As Jhye Richardson and Michael Neser fell asleep after day four of Adelaide’s Ashes Test, they could easily have wondered what could happen soon. Both performed well as substitutes for the Australian fast bowlers, and in the first four days neither has outperformed the other.
Richardson played aggressively in the opening innings without a wicket, Neser took one more economically. Richardson has so far taken two in the second set, Neser another. Patrick Cummins will definitely be back for the Melbourne test, possibly Josh Hazlewood. If there is still a vacancy, the fifth day in Adelaide can still decide who takes it.
These are the conventional unknowns in a cricket series, the kind of questions we would expect. Over the past couple of years, however, we have all become familiar with the larger unknowns of a pandemic, those millions of little ramifications that flow like tributaries of the deadly central current.
On the first morning in Adelaide, when Patrick Cummins was kicked out of the Australia captain after being classified as close contact of a positive Covid case, the media center was buzzing with activity while reporting the news. On the fourth morning in Adelaide, the media center itself was where Covid had appeared, and the place was very, very quiet. A Fox Sports employee and a BBC employee had both recorded positive tests, triggering a cascade of close contact evaluations and preventive absences.
For the first day of so many Ashes series, Test Match Special did not air. The whole team had worked from a single mailing box and testing was needed at all levels. The lack of a British institution reflected the tumult of the cricket team’s tour. The BBC’s precautions also took away the local national broadcaster, housed next door. The ABC commentary team had loaned Jim Maxwell and Ian Chappell to the BBC list, while receiving relays in return from Jonathan Agnew and Steven Finn. What had sparked good humor on the air about commentators rushing from box to box was suddenly less fun. The ABC ended up hastily assembling a small team of commentators in Perth to call using TV footage, and the BBC picked up that feed.
All of the above shows the cutting edge on which this Ashes series balances. Pay-TV broadcaster Fox Sports managed to stay on the air despite the misfortune that befell its employee, and it had the resources and influence to get host Isa Guha allowed to broadcast on the same day despite having worked on the BBC show the day before. But in work environments that are both specialized and overcrowded, precariousness is glaring. The entire test match broadcast was interrupted for an extended period during the Brisbane test due to a power outage. An infection in the wrong place could easily replicate it elsewhere.
Then there is the question of the players, as the Cummins case demonstrated. Cricket Australia chief executive Nick Hockley said after Cummins’ exclusion players were asked to go out in small groups to avoid the risk of several being kicked out at once. But days later, fast pitcher Mitchell Starc said he and Nathan Lyon would have sat with Cummins at the fateful dinner, except the captain hadn’t checked his text messages.
With Hazlewood injured, Australia’s entire top-pick bowling attack could have been ruled out of the game at once, and unless Usman Khawaja bowling first change, the team wouldn’t have had the depth to cover that. Selectors were reportedly left sifting through the Adelaide Strikers roster or making calls to see who was fit in local cricket. (Take the jokes about whether England have raced against this attack.)
If enough players of a certain caliber were excluded, it could result in the abandonment or loss of games, and could give broadcasters a case to claim back the rights they paid. The potential consequences are enormous.
From Adelaide, the teams will travel to Victoria and New South Wales. Restrictions in those states are less stringent, with workplace contacts only needing to self-isolate until a negative test is returned rather than the general seven days required in South Australia. But, in Australian terms at least, the cities of Melbourne and Sydney are where Covid is booming. The likelihood of players going through it is higher, and a mid-game case could always derail a test.
It’s not as if this hasn’t happened elsewhere – England bailed out South Africa last December and India followed suit with England last September. This England side could be very happy to leave Australia and regain their composure before returning at a later date. Money on the ashes means everything to the two councils, who will co-opt the St Moritz ice cricket tournament if that’s what it takes for the series to play. But the ice in Australia right now is really thin, and underneath are some very dark and deep unknowns.