2020 season: When will cricket return – and what will it look like?

England are scheduled to play six Tests, six one-day internationals and six Twenty20s this summer

England’s men return to training this week, giving the clearest indication yet that the 2020 season will not be entirely lost to the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the shutdown on competitive action remains in place until at least 1 July, plans are being drawn up to salvage some of the schedule, even if it is only the international fixtures.

Plenty of questions remain unanswered, but what seems certain is that any action we do get will be cricket not quite as we know it…

When might we see some cricket?

England’s Test series against West Indies should have taken place in June, and, in a revamped calendar, these three Tests are set to come first.

Nothing is confirmed, but the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has held talks with Cricket West Indies and a schedule could be ready by the end of May.

In announcing the protocols for England’s training sessions, director of cricket Ashley Giles said the return to the nets marks the start of a seven-week build-up to a potential first Test, which would point to a start date of 8 July.

West Indies are thought to want to travel in early to mid-June, giving them about four weeks for any period of quarantine and practice. Chief executive Johnny Grave said last week that it is right to be “optimistic” over the tour taking place, with the three Tests likely to be played in the space of three weeks.

England are also due to host a tour by Pakistan, one-day internationals and Twenty20s with Australia, and ODIs against Ireland.

Initial talks with the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) over the three Tests and limited-overs matches have taken place and PCB chief executive Wasim Khan is quoted as saying the ECB’s plans are “very, very encouraging”.

The three ODIs against Ireland were due to be the final fixtures, in September, but Cricket Ireland said there have been discussions about moving those games. They are set to brought forward to the period in between the two Test series, creating space for the Australia tour to be pushed to late summer and giving the maximum opportunity for it to take place.

What would matches look like?

Quite different.

Not only will there be an absence of spectators, but these matches are likely to be taking place in a ‘bio-secure’ environment.

That would mean teams staying, training and playing at grounds like Old Trafford and Southampton, which have hotels on site. Whichever venues are chosen, it is probable they will host back-to-back matches, possibly two Tests or three ODIs.

At first it was thought that England’s players might have to remain in such a bubble for the entire summer, but Giles has conceded that is “unrealistic”.

Still, England will invite about 30 players back to training in order to be prepared for a range of scenarios, while Grave says West Indies have contacted a “wide pool of players” about going on tour.

Players and staff will face regular testing and, even then, there will be challenges surrounding aspects of the game that are seldom given a second thought.

How will the fielding team shine the ball? Will a replacement be allowed for a player that is struck down by illness? Might the convention of neutral umpires have to be altered for now? The International Cricket Council will provide answers this week.

Will players be allowed to opt out?

Yes. In fact, government guidelines on elite athletes returning to training says sporting bodies must make provisions for players who are reluctant.

Giles has said players have an “individual choice” and their decisions will result in “no prejudice”.

Wicketkeeper Jos Buttler admitted there will be “some anxieties” over returning to action, and there may be cause to opt out if the ECB is unable to provide certain assurances.

‘Naturally there are some anxieties about leaving this situation’ – Buttler

In can be argued that West Indies players would have greater cause for concern, especially when a UK death toll in excess of 30,000 would be tantamount to wiping out a large percentage of the population of some Caribbean islands.

While Grave expects some players to be “very nervous”, he has also said that West Indies are likely to be at full strength.

What about county cricket and the women’s game?

In announcing that England’s men would return to training, the ECB said the women will do the same in late June.

Their ODIs and T20s against India have been postponed, while fixtures against South Africa remain on the calendar for September. Discussions with the boards of both teams over the status of those fixtures are ongoing.

In all of its communication about the state of the 2020 schedule, the ECB has stressed its commitment to staging some women’s cricket.

That has meant the same bio-secure planning that has gone into the men’s game, but ECB director of cricket Clare Connor said she is “realistic” in giving precedence to men’s fixtures because of the greater financial rewards they bring.

With the inaugural season of The Hundred already postponed, the ECB says it is in talks with the 18 first-class counties about how they can return to training.

The governing body has said it will attempt to hold both first-class and limited-overs competitions this summer, yet any domestic cricket will only take place if it is safe and financially viable.

Logistically, it would be very difficult to apply bio-secure criteria to county matches, while pressure on finances will have been alleviated to some degree by the government’s decision to extend the furlough scheme until October.

And the recreational game?

The ECB says competitive recreational cricket remains suspended until further notice, but there is some good news in the shape of limited practice now being permitted, subject to strict guidelines.

Net sessions can take place in groups of no more than two people, unless it is exclusively with members of your own household.

One-on-one coaching is allowed and clubhouses can be opened for access to things like first-aid equipment and toilets.

However, communal areas must remain closed, the sharing of equipment is discouraged and indoor practice is not allowed.

Senior leagues up and down the country are considering their options if some cricket is able to be played later in the summer. They include the scrapping of promotion and relegation, banning overseas professionals, and the formation of new competitions unique to this year.

There is also the suggestion that junior cricket should be given priority over adult matches to ensure children do not drift away from the game because of a year of inactivity.

BBC News

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