Third Test continues as England players test negative after Covid outbreak but Ashes tour hangs in balance

There has been a Covid outbreak in the touring camp, but the third Test in Melbourne will resume as planned on Tuesday morning

Credit: AFP

Covid is threatening to cut short the Ashes series after a growing outbreak among England’s coaching staff and family members emerged during the Boxing Day Test.

It was confirmed late on Monday that both sets of players had returned negative PCR results and the Boxing Day Test was expected to resume on day three. Australia are in a commanding position to retain the Ashes after England’s top order was blown away in a dramatic final session on day two when they took four wickets. England resume on 31 for four, 51 runs behind.

But it is understood six members of the England touring party have tested positive: three support staff and three family members, a rise on the previous day and there are now fears it could grow further over coming days. The players will be retested again after the third day’s play. 

The positive cases emerged less than 48 hours after the whole England touring party of 60-70 people enjoyed a Christmas Day lunch sat outside at a restaurant in St Kilda.

The players were on the team bus waiting to go to the ground  at the start of day two when news of the positive cases among two support staff and two family members emerged. They underwent rapid flow tests before being allowed to travel to the ground where play was delayed by half hour due to the Covid outbreak.

The players then underwent more accurate PCR tests after play. It was confirmed this morning the outbreak had grown to include another support staff employee and family member. The results today will allow the Boxing Day Test to continue but the rest of the tour remains hanging in the air. England have a large touring party travelling around Australia and those who tested positive will have to remain in Melbourne when the tour moves to Sydney on New Year’s Eve.

Ashes schedule

“Players from the Australian and England teams all had PCR Covid-19 Tests after play yesterday [Monday] and all results have come back negative,” said a statement from Cricket Australia. “The families of both sets of players also had PCR tests yesterday and all returned a negative test. The England team’s support staff and their family members who tested positive after PCR tests yesterday are in isolation.”

Family members were due to be retested again today and Covid is likely to run through the rest of the tour with the potential for more cases to emerge over the coming days.

In Victoria, state rules allow close contacts of Covid cases to leave isolation once they return a negative PCR test but in New South Wales, where the fourth Test will be held next week, it is seven days’ mandatory quarantine. It is also seven days in Tasmania, the venue for the fifth Test. There is the possibility both states will soon relax those rules due to the number of people isolating.

Further restrictions are likely to be imposed on teams but there will be no return to the strict biobubble yet.

There was also an outbreak among the Channel Seven broadcast crew which forced most of the commentary team to isolate for the first half of the day while they awaited negative PCR results. 

Nick Hockley, the Cricket Australia chief executive, was in a bullish mood at the MCG hours after the outbreak was confirmed, insisting it is “business as usual” and the tour will continue.

“We have a very comprehensive and regular PCR testing regime throughout the tour, as far as we’re concerned it’s business as usual but tonight the entire group will be tested,” he said.

“Both playing groups have been fantastic in observing the protocols, this morning’s events is a sign of the times. 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 are being extra vigilant as there are increasing cases in the community but our protocols are designed for absolutely this set of events. We’ve got strong protocols, comprehensive testing and the players have been fantastic.

“These guys are absolute professionals, we’ve had 18 months of living with this and [have] been working on plans for this tour for over six months.”

Victoria recorded 1,999 new cases on Monday with New South Wales on 6,324 but only 55 people in intensive care.

What exactly happened?

About an hour before the scheduled start of play on day two, a statement was released advising that the England team and management were still at the team hotel, awaiting results of rapid lateral flow Covid tests. This was because there had been a positive test from within the England team’s family group, after that member, who had been with the team over Christmas, had reported symptoms overnight since Boxing Day.

Following these tests, one England coach, one trainer and two family members returned positive results. No England players reported a positive result on either rounds of testing, meaning that the team were able to travel to the ground, which they did, arriving just over half an hour before the scheduled start of play. As a result, the day’s play was delayed by half an hour.

With the round of negative PCR tests confirmed early on Tuesday, day three is expected to go ahead as planned. 

Weren’t there any close contacts?

Yes, one. Another England coach stayed away from the ground on day two of the third Test as a possible close contact. Close contacts are determined by the rules and regulations in each state.

Currently, with both teams in Melbourne, under Victorian regulations close contacts are determined as someone who has had face-to-face contact or spent time in a closed space with someone who has Covid while they were infectious. As the teams spent Christmas with the other family members and support staff outdoors, this has meant that none of the England players have been deemed close contacts of those who have already tested positive. In Victoria, close contacts must isolate until a negative PCR result is returned.

What happens next?

The players will be tested again after play on Tuesday but, given the match situation, that seems unlikely to affect the result of the Test and, ultimately, the Ashes. But it could be put the third and fourth Test matches in doubt. 

What if a player tests positive?

Under the ICC World Test Championship playing conditions, a player who tests positive for Covid can be replaced with a like-for-like replacement, on the condition that the replacement will not “excessively advantage his team for the remainder of the match”. The replacement player will be assessed by the match referee David Boon, to ensure that he fits these criteria.

It gets tricky when there is more than one player who tests positive, or a handful, which might make finding appropriate replacements difficult. England have a squad of 18 players out in Australia, with the Lions squad having returned to the UK before Christmas. There are a number of English players playing in the domestic Australian Twenty20 competition, the Big Bash League, but state border restrictions, and whether they are like-for-like replacements, will determine whether they can be substituted in.

What about the final two Tests, scheduled in Sydney and Hobart?

Victoria has more relaxed Covid close-contact rules than either New South Wales or Tasmania, where the final two Tests are scheduled to be played. In these two states, fully-vaccinated people (as the players are) who are deemed close contacts must isolate for at least seven days. Should there be further positive tests once the players are in these states, and close contacts, this could be far more disruptive than in Melbourne.

This is also contingent on the players getting to these two states in the first place. Covid cases are rising across Australia and each state can impose further restrictions on entrants from other states, especially if there have been positive cases or close contacts.

There is a possibility that the last two fixtures could just be played in Melbourne, with lighter restrictions and no need for further travel, but New South Wales and Tasmania are already heavily invested in hosting the upcoming Tests. Changing venues could have major financial repercusions for Australian cricket.

Why don’t the players just go into bubbles?

Already, players and staff from both teams are under tighter restrictions since Adelaide, where Australian captain Pat Cummins missed the Test after falling foul of the state’s close-contact rules. They are unable to eat indoors, attend bars or shop in public places. After two years of playing high-pressure sport under various restrictions, both teams are keen to avoid anything too strenuous.

That said, cricket officials from both teams have indicated that tighter restrictions would not be a problem if it meant the series could continue. Whether the players and their families agree is a different question.

What if the rest of the series, or a Test, is cancelled?

Good question. It depends why exactly any Test is called off, whether the Australian and English cricket boards agree on that reason and whether the remaining fixtures can be rescheduled. There will also be input from the broadcasters, who stand to lose large sums should the series be cut short. Just as when the Old Trafford Test between England and India was called off earlier this year, expect lots of wrangling.

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