It has been 15 years since England played in Pakistan, a stretch that feels, nowadays, more than half a lifetime ago. They may go back there again in January. Wasim Khan, the chief executive of the Pakistan Cricket Board, has invited them out to play three Twenty20 games in the new year. And given the efforts Pakistan made to help the England and Wales Cricket Board fulfil its own fixture list by touring here during lockdown in the summer, the ECB is bound to agree. The difficulty is England are also supposed to play two Tests against Sri Lanka around the same time, and have a five‑Test series against India lined up soon afterwards.
So it’s going to be a long, busy winter. And unless the ECB’s research department is about to announce some radical new advances in quantum mechanics, it may be that the only way through it is going to be for the ECB to send separate squads on simultaneous tours. It wouldn’t be the first time.
In 1930 England played two Tests on the same day, one against West Indies in Bridgetown, the other, 9,000‑odd miles away, against New Zealand in Christchurch. They had to rope in a few veterans to do it, the team that played in the West Indies included two players in their 50s, but they still managed to win one and draw the other.
More recently (and relevantly) in 2017 Australia started a Test against India in Pune the day after they played a T20 against Sri Lanka in Adelaide. Their head coach, Justin Langer, said in a recent interview with SEN radio that he didn’t want to see anything like that happen again. “We’re one country aren’t we, we’re not two countries, and we’re one sport. This year I understand there are complexities to it. Let’s say we have to take 18 players to New Zealand and we’ve got to take 18 players to South Africa, that’s 36 players out of the back end of the Sheffield Shield. That’s before any injuries that will inevitably happen.”
Langer admitted they may not have much choice this season. But he is also worried it may set a precedent, that a temporary fix for the congestion caused by the pandemic could become a permanent solution for the conflicting demands of the chaotic schedule.
They say it’s a source of strength that cricket has three different formats that can cater for three different audiences. But it is also a source of tension. The sport is being pulled in different directions. It’s fodder for the broadcasters, and great fun for the fans, who get to enjoy wall-to-wall sport, but it is going to be a stress for the players, who are stuck in the middle.
They are already trying to straddle first-class, franchise, international, red-ball and white-ball cricket, and that’s before the ECB throws in a fourth format when it launches the Hundred next summer. Everyone wants to play everything, but it’s just about impossible for anyone to actually do it.
Chris Woakes spoke about this recently. In the summer Woakes had to sit out England’s one-day series against Ireland. “You don’t want to miss any games for England. The way I felt in the summer – and I know a few of the other guys felt the same – in regards to missing the ODIs against Ireland was that it’s easy to say: ‘It’s just a series against Ireland,’ but they’re fixtures for England which you want to be part of.”
Woakes thinks there will be “interesting times ahead”. It wasn’t clear whether he thought this was a blessing or a curse. “Guys are going to have to make their minds up, in a way, if there are two separate bubbles and you can’t be a part of both.”
England will go back into the bubble next month for a Twenty20 and one-day international series in South Africa. England’s first tour since the Covid-19 pandemic began will be played amid biosecure plans agreed with the South Africa government. The squad will fly out on 16 November with the three T20 matches and three ODIs staged in Cape Town and Paarl. England will pay for their own flight and are expected to take up to 24 players.
Tour schedule: 27 November – first T20, Newlands, Cape Town; 29 November – second T20, Boland Park, Paarl; 1 December – third T20, Newlands, Cape Town; 4 December – first ODI, Newlands, Cape Town; 6 December – second ODI, Boland Park, Paarl; 9 December – third ODI, Newlands, Cape Town.
The choice wasn’t so hard this year, when the Test matches were centre stage. But next year, when the Hundred will dominate the summer and the T20 World Cup is being played in the autumn, the decision won’t be so clear-cut. It gets more complicated. Woakes also spoke about how he had benefited from taking a break from the game after he pulled out of the Indian Premier League so he could “recharge his batteries”.
During an event run by Chance to Shine this week, Eoin Morgan spoke about how all this time shut up in bubbles is going to put a strain on players’ mental health. Morgan wants to create a team culture where players feel able to step away from tours. “We’ve accepted that guys will come in and out of the bubble as they feel it’s affecting their mental health. Their health is a priority. So I do think we’ll see more players pull out of tours. That’s just the reality of things. And I don’t think people should look down on it: they shouldn’t feel like they’re not doing their job or not committing to their country.”
That’s something with which Morgan has experience himself, of course. He pulled out of an England tour of Bangladesh on safety grounds in 2017. Now he’s a World Cup-winning captain it is easy to forget (although I doubt Morgan has) just how much criticism he took for it at the time.
This winter could be a test of just how far the game has come since England last went to Pakistan, when Marcus Trescothick suffered the breakdown that led eventually to his retirement from international cricket. Trescothick’s honesty about what happened to him then did a lot to break down the stigma around mental health in the sport. Thanks to him, and the others who came afterwards, it is easier to talk openly about mental health, which is a good thing, because it feels as if the strain of playing the game is growing greater all the time.
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.