Cricket tours to Asia have long carried fear of illness throwing players and plans into disarray.
While the winter’s excursion to South Africa, where England were struck down by flu and stomach bugs, showed those fears were not limited to the subcontinent, Joe Root’s side set off for their final tour of the winter on Monday with a graver, more serious threat to consider.
The increasing threat of a coronavirus pandemic sees England travel to Sri Lanka for a two-Test series with far more pressing concerns than whether they can emulate their clean sweep of November 2018. The differences then were three Tests and turning pitches which the tourists catered for perfectly. Now, across just two matches and with World Test Championship points up for grabs, there are more serious precautions to take.
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At no point in the last month or so has the tour been under threat. But as the England & Wales Cricket Board look ahead to their summer programme with a view to devising contingency plans around potential travel bans and other restrictions, the short term sees the 16-man squad travel with caution at the forefront of their minds. The experiences of South Africa, where players and staff took turns in various levels of quarantine, will be heeded.
“After the illnesses that swept through the squad in South Africa we are well aware of the importance of keeping contact to a minimum and we’ve been given some really sound and sensible advice from our medical team to help prevent spreading germs and bacteria,” said Root, speaking at Heathrow. “We are not shaking hands with each other, using instead the well-established fist bump, and we are washing hands regularly and wiping down surfaces using the antibacterial wipes and gels we’ve been given in our immunity packs.
“There is no suggestion that the tour will be affected, but of course it is an evolving situation so we are in regular contact with the authorities and will proceed as advised, but at this stage we fully expect the tour to continue as planned.”
At present Sri Lanka has just one confirmed case of coronavirus, known officially as Covid-19, which has killed more than 3,000 people globally. More than 89,000 cases have been reported, mostly in China.
England begin their tour with two warm-up matches before going into Tests at Galle (19 March) and Colombo (27 March). They are not anticipating the same spinning pitches they encountered 18 months in part because of the different time of year, but also because of how they mastered them with such ease.
“The conditions will be a bit different with the time of year we are going this time, said Root. “The three games we played out there last time we all very close with less than 60 runs between the teams in the last two Tests. It was an exceptional performance last time and I think we can take a lot of confidence from that in terms of how to play out there.
“We respect how good a side they are in their own conditions and we’ll find ourselves up against a stiff challenge.”
The squad itself is very different, most notably in the slow bowling department where neither Moeen Ali or Adil Rashid are present. Jack Leach, who took 18 wickets at 21.38 then, remains having overcome sepsis which meant he had to leave South Africa after the third of the four Tests in that series, which England won 3-1.
His Somerset teammate Dom Bess, who excelled on that tour, and Matt Parkinson, a non-playing member, make up the spin trio. Mark Wood’s late pull-out meant Saqib Mahmood will also travel, giving the squad a more inexperienced feel. Root, though, feels they have enough to force another away win against the side ranked sixth in the ICC Test rankings.
“I think you’ve got to play to your strengths and the squad that we are taking out there. I do expect it to be slightly different to last time and we need to adapt to that. I feel we’ve got a lot of bases covered with the guys we’ve got and it is their opportunity to put another impressive tour together.
“It is about coping as best we can with the surfaces, the conditions and the game in front of us and tackling that head on.”
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