(ESPNCricinfo) – England men’s players will move one step closer to a return to international cricket next week, when they resume training in controlled environments at arange of venues across the country.
The announcement comes in the wake of official government advice, published on Wednesday, which sets out the safety protocols and social-distancing measures necessary to safeguard the players and staff during the COVID-19 outbreak.
And with a possible seven weeks to go until the delayed first Test against West Indies is earmarked to get underway behind closed doors, a squad of 30 players – with a red-ball focus at this stage – will begin to assemble at seven venues across the country from Wednesday onwards, to resume individual skills-based training programmes.
The move is intended to mitigate the potential of injury for England’s players, who have not set foot on a cricket field since the abandonment of the Sri Lanka tour, midway their first warm-up match in Colombo on March 12.
The players’ initial focus will be on “individual field-based skills”, with full nets sessions deferred for a further two weeks, until the bowlers have reached their desired workload after having their fitness regimes interrupted by two months in lockdown.
Although the venues have not yet been confirmed, it is understood that Trent Bridge, Edgbaston, Emirates Old Trafford, Kia Oval, Chester-le-Street, Taunton and Hove are among those that have been earmarked for the initial period, with four more to be utilised when batting and wicket-keeping practice resumes.
At first, the players will be required to train individually on a staggered basis, with a coach, a physio and, where possible, a strength and conditioning coach in attendance. To assist with these one-on-one activities, ECB will fund the short-term appointment of several county coaches, many of whom are currently furloughed.
“These are the first steps for players’ return to training ahead of international cricket potentially resuming later this summer,” said Ashley Giles, England men’s managing director.
“The safety of players, staff and our community is our first priority throughout this protocol. We are committed to adhering to public health guidelines and Government directives intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“To be clear, we will only train and potentially play cricket behind closed doors if we know it is absolutely safe to do so and is fully supported by the Government.
“We are in constant dialogue with players, coaches and counties to determine what is possible during this period and what facilities will be available to us. We are thankful that we have a united front across all of cricket’s stakeholders to prepare the players in a safe and secure environment.”
To minimise the risk of infection during this period, strict social-distancing and hygiene protocols will be observed. The temperature of all participants will be taken before they are allowed to take place in training sessions; public areas such as dressing rooms and venue facilities will be closed, and the players and support staff will be asked to arrive at the venues in their training gear.
In the event of injury to any player during the training sessions, medical officers will be required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), which will be sourced and funded by ECB. No media outlets will be permitted to attend the sessions, although ECB’s communications team will distribute imagery and video where appropriate.
Giles admitted that the circumstances for England’s players remained “far from ideal”, but he acknowledged that the timing of the government guidelines had been helpful in framing the conditions for their return to action.
“We are working back seven weeks from what could be the first Test match,” Giles said. “We know that isn’t confirmed at this point but we have to give our bowlers enough time to get their loads up and get some overs back in their legs.
“We are going to be asking approximately 30 players to go back to training so there is no official selection process at the moment. We will need a larger group of players, given we are planning for the strictest of conditions behind closed doors.
“We will need to take a bigger group of players in with us whether that be to cover injury, for net bowlers, or for practice matches.”
As per the government’s protocols, all players and support staff will have to have “actively opted in” to the training programme and should not be penalised if they feel uncomfortable with the conditions. However, Giles insisted that no-one had yet come forward to express their reluctance to take part.
“It may happen and that’s fine,” he said. “These are different circumstances and there will be no prejudice. It is what it is, it’s an individual choice, but I hope we can put things in place and an environment that’s safe enough for guys to trust us that they can go back and take those first tentative steps to cricket.”
ECB would continue to liaise with the 18 first-class counties to ascertain when a ‘back-to-training’ protocol could be rolled out for the county game. Further updates are expected towards the end of the month, with all professional and recreational cricket remaining on hold until July 1 at the earliest.