CHENNAI: In December, just before England embarked on a tour to Sri Lanka, they added a new member to their support staff — a COVIDcompliance officer. A first for any sporting team in the world, the person was brought to oversee if COVIDprotocols were met. That it came after the South Africa tour, where the visitors had to pull out mid-way through the series due to bio-bubble concerns in Cape Town, only made the appointment more necessary.
It showed two things. That England were not taking any chances. Two, they were showing the way to the rest of the world. Even if they had become the first team to report a bio-bubble breach — Jofra Archer against the West Indies — they have led the way in playing at home (matches against West Indies, Pakistan and Australia). Currently quarantining in Chennai ahead of the Test series, they are already on their third overseas tour.
The COVIDcompliance officer, whose identity hasn't been revealed so that they can take unpopular decisions independently without worrying about how the players will receive it, was appointed from within their set up. “I’m normally head of safety and security at the ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board) but in 2020, I led the planning to create the bio-secure environments that ran for our summer and delivered all our international matches. With my experience of managing these environments, I was brought into the Sri Lanka and India tours to support all the COVIDissues on the ground,” the officer informed in an email interview.
For example, before arriving in India, the officer will have had “an understanding of all the protocols in place” so that in case there is a COVIDpositive case in the camp or anyone comes in contact with an infected person, they know what is to be done. Hotels, venues and transportation plans are analysed so that a safe environment is available for players to perform without worrying about anything.
“We have to assure our players that it's safe but also consider their welfare and the performance of the team. Each bubble is slightly different and will also be influenced by government policy and the nature of the hotels and grounds. We have to adapt to these so there are always differences. The BCCI has done an excellent job and their experience with the IPL and in Australia, as a touring team is invaluable,” the officer said.
During their recently concluded tour of Sri Lanka, there were a couple of Covid-19 positive cases at their hotel in Galle. Even their all-rounder Moeen Ali tested positive for coronavirus forcing him to miss both the Tests. But unlike what happened in South Africa, England didn't panic and they went ahead with the tour. “We had good plans in place to manage any of the scenarios that we were presented with. Having a compliance officer with a strong understanding of risk management and containment strategies gave a lot of reassurance to the team. Sri Lanka Cricket managed the incidents well and kept us informed of all the facts at an early stage,” the officer added.
While squad lengths have increased because of the need to quarantine and travel issues, England have been flexible in many ways.
They will be rotating players right through the India tour which will see Jos Buttler head home after the first Test before joining for the limited-overs leg in March. Apart from welfare, importance is being given to their mental well being too as living in bubbles can be difficult in the long run. Although the call is taken by the selectors, the officer has to oversee their safety too.
“This is a long tour and some have done our summer bubbles, IPL, South Africa, Sri Lanka and now India. There are challenges, not least with air travel at the moment but the welfare benefits outweigh them. Living in quarantine, following a lot of rules and no ability to escape is difficult for any length of time. We have support in place for players' mental well-being,” the officer said.