England and Australia were facing a nervous overnight wait for Covid test results as the continuation of the Ashes series hung in the balance.
The Boxing Day Test in Melbourne was plunged into uncertainty on the second morning, when it became clear that the virus had infiltrated England’s wider touring party.
A family member who had spent Christmas with the extended squad showed symptoms during the previous evening and tested positive after taking a rapid antigen test.
That immediately sent up a red flag and England were told to disembark the team bus and return to the hotel to receive a round of lateral flow tests. There were three further positives – another family member as well as two members of the backroom staff – but crucially all of the playing squad came back negative.
Discussions took place between England and Wales Cricket Board chief executive Tom Harrison, who linked up with the side this week, his Cricket Australia counterpart Nick Hockley and local health officials in Victoria and it was decided that the day’s play could go ahead with nothing more than a half-hour delay. Stuart Broad and Craig Overton, who were not in the playing XI this week, did not travel to the MCG as a precaution.
Our players have been given the all clear to play today and have arrived at the ground.
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) December 26, 2021
It was agreed that both teams would take PCR tests, which take longer to process but are more reliable indicators, on Monday evening. Should there be cases within either camp the match and the series would be in doubt.
Playing conditions do currently allow for Covid substitutes but the scale of any additional spread, plus who counts as a close contact, leaves plenty of unanswered questions.
Both teams adopted more stringent measures around the shared dressing room spaces but there was no attempt at distancing on the field of play, as each team celebrated wickets with the usual embraces rather than the fist bumps which became common earlier in the pandemic.
England bowler James Anderson was clear that the will existed to continue with the scheduled five Tests but accepted that there was little certainty. The tourists are now well versed in the possible outcomes, having cancelled two overseas trips in 2020 – a Test tour of Sri Lanka and a white-ball visit to South Africa – and seen India walk out of the deciding Old Trafford Test last summer.
“As long as the group that’s at the ground today are negative I don’t see why we can’t carry on,” he said.
“I’m sure that’s the plan but it depends on PCR tests and what situation that leaves us in. It’s very hard for me to answer that, to be honest. We’re all having PCR tests now and we’ll need all those to be clear really, if possible. We’ll just have to wait and see what the results are.
“That will get talked about by much more important people than me if and when those results come back.”
Hockley had earlier addressed the situation shortly after play got under way.
“Everyone now is on high alert, everyone is being extra cautious,” he said.
“As far as we’re concerned it’s business as usual but tonight the entire group will be tested. Let’s see what the PCR tests bring later on. Hopefully everyone tests negative.
“We just need to remain calm, get the facts, everyone needs to follow medical advice and, on that basis, we keep going. That’s part of continuing elite sport and major events at this time.
“We’ve got strong protocols, comprehensive testing and the players have been fantastic. Everyone is desperate to play, they’ve been living with this for 18 months and both sides are really committed to continuing with the series.”
This is not the first time the shadow of coronavirus has loomed over the 2021/22 Ashes, with Australia captain Pat Cummins missing the second Test in Adelaide after he was was ‘pinged’ as a close contact.
The next Test is due to take place in Sydney – Australia’s Covid hot-spot – and with more stringent local health restrictions in place there also doubts about whether the sides will agree to head to New South Wales without dispensations.
England made it clear in the run-up to the series that they were unwilling to accept a hard bubble ‘lockdown’ on tour and negotiations on that front are likely to form part of the backdrop over the hours and days to come.