Matt Maher: Gathering storm looming large on cricket’s horizon

The next seven days in English cricket have the potential to be thrilling.

England's Joe Root (left) and Chris Woakes during day four of the cinch Fourth Test
England's Joe Root (left) and Chris Woakes during day four of the cinch Fourth Test

Tomorrow is Finals Day in the T20 Blast, for nearly two decades now the highlight of the domestic calendar, played in front of a capacity crowd at Edgbaston.

Next week then sees the conclusion of the County Championship where things could hardly be better poised, with the top four teams in Division One separated by just six points heading into the final round of fixtures.

Though the Covid-dictated conference format used in this year’s competition might have its critics, there can be no denying it has set up the most exciting climax to a summer in recent memory.

There, at least, is the good news. Dig just a little below the surface, however, and – extreme as it may sound – cricket has the appearance of a sport teetering on the edge of a crisis.

That will certainly not feel such an exaggeration should this winter’s Ashes series be postponed. Reports this week claimed that is not completely beyond the realms of possibility. Indeed, several players appear to be lobbying for it. At best, it appears increasingly likely England will be touring Australia with a squad missing several key names. A series still considered the flagship of the Test game risks losing a considerable amount of its lustre.

Just a week on from the cancellation of the final Test between England and India, amid claims several visiting players were prioritising their involvement in the Indian Premier League, the ramifications for the longest format of the sport could well be significant.

The biggest issue, granted, is Australia’s strict coronavirus rules which, currently, would require both players and their families to undergo a hard, two-week quarantine before being permitted entry. But the wider problem remains the scheduling and the fact that, both domestically and internationally, there is simply too much cricket. For those players good enough and willing enough, there is the potential to pretty much play all year round.

The concerns of England’s all- format players over the Ashes would be eased, you suspect, if the series was not immediately preceded by the World T20 Championship (postponed from last year), which itself runs off the back of the IPL, a tournament split in two and set to be completed in the UAE after being halted earlier this year due to a Covid-19 outbreak. Look a little further ahead, meanwhile, and you will spot England are due to play a series of T20 internationals in the West Indies before January is out.

For those players involved in all formats, there is the potential of spending more than four months away from their families.

“I would have loved to have been part of the IPL but something has to give,” said England and Warwickshire all-rounder Chris Woakes this week. Woakes, along with England team-mates Dawid Malan and Jonny Bairstow, decided to pull out of the aforementioned tournament.

“With the World Cup and the Ashes, it would have been too much in a short space of time,” he explained.

Woakes, who has endured a frustrating 12 months with injury, is likely to be among those players putting their hand up for the Ashes tour. How many others will join him should become clearer early next month when the precise protocols for entering Australia are confirmed. Until then, these are nervous times for the ECB and England management team.

There remains, meanwhile, no indication yet as to when Ben Stokes will return to the sport.

England’s best player took an indefinite break from cricket at the end of July, in order to prioritise his mental well-being.

Speaking at the time Ashley Giles, managing director of England men’s cricket, referenced the extreme challenge of players spending significant time away from family, with minimal freedoms.

“The cumulative effect of operating almost continuously in these environments over the last 16 months has had a major impact on everyone’s well-being,” he said.

There can be few arguments there. Yet the obvious question is whether the game’s administrators are doing all they can to ease the burden on players? The often intense schedule would suggest not. Instead, there is a sense the pandemic and the need to operate in bio-secure bubbles has simply exacerbated an issue which was already there.

Cricket, a team sport where the contribution of the individual is defined more clearly than any other, has long been a high risk environment for mental health concerns.

Tomorrow at Edgbaston, weather- permitting, everything will seem bright on a day which rarely fails to deliver in the entertainment stakes. But the storm clouds looming over the sport are impossible to ignore.

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