Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, has given up trying to pre-empt the next Covid crisis in cricket but said the Hundred – and the Royal London Cup – will forge ahead despite the pandemic threatening to derail teams and force possible abandonments.
English cricket continues to operate on the knife-edge described by the men’s director, Ashley Giles, last week. Government protocols on track and trace will not change for those who are double-vaccinated until 16 August, with county sides being badly damaged as a result and England last week forced to select an entirely new squad for the Pakistan one-day series that finished on Tuesday.
On top of this, with India beginning preparations in Durham for the five-Test series against England from 4 August, Rishabh Pant and Dayanand Garani have tested positive for the virus, with three members of the party forced to isolate. This represents the most seismic concern given their tour is worth £100m in home broadcast revenues.
With more than 500,000 people nationwide pinged by the NHS track and trace app during the first week of July, the landscape is hugely perilous before the new eight-team, 100‑ball tournament starts next Wednesday, when Oval Invincibles take on Manchester Originals in the women’s competition.
Harrison conceded that with sportspeople subject to the same rules laid down by Public Health England as the wider public, it is a case of accepting there will be an impact.
“I hope we’re in a position where we can cope,” he said during a rare media appearance on Thursday. “[The] protocols we’ve put in place are designed to cope with small outbreaks or being able to mitigate the impact on entire squads.
“We hope that won’t happen but through this pandemic, those of us at the coalface know you’re only ever one phone call away from the next massive issue that would have seemed, three years ago, like a crisis you don’t know how you’re going to cope with.
“What I can tell you is we would find a way to cope. But trying to guess what it might be? I’ve given up. There’s always something different we’ve never thought of.”
The Hundred drawing the cream of domestic white-ball men’s talent away from the 18 first-class counties has also generated further concerns that further outbreaks will lead to the concurrent 50-over Royal London Cup – already set to be a quasi-second XI tournament – simply running out of players and being forced to shut down.
Asked about this possibility, Harrison said: “There’s no plans to draw a red line through the Royal London. We’ve got something to be excited about for players not involved in the Hundred: the opportunity for younger players to come through is a really exciting one. I’m very hopeful we can play every game scheduled.”
For international cricket there are no plans to return to the hugely stringent biosecure bubbles of last season – Harrison cited the strains this places on players – even if squads will be restricted to hotels and subject to regular testing, while the Hundred teams will similarly have strict rules laid out.
Sanjay Patel, the tournament director for the Hundred, is also working on protocols that allow England’s Test cricketers to play in the first week of the competition. However, with positive cases leading to 17 days out of action – 10 of isolation plus seven more under the ECB’s own return-to-play medical guidelines – selection for the series could be compromised.
Harrison, Patel and Beth Barrett‑Wild, the tournament director for the women’s competition, were all keen to accentuate the positive and have reported 350,000 tickets have been sold for the Hundred (including giveaways), putting the ECB on course to beat their goal of 60% attendance. On-target revenues of £50m are being forecast.
This comes despite a number of high-profile overseas withdrawals from both sides of the tournament – most damaging cricket-wise, perhaps, is the absence of the leading Australian women – with Patel saying: “If you look at any sporting event they are getting hit with withdrawals. That is the world we live in and the world we have to accept.”
Harrison described the alternative reality without the Hundred – a reliance on international revenues – as scary and though some may question this, the broader reach offered by the partnership with BBC and Sky, plus the platform the tournament offers to women’s cricket, is surely inarguable.
Regarding the women’s tournament, Barrett-Wild said: “From equal prize money through to equal levels of broadcast coverage, and the introduction of gender neutral language, the Hundred gives us this unique second chance to make a brilliant first impression about who cricket is for
“In every other area of the game when it comes to gender parity we’re actually playing catch‑up. We’re playing catch‑up on hundreds of years of history and we’re trying to make cricket more relevant, more accessible and more inclusive for women and girls.
“This isn’t the case for the Hundred. We’ve been able to design the whole thing from the very start to give equal levels of prominence and profile to our brilliant female players, alongside their male peers.”