MANCHESTER: The dramatic last-minute cancellation of the deciding fifth Test at Old Trafford has heightened the tension already surrounding the upcoming Ashes series, although English cricket's top administrator still believes postponement is "probably not where we are going to end up".
But with India having abandoned the fifth Test against England before a ball was bowled in Manchester because of Covid-19 fears arising in a more relaxed 'managed' environment, after officials deemed last year's strict biosecure bubbles to be an unsustainable imposition on players in the long-term, the Ashes could yet be played under tighter restrictions.
Several England cricketers have already expressed worries about the current situation in Australia, where arrivals are subject to lengthy quarantine, amid fears their wives, girlfriends and families may not be allowed to join them, as would normally be the case, at some stage during the five-match Ashes series.
It was not until just over two hours before Friday's scheduled start that the fifth Test was called off due to Covid-19 concerns within the India camp -- a move that left English cricket facing a financial 'black hole' estimated at £40 million ($55 million).
Reports that Yogesh Parmar, a physiotherapist in close contact with the players had tested positive for Covid appeared to be the final straw in persuading an India side already missing head coach Ravi Shastri, bowling coach Bharat Arun and fielding coach Ramakrishnan Sridhar due to positive Covid tests, with senior physiotherapist Nitin Patel self-isolating, not to take the field in a series they led 2-1.
Meanwhile suggestions India had been too lax in their approach to the new environment, be it Shastri's presence at a London launch of his new book featuring some 150 guests, or reports that several of the tourists' players were out in Manchester on Thursday night are unlikely to have gone unnoticed by Australian officials.
The England and Wales Cricket Board are currently in the process of trying to agree a set of protocols with their counterparts at Cricket Australia, as well as the Australian government, under which the Ashes can operate.
'Need to get clarity'
A complicating factor, however, is the ability of individual Australian states to impose their own unilateral lockdowns at a moment's notice.
"An Ashes series is a massive deal for world cricket," ECB chief executive Tom Harrison told The Times.
"I think (postponement) is probably not where we are going to end up. All the England players want to be part of it.
"I totally understand the players’ perspective on families being present and the conditions under which families are present.
"It's a conversation we're having with Cricket Australia and the Australian government."
The latest edition of Test cricket's oldest series is set to begin in Brisbane on December 8 before moving to Adelaide ahead of the traditional Boxing Day Test in Melbourne and further matches in Sydney and Perth.
While Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth are largely virus-free and fans are allowed into venues, Sydney and Melbourne are both in lockdown battling outbreaks of the Delta variant with case numbers and deaths rising.
Harrison insisted the ECB were simply trying to get answers to questions being asked by England players and had no intention of making excessive demands.
"No one is being unreasonable," he said. "We just need to get clarity as soon as possible."
England do not yet know if star all-rounder Ben Stokes, currently taking a break from all cricket to "prioritise his mental health, will be available.
Harrison, however, said: "No player has said no (to the tour).
"We're speaking to players a lot about this...There's nothing more important than the health and well-being of our players."