It’s normally about this time of year that Australian sports fans can put the footy away and start to gear up for the summer of cricket.
It was promising to be an enthralling summer too, with a packed schedule including two multi-format women’s series — the first of which is already captivating supporters — a one-off Test against Afghanistan for the men in Hobart, and then a highly anticipated five-Test Ashes series to look forward to.
However, on the men’s side of the ledger at least, things are starting to look a little tentative.
The historic Afghanistan Test has already been postponed indefinitely, and whether the Ashes takes place at all is seemingly still up in the air.
Here’s what we know.
Why are the Ashes in doubt?
This is an issue that has been bubbling along for a while, but essentially boils down to Australia’s strict COVID quarantine and travel requirements.
England’s players want their families to be able to travel with them to Australia, at least over the Christmas period, as well as wanting clarification on what type of bubble situation they will be subjected to while in Australia.
With the T20 World Cup taking place immediately before the Ashes, England’s multi-format players are staring at the prospect of spending around four months away from home.
It’s a topic that’s even been broached at government level, with British PM Boris Johnson reportedly using a meeting in Washington DC to warn Scott Morrison that the whole tour could collapse if the existing rules are not relaxed — although Morrison confirmed there would be no special deals.
Back in August, Andrew Strauss said it would be “unrealistic” for England’s players to travel without the prospect of seeing their families for that period of time.
There is also some uncertainty over the bubble arrangements for both teams.
States will be at different stages of reopening and vaccinations, meaning different COVID rules are likely to apply.
Western Australia has already asked for the Test matches to be reshuffled, because of its strict quarantine border requirements, but that request has been denied.
What have England said?
England’s players have expressed concern about the mental health impacts of being in a bubble for so long.
England has played more cricket than any other national side during the pandemic, with home series against India, Pakistan, West Indies, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, plus an overseas tour of India, in the last nine months alone.
In that same period Australia has sent limited overs teams of varying strength to New Zealand, Bangladesh and the West Indies.
Australia has not played an overseas Test since the last Ashes in England, pre-pandemic, in September 2019.
In fact, since the pandemic started in March 2020, Australia has played just four Test matches in total. England has played 18 — all of them under bubble conditions.
Living in a bubble has taken a toll on England’s players, with star all-rounder Ben Stokes one high-profile casualty.
He announced he was taking an indefinite break from the game in July.
Moeen Ali, meanwhile, retired from Test cricket last month, citing the difficulties and uncertainties of quarantining as part of any possible Australia tour as one of the contributing factors.
What did the ECB say in its latest statement?
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) said on Monday that it remained “in regular and positive dialogue with Cricket Australia” over the proposed arrangements, and the focus was to ensure the tour would go ahead.
However, it added that the board would meet again this week to “determine whether the conditions in place are sufficient for the Tour to go ahead”.
Importantly, it added that one of the caveats was whether the conditions would “enable the selection of a squad befitting a series of this significance”.
That appears to indicate that the tour could be in doubt if not enough top players make themselves available.
What is Cricket Australia saying?
Cricket Australia echoed the ECB’s line about conversations having been “regular and positive” over the past six months.
“The health and wellbeing of both squads, while ensuring the tour proceeds in a safe manner, is a priority, and we especially thank our government partners for all their support in this regard,” Cricket Australia said in a statement.
“We are also buoyed by rising vaccination rates and an evolving approach to the pandemic in Australia.
“The anticipated conditions for the tour, including quarantine arrangements, have now been communicated to the ECB and directly to the England players and staff.”
What do Joe Root and the England players think?
However, he did not say he would be on the plane.
“It is so hard to make a decision until we know what [the plan for restrictions] looks like,” Root said last month.
“Once that information comes through and we have a bit more clarity, hopefully we are in a position to go and do something special this winter.
In August, Jos Buttler said he would miss the tour if his family could not be there with him.
“You have to be open to saying no,” he told the UK’s Sunday Times.
“It would be incredibly disappointing if some players feel like they can’t do it, but we’re in a world at the moment where that is a possibility.
“I’ve sacrificed a lot for cricket, and my wife and family have sacrificed a lot.”
What has Tim Paine been saying?
Australia captain Tim Paine said his piece on the weekend, declaring the Ashes will take place no matter who comes to tour.
“The Ashes are going ahead,” he said on his SEN Hobart radio show.
“The first Test is on December 8 — whether Joe [Root] is here or not.
“They all want to come, there’s no doubt about that. It’ll be worked out above us and then they’ll have a choice whether to get on that plane or not.
“If you do want to come and represent your country and play in an Ashes series — Joe Root said that’s what they all want to do, that’s what they dream about doing — then come and do it.”
Paine has not played for Australia since the last Test against India at the Gabba in January.
What did the British press make of that?
They did not react well to Paine’s comments, that’s for sure.
“Certainly there is something galling about the spectacle of Australia’s captain mind-gaming out at the world from within his own sealed borders,” journalist Barney Ronay wrote in his Guardian column.
“People have struggled horribly, have stared this plague in the face for the last 18 months. The cricketers have played on through all this. So spare us the shit-talk please, Tim Paine.”
Former England captain Nasser Hussain also stuck the boot in, writing in his Daily Mail column that comments coming from Australia about quarantine were “a bit rich”.
“I’m quite proud of the way in which England’s Test team have kept the show on the road in difficult circumstances, moving in and out of bubbles and spending time away from their families. It’s draining. Mental health has suffered,” Hussain wrote.
“So for people in Australia to start lecturing them, and telling them they should simply suck it up, is a bit rich.
“Unless you’ve spent time in a bubble … you don’t get to lecture other people on how they should behave.”