streamed for free online – could be played behind closed doors, and the ECB is in close contact with government to discuss its options.
“It is difficult for us to be sure of what outcomes the game might be expected to deal with,” Harrison added. “Therefore, we will continue to plan for the expectation that the season proceeds as normal, but in parallel prepare for a range of scenarios. These could include the possibility of playing matches behind closed doors, or potentially postponing or cancelling elements of the season.
“We continue to enjoy constructive dialogue with DCMS [Department of Culture, Media and Sport], and also our commercial and broadcast partners – who match our ambitions to see the game of cricket thrive in 2020 and beyond. We are certain that jointly, we will all come to solutions that best protect those who love cricket, and the game itself.”