England fly to Sri Lanka on Saturday evening with a psychologist in their ranks and an insistence from their captain, Joe Root, that the emergence of any Covid-19 cases will not automatically trigger an end to the tour.
The two-Test series that begins on 14 January – rearranged from March when the pandemic cut short the trip – kickstarts nearly three months on the subcontinent for the men’s national teams, with a full tour of India to follow that features four Tests, five Twenty20s and three one-day internationals.
Fulfilling this epic second half to the winter will hinge not only on the efficacy of the biosecure bubbles but also the ability of the tourists to cope with them, not least after Eoin Morgan’s white-ball side pulled the plug on the one-day series in South Africa last month following the emergence of the virus in the team hotel.
Collective anxiety was diagnosed here – England’s two cases proved to be false positives – and so the team director, Ashley Giles, has enlisted Dr James Bickley from the psychology consultancy Changing Minds for this first trip of 2021, with a decision on India to follow, in the hope of staving off a potentially damaging repeat.
Sports psychologists are not new to the setup but this time there is a greater emphasis on bubble life. Root, speaking before the squad’s charter flight, said he hopes the players use this extra resource amid a growing acceptance that the show may have to go on in the event of another outbreak, and a reminder that individuals can opt out.
“I don’t think it will end in an automatic end of the tour,” said Root, when asked whether positive cases in the camp would curtail a third away trip in nine months.
“The reality is, look around the rest of the world – Pakistan in New Zealand [for example] – teams have had to deal with positive cases on tour. That might be the case for us and if so we have to manage it as best as possible.
“All we’ve got to do is make sure we follow the guidelines as best as possible, and if we do that we’ll give ourselves the best chance of that not being a situation.
“There’s going to be a little bit of extra support for the players in terms of a psychologist on the ground at all times, making sure there’s someone to speak to.
“Everyone is very aware that if at any stage it becomes too much they are entitled to get out. That’s an important thing to remember. As players, you have a responsibility to speak up, not just use the staff but the other guys around you as well.
“And as captain, a big part of my role is to make sure people are comfortable in the environment, in a position to be at the top of their game and play Test cricket to the best of their ability.”
Root described the South Africa cancellation as “a unique situation” and stressed the decision was made above their heads. But he added that Sri Lanka and India represents “a level up” as regards the challenge of touring during the pandemic.
A squad of 16 plus seven reserves, all cleared to travel after Covid-19 tests in the past week, will arrive in Hambantota for a quarantine period that allows training and a two-day warmup match, before travelling to Galle on 9 January for two Tests behind closed doors (albeit with locals possibly watching on from the fort).
Root fancies his side will draw confidence from their 3-0 series win in 2018 while remaining wary of conditions that may differ and hosts under a new coach and captain in Mickey Arthur and Dimuth Karunaratne. The tourists are much changed too, with Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes rested, and Rory Burns on paternity leave.
“It would be naive to expect the same as last time,” Root said. “We have to be smart, play to our strengths. We’re confident we can get two brilliant wins but also mindful of the challenges Sri Lanka will throw at us.”