England face nervous wait as COVID-19 threatens Ashes

MELBOURNE: Australia’s paceman Mitchell Starc (center) bowls to England’s batsman Joe Root (left) on day two of the third Ashes cricket Test match between Australia and England yesterday. — AFP

MELBOURNE: England were nervously awaiting results of PCR tests after four COVID cases in the camp but veteran Jimmy Anderson said yesterday they are keen to finish the Ashes series in Australia. Four members of the England party-two support staff and two family members-tested positive for coronavirus just hours before the start of day two in the third Test in Melbourne. The team and management were then required to undergo rapid antigen (RAT) tests as they were about to leave their hotel for Melbourne Cricket Ground.

They were given the all-clear barely 45 minutes before play was due to begin, but must also take PCR tests as a precaution. England bowler Anderson said the team was on the bus ready to leave when they were ordered off to have the RAT tests. “As far as I’m aware, the whole playing group feel fine. We’ve just stepped up safety protocols around the dressing room, wearing masks and keeping distance where possible,” he said after stumps on day two. “We are all having PCR tests now and obviously we need all those to be clear, if possible, so we’ll just have to wait and see what the results are.” Anderson added that the England team had not been told of the plan should anyone test positive.

Australian broadcaster the Seven Network also said there had been a positive case among its staff working at the MCG, forcing last-minute changes to their commentary team. Driven by the Omicron variant, coronavirus cases are surging in Australia-particularly in Sydney-where the fourth Test is scheduled to start on January 5, before the Ashes finale in Hobart.

More than 6,000 cases are being reported daily across New South Wales state, where Sydney is located. Nevertheless, Cricket Australia chief Nick Hockley said the plan was to press on as scheduled with the Ashes. “That’s absolutely the plan, there’s nothing to suggest otherwise. We’ll rely on the protocols,” he told reporters, before cautioning: “It’s a day-by-day proposition.”

Keen to carry on

England faced a similar scenario earlier this year when the fifth Test of their home series against India was cancelled after multiple cases among the visitors’ support staff. Anderson said he was keen to finish the Ashes series, even though England are facing another heavy defeat. “That’s the plan. Again, it’s going to depend on the PCR tests and what situation that is going to leave us in,” he said. “As long as the group that was here at the ground today are negative, I don’t see why we can’t carry on.” Australia captain Pat Cummins, who missed the second Ashes Test because he was in COVID isolation, said the dramatic events yesterday were “a sign of the times”. “You’ve got to be pretty flexible,” he told sports broadcaster SEN.

Australia scent victory

Meanwhile, a dazed England lost four wickets in a hostile late spell to leave them at 31-4 – still trailing Australia by 51 runs-and fighting to save their Ashes hopes after day two of a gripping third Test. It came after the visitors-who must win in Melbourne-were rocked by four positive COVID cases in their camp, although no players were among them. Australia had been all out for 267, earning an 82-run lead on England’s first-innings 185 on an MCG pitch that was still offering plenty for the bowlers.

Marcus Harris top-scored with a battling 76 against a dangerous English attack led by veteran Jimmy Anderson, who was at his fearsome best with 4-33 off 23 overs. After heavy defeats in Brisbane and Adelaide, England must win to keep the five-Test series alive, with Australia only needing a draw to retain the urn as holders. But faced with surviving the final hour against a revved-up Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, England collapsed again.

Struggling opener Zak Crawley never looked comfortable and after dodging 15 balls he was caught by wicketkeeper Alex Carey for five off Starc. Dawid Malan came in but incredibly was out first ball to Starc lbw after an unsuccessful review, then Scott Boland ruined Haseeb Hameed’s day on seven, with Carey gloving an edge. Fired-up Boland bowled Jack Leach without scoring two balls to leave skipper Joe Root unbeaten on 12 and Ben Stokes on two-and England in deep trouble.

“On the bowling front I thought we did really well to stick at our task throughout the day… we created a lot of chances, put a lot of balls in the right areas and got our rewards,” said Anderson. “We knew that last 12 overs (batting) was going to be tough with the new ball,” he added. “But even so, to lose four wickets was really disappointing. “Starc and Cummins were outstanding.”— AFP

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