Risk minimisation the key for Cricket Australia’s domestic season as it looks to adapt to COVID-19

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This week a sporting goods manufacturer announced the production of the first cricket shoe specifically designed for women, a lightning response to the establishment of international women’s cricket a mere 86 years ago.

Cricket’s typically languid pace, together with the innate conservatism of we brown cardigan-wearing purists, explains why the game is not the first sport that springs to mind when the pandemic arts of “adaption” and “pivoting” are mentioned.

It was initially reckoned Australian cricket had dodged the worst of the COVID-19 crisis with Australia’s Women’s T20 World Cup victory back in March beating the shutdown by days, even as the grim economic forecasts that cost Cricket Australia (CA) chief executive Kevin Roberts his position created a sense of foreboding.

But now the cricket season looms and we seem no closer to a COVID-19 vaccine than to a Nathan Lyon triple century. Adapt and pivot, cricket must.

So far we have seen the postponement of the men’s version of the T20 World Cup that was scheduled for October 18 to November 15 and, inevitably, Australia’s T20 matches against West Indies that were to have served as a lead-up.

This unsurprisingly opened the window for the delayed and displaced Indian Premier League (IPL) to be contested from September 19 to November 10. This means some of Australia’s best players will be in the United Arab Emirates instead of wherever the first few rounds of Sheffield Shield matches are played.

The likelihood stars such as Patrick Cummins, Steve Smith and David Warner will miss the start of the domestic season has caused some anguish among those who claim red-ball games in Australia should trump the IPL — notwithstanding that the Sheffield Shield routinely commences without Australian representatives while they are fulfilling the contractual obligation of obscure one-day internationals in October and early November.

Steve Smith smiles while standing in the field.

Steve Smith smiles while standing in the field.

Steve Smith’s appearances for the Blues in the Sheffield Shield season may be limited.(AAP: Albert Perez)

While you might argue national representation provides a more credible leave pass than personal IPL contracts, it would be churlish — and politically naive — to stop players earning extra income when CA is negotiating wage cuts.

And any insistence Smith turns out for NSW or Cummins has a trundle at Bellerive Oval seems even less compelling given Australia is relying on India to enter quarantine in Australia for two weeks before playing Test and ODI series reportedly worth $300 million.

As it stands, Australia will play three ODIs and three T20s against England that were originally scheduled for July in September. Those with IPL contracts will then travel to the UAE by which time we should know if Smith’s sanitising routine is as quirky as his batting.

With the international schedule remodelled thus, attention has turned to the very problematic domestic season.

Cricket Australia has called a meeting with states next week to discuss the various complications of border restrictions, the cost of hubs and, no doubt, to hear the cases of relatively COVID 19-free cities such as Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane, who are eager to get their hands on the scheduling spoils including the Boxing Day Test.

Cricket can learn from AFL, NRL

If cricket has not avoided the worst of the pandemic, it has had the opportunity to observe the various football codes in their attempts to protect the credibility of their seasons in the most unusual circumstances.

The most compelling lesson is risk minimisation. For the AFL and NRL this meant rapidly reducing the number of states in which games were played even if the nature of home-ground advantage was reduced or completely eliminated.

For Australia’s Test series against India, surely this means confining matches to those states where there is at least some chance of live attendance, even if this means depriving the already weary and isolated Melbourne sports community of the Boxing Day Test.

Tests against India in Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth (not currently scheduled) seem the most bankable with Sydney’s rising COVID rates now a genuine threat to the New Year’s Test.

In the current worst-case scenario, two Tests in Adelaide (one day and one day-night), Boxing Day in Perth and one Test at the Gabba would constitute a palatable pivot from the traditional fixtures and provide the variation in conditions a credible Test series requires.

The Sheffield Shield creates potentially greater problems. There has been pushback from the suggestion the season be reduced from 10 games to eight. But how does an essentially loss-making competition justify the expense of the kind of multi-million-dollar hubs being used by the AFL?

The WBBL will run from October 17 to November 29 and, as Australian stars including Alyssa Healy have highlighted, will clash with a women’s T20 tournament that runs concurrently with the IPL.

A Sydney Sixers WBBL player holds her bat in one hand and her helmet in the other as she celebrates a century against the Stars.

A Sydney Sixers WBBL player holds her bat in one hand and her helmet in the other as she celebrates a century against the Stars.

The WBBL schedule may impact on the earning potential of players such as Alyssa Healy.(AAP: Richard Wainwright)

This means contracted WBBL players won’t be able to increase their earnings as male stars can — something we might expect to be corrected in 86 years or so using the equipment production timeline.

Meanwhile, CA this week announced that respected batting coach Trent Woodhill had been appointed as a consultant to help re-energise the BBL, which has been brought forward to December 3.

Woodhill, an early adopter of the game’s brutal new batting arts, has never seen a ball that couldn’t be ramped. If there is a player or innovation that could add some life to a somewhat stale concept, he will know about it.

For the club cricketer? Shockingly, the new playing protocols this season prohibit players from sharing afternoon tea.

So in an unusual summer, there is one certainty — retailers of Tim Tams, BBQ Shapes, party pies and lamingtons are about to take a substantial hit.

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