England’s Test tour against Sri Lanka is currently “planned to continue” in spite of the growing threat of the the COVID-19 pandemic, but their home Test series against West Indies in June, as well as the T20 Blast, is under threat, with both events scheduled for a period that the UK government has identified as the likely peak of the virus in the country.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed at a press conference on Thursday afternoon that sporting fixtures will not be banned with immediate effect, but said that such a move is under consideration, which could wreak havoc with the English cricketing summer.
England are currently in Sri Lanka playing their final four-day warm-up match ahead of the two-Test series, where the ECB are in regular contact with the Sri Lankan and British High Commissions, in addition to Sri Lanka Cricket to address a “highly evolving” situation.
Sri Lanka currently has two confirmed COVID-19 patients, but the bigger fear may be the tightening or closing of borders, which may leave tourists – including the England team – with difficulties getting home.
”We are in regular contact with the Sri Lankan and British High Commissions in addition to Sri Lanka Cricket around the Sri Lanka v England Test matches, scheduled in the next few weeks,” said an ECB spokesperson.
“At this stage, the series is planned to continue, but we want to stress that this is a highly evolving situation and circumstances are changing rapidly, sometimes several times a day.
“We urge fans who are considering travelling to consult with the current British and Sri Lankan Government advice, to continue to do this up until the point of travel and also for the duration of their trip.”
The global sporting calendar has already been thrown into chaos by the spread of the virus, with hundreds of events postponed, cancelled, or played behind closed doors. In England, three counties have cancelled their pre-season tours overseas, while at least two more are expected to return home early.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, said during the Prime Minister’s press conference that the peak is “10-14 weeks away, maybe slightly longer”, leaving the English cricket season in a nightmare situation which could result in a huge number of fixtures cancelled or played behind closed doors.
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.
“We are considering the question of banning major public events such as sporting fixtures,” Mr Johnson said, describing the virus as “the biggest public health crisis in a generation”.
“The scientific advice, as we’ve said over the last couple of weeks, is that banning such events will have little effect on the spread,” he said.
“But there is also the issue of the burden that such events can place on public services, so we’re discussing these issues with colleagues in all parts of the United Kingdom. We’ll have more to say shortly about further action in that respect. At all stages we have been guided by the science, and we will do the right thing at the right time.”
The cancellation of a whole home Test series would be a significant financial blow for the ECB, while the T20 Blast generates a major proportion of most counties’ income. 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 – but 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.
Sir Patrick explained that the nature of the virus means that a blanket ban on sporting fixtures is unlikely to have a major impact on its spread. “On average one person infects two or three others,” he said. “You therefore have a very low probability of infecting a large number of people in a stadium, or a rather higher probability of infecting people very close to you.
“And that means that most of the transmission tends to take place actually with friends and colleagues in close environments, not in the big environments. So, it is true, of course that any cancellation can have some effect.
“But if you get a displacement activity where you end up with everyone congregating somewhere else, you may actually have perversely an increased risk, particularly in an indoors environment.”