It’s decision time.
The players are set to learn the touring conditions at the end of this week and will then have the weekend to decide on their participation in the series, which begins on 8 December.
Even now, captain Joe Root has stopped short of committing to the tour, while overnight the difficulty of making Ashes plans was highlighted by the postponement of an Australian domestic fixture because of new Covid-19 cases in Queensland.
The series is not thought to be under threat, but who will play for England and what changes might have to be made in order for the five Tests to be completed are still up in the air.
Remind me – this is about Covid, right?
Yes. Not just about the situation now, but everything that has gone on over the past 18 months too.
The England men’s team have played more cricket than any other international team in the Covid era. They have probably been more active than every international team in any other sport.
In the home summer of 2020 they were locked in strict bio-secure ‘bubbles’ and faced similar conditions over the winter. While a tour of South Africa was cut short because of a Covid scare, restrictions in Sri Lanka and India were part of the reason for a controversial rest-and-rotation policy.
Back at home this year, as the UK began to open up, England still had to find a new squad for a one-day series against Pakistan after an entire team was forced into isolation, then Covid fears among the touring Indians caused the final Test at Old Trafford to be called off.
England’s fears over families not being able to travel with them to Australia first emerged in July. Those concerns have morphed into questions over potential quarantine conditions and restrictions they will face throughout the Ashes series.
By keeping the show on the road during the pandemic, England’s players have had their fill of quarantines, isolations and bubbles.
Now there is trepidation about leaving the relative freedom of the UK for a country that is gripped by uncertainty.
What’s the situation in Australia?
Australia has some of the strictest Covid-19 protocols in the world, a situation complicated by the fact its various states have their own regulations.
The picture is also ever-changing. While New South Wales has published its route towards fewer restrictions, Queensland has been hit by new community cases.
These constantly shifting sands make planning difficult, especially when each of the five Tests are currently set to take place in five different states.
England are due to serve their period of quarantine on the Gold Coast, then play the first Test at the Gabba in Brisbane, all of which are in Queensland.
However, those community cases caused Queensland’s Sheffield Shield match against Tasmania to be called off and have forced all the Rugby Championship teams from New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Australia into isolation.
Not only that, but the fifth Test in Perth is also under some doubt because of the restrictions imposed by Western Australia on travellers arriving from other states.
While England have questions over quarantine, living restrictions and their families, there is also uncertainty over where the five Tests can actually be played, meaning some grounds may be used more than once.
What’s this about Joe Root not going?
So, England are facing perhaps the most arduous Ashes tour since players travelled down under by boat. They have won only four Tests in Australia this century, are definitely without the injured Jofra Archer and possibly Ben Stokes.
Even skipper Root was unable to offer any comfort to England fans by stopping short of confirming his own participation in the tour.
In fairness to Root, he was in a difficult position when asked if he would definitely be on the plane.
He will know many of his team-mates still have reservations and, for him as captain, to make a public statement of intent could put pressure on the rest of the squad and remove some of their collective bargaining power.
The 30-year-old also has two young children, so he will have his own misgivings about the conditions imposed.
Root did say he was “desperate” to be part of the series and the feeling is he will be there to lead his country.
They will need him too. Despite the fact he has never made a hundred in his nine Tests down under, Root is currently ranked as the world’s number one batsman. With six hundreds and 1,455 Test runs in 2021, he is in the form of is life.
England will not win back the Ashes without him.
And the other players?
There has been frustration among the England players about the lack of information given to them. Still, the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad have indicated a willingness to tour, while Jos Buttler has hinted at caution.
Ultimately, every player will make his own decision because each one will have his own set of circumstances.
Those leaving for the Twenty20 World Cup on Monday could be away for nearly four months if they also play in the Ashes. Families are travelling to the United Arab Emirates, which might be a factor in appeasing some players.
For the Test specialists, there is more time at home before the trip to Australia, which could mitigate any eventual separation from loved ones.
By contrast, some could decide that having family in Australia is a must – especially at Christmas – while others might be reluctant to enter yet another bubble.
England are likely to name a huge squad because a Lions team will be present in Australia at the same time.
The assumption is that most players will accept the conditions of the tour, but that is far from confirmed.
What happens next?
Cricket Australia (CA) has sent proposals for the tour to the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) – plans that are better than the ECB first feared.
The ECB has responded with a number of points that require clarification, with a deadline for CA to provide answers.
The ECB will present the tour plans to the players at the end of the week, after which they will decide on their participation.
England have started some discussions on the make-up of their squad, with selection due next week, though the tour party can only be finalised once players have made their decision.
It is not unprecedented for England players to miss tours for non-cricketing reasons, but there is optimism that Root will lead a team that is close to full strength.
From then on, all England have to do is win the Ashes.