The International Cricket Council has announced two significant changes to the way the game is played and run in the first official reactions to the Covid-19 pandemic. While there was no word yet on when cricket would be played again, whether between countries or in domestic leagues, when play resumed, fast bowlers will feel the pinch the most.
The ICC’s Cricket Committee, which met virtually, announced that shining the ball with saliva would not be permitted. Traditionally, saliva has been used to keep the ball shiny once the lacquer has worn off, and this is essential to swing bowling. Even reverse swing depends on one side of the ball being kept as shiny as possible, while the other is allowed to become rough through natural wear and tear.
With the Coronavirus being transmitted significantly through saliva, the committee had no choice but to put this restriction in place, although the use of sweat in the same process was allowed.
Anil Kumble, the former India captain and legendary leg spinner who heads the cricket committee, said the recommendations (which are set to be passed later this month) were “interim measures” for safe resumption of play. “We are living through extraordinary times and the recommendations the committee have made today are interim measures to enable us to safely resume cricket in a way that preserves the essence of our game whilst protecting everyone involved.”
The cricket committee meeting was attended by former international players Rahul Dravid, Mahela Jayawardene, Andrew Strauss and Belinda Clark along with Sri Lanka head coach Mickey Arthur and current elite umpire Richard Illingworth, all of whom are members of the committee. Before the committee deliberated, it watched and heard a presentation Dr Peter Harcourt, the ICC’s chief medical advisor, on how cricket can safely resume and rules and changes to the playing conditions.
“The chair of the ICC medical advisory committee Dr Peter Harcourt stressed the elevated risk of the transmission of the virus through saliva, and the committee unanimously agreed to recommend that the use of saliva to polish the ball be prohibited,” the ICC release announced. “The committee also noted the medical advice that it is highly unlikely that the virus can be transmitted through sweat and saw no need to prohibit the use of sweat to polish the ball whilst recommending that enhanced hygiene measures are implemented on and around the playing field.”
Umpiring restrictions relaxed
In a second significant move, the committee relaxed the condition that mandated the presence of ICC panel umpires in all international matches. “Given the challenges of international travel with borders being closed, limited commercial flights and mandatory quarantine periods, the Committee recommended that local match officials be appointed in the short-term,” the ICC said.
The increase in reviews was partly done so as to prevent bias in decision making. “The use of technology is increased to support the appointments of a wider pool of umpires from around the world and has proposed an additional DRS review per team per innings is introduced in each format as an interim measure.”
Since 2002, only ICC panel umpires (who are not from either of the two competing teams) have officiated Test matches to rule out the possibility and perception of bias.
England take the lead in training protocols
England’s cricketers could be the first to return to active training, as early as this week, in a bid to ensure that there is no delay in returning to action should the situation improve quickly enough. While there was still no possibility of international cricket being played in the United Kingdom till the end of June, there was hope that the scheduled England-West Indies series would be the first to be played, once possible.
England were scheduled to play West Indies in June, and the cricket boards of the two participants were in talks to try and iron out a new schedule by the end of May. The aim was to begin the series, in England, on July 8.
The plan was for the three-Test series to be held in a bio-secure environment over a period of three weeks.
What will cricket’s return look like?
The most major change from business as usual would obviously be the lack of spectators at the ground. The risks of transmission remain significant enough to rule out the possibility of a large number of people gathering in close proximity.
Secondly, matches are expected to take place in grounds such as Old Trafford in Manchester and the Rose Bowl in Southampton, which both have hotel facilities on site. This would mean the players, officials and support staff would stay at the venues in a carefully controlled environment, cutting out the chance of exposure.
This meant that the chances of one of these venues hosting back-to-back matches was a real possibility, thereby reducing travel and simplifying logistics.
Players’ choice to play or opt out
In another move that is unique to these times, players from both teams will be given the option to stay away from the cricket if they believed that the risks were too high. Ashley Giles, the former England left-arm spinner who now serves as Director of Cricket, said that each player would have to make an individual decision on whether to play or not and either way this would not prejudice their future prospects.
The West Indies Cricket Board also reassured its players that it would not take any action against those who did not want to travel to England to take part in the series, should it be played in July. The West Indies captain, Jason Holder, admitted that these were unprecedented circumstances. “To play at the highest level to empty stands to me is not ideal, but if circumstances do dictate that has to be the case, well I just think we’ve got to get on with it,” Holder told CNC3 TV in Trinidad. “It’s a bigger picture of cricket actually being played, so it’s just a matter for us to get on with it and accept it for what it is if it comes to that.”
What to do and what not to when training
Each of England’s players will have one set of balls to use at training, which will not be shared, and the team physiotherapist will have to wear Personal Protective Equipment when dealing with injuries or treatment. These were part of the protocols that Giles announced as a roadmap was set out to allow England cricketers to return to training in a staggered manner in different venues across the United Kingdom.
“We should be able to get control of the environment so it’s safer to go back to practise than it is to go to the supermarket. I’m not making light of this but there are risks every time you go outside the house. We need to mitigate as many of the risks as we possibly can,” said Giles. “At one venue guys may train individually but with the same coach – a single coach for four or five bowlers [for example]. But with social distancing they shouldn’t be close enough to pass anything on. It’s essential we stick to these guidelines.”
Giles’s comments are the most optimistic to come out of the international cricket community, which has been forced to put all plans on hold as the pandemic has affected different parts of the world.
“Right now I am confident,” Giles replied when asked if he believes international cricket will be staged in the UK this season. “Who knows what the UK – or the world – will look like in two months’ or three months’ time? We hope we don’t take another dip, which would put all of us back. [But] If we continue on this trajectory hopefully we will have the right conditions to play some Test cricket.”
Australia to test disinfectants on cricket balls
Cricket Australia has announced that it will be investigating the benefits of periodically disinfecting the match ball, whenever cricket returns. CA’s Sports Science & Sports Medicine Manager Alex Kountouris made the point when he spoke to reporters. “Disinfecting the ball is a consideration. We don’t know the impact on the ball (yet) because we haven’t tested it. We’d obviously have to test it, we’d have to speak to the ICC and get permission, there’s a lot of things (to consider). And whether it’s effective or not. The ball being leather, it’s harder to disinfect because it’s got little nooks and crevices,” said Kontouris. “So, we don’t know how effective it’s going to be, we don’t know how infected the ball is going to get and we don’t know if it’s going to be allowed. But it’s absolutely a consideration. Everything is on the table at the moment, everything is being considered.”