England’s touring party in Sri Lanka faces an anxious wait in their hotel rooms just as their preparations for the Test series should have begun in earnest.
England were due to have their first training session of the tour in Hambantota on Tuesday. Instead, the squad was consigned to their rooms as they await the results of a further round of medical tests following the positive Covid-19 result revealed by Moeen Ali on Monday.
Although they underwent both lateral flow and PCR tests on Tuesday, the results are not expected to be announced until Wednesday. Lateral flow tests typically return a result in little over 30-minutes, but are not as accurate. The PCR tests take longer to analyse but provide more certainty. While the ECB may gain an indication of the extent of the problem from the lateral flow tests on Tuesday, they will await the PCR results before making public comment. The squad are due to be tested again on Thursday.
While the entire party returned negative tests before flying, there will be understandable anxiety both from the England management and the Sri Lankan authorities over the prospect of further spread of the virus. Sri Lanka has managed to contain Covid-19 to a greater extent than the UK, which has just entered another lockdown and where positive cases have numbered over 50,000 in each of the last six days. A new strain of the virus, which is understood to be far more transmissible, is also spreading rapidly in England. The ECB say they do not know, at this stage, which strain of the virus Moeen has contracted.
There may be particular anxiety over the outcome of Chris Woakes‘ test results. While the players observed social distancing protocols on their flights, The Guardian has revealed that Woakes travelled from Birmingham to Heathrow in the same car as Moeen and has, as a result, been placed in quarantine for a week. After the vast amount of money spent on charter flights, testing and secure environments, it seems oddly penny pinching not to have provided a separate car for each player.
Moeen, meanwhile, is being driven to Galle today where he will be put up in private accommodation arranged for just such an eventuality. Nick Peirce, the ECB’s chief medical officer, will also travel to Galle in a separate car to ensure Moeen is as comfortable as can be expected. As a frontline doctor, Peirce has already had at least one part of the vaccine (two jabs, provided at least two weeks apart, are required to maximise the efficacy of both vaccines currently in use in the UK), though it is unclear to what extent this will grant him immunity from the virus. Moeen remains asymptomatic at this stage and is currently due out of isolation on January 13, the day before the first Test is scheduled to start. As a result, there would appear to be no chance of him playing.
Indeed, his involvement in the series must be in doubt. The medical staff at Sri Lanka cricket advised players who tested positive during the LPL to avoid high-level sport for several weeks if they experienced even mild symptoms.
With the ECB having benefited from the efforts of West Indies, Pakistan, Ireland and Australia in touring England in trying circumstances during 2020, there remains an understanding that the tour should proceed if at all possible. But, as all involved await the test results, it is hard to escape the conclusion the future of this tour is on a knife edge.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.