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England's Third Test against India began today against a complicated backdrop, with uncertainty over their calendar this winter.
England players have been left unimpressed by the revelation in the Guardian that a number of ECB executives — including CEO Tom Harrison and the Hundred's Managing Director Sanjay Patel — are set to receive six-figure bonuses next year, despite financial difficulties across the game.
This is the maturation of the board's five-year Long Term Incentive Plan and effectively amounts to a bonus for the successful delivery of the ECB's new competition, the Hundred, which finished its first season on Saturday.
The ECB made 62 redundancies last year, mostly to lower-paid workers, making the bonuses a source of resentment among staff at the governing body. That frustration extends to the England men's players, who saw their own win bonus structures slashed in half last year due to the pandemic.
The Ashes situation is more complicated. England are due to have a busy winter, with the T20 World Cup in the UAE just before the Ashes, which are due to start on December 8 in Brisbane.
Players met Harrison and the ECB again this week to discuss travel to Australia, a country that is behind the rest of the developed world on its vaccine rollout and is largely back in lockdown. Having spent much of the past 15 months in bubbles of varying degrees of stringency, England players are extremely weary of being confined to their hotels.
Jos Buttler, whose wife is set to give birth to their second child next month, told the Sunday Times this week that he could miss the tour.
"One of the challenges is working out where the line is where you say I can't do that," he said. "I've sacrificed a lot for cricket and my wife and family have sacrificed a lot.
"You have to be open to saying no. 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."
Buttler is one of a growing number of players (approaching double figures) who would be highly unlikely to tour under current suggestions. They would make up the core of the England team, and are mostly those with young families.
That raises the possibility that England could take a severely weakened squad to play a series regarded by many fans as the most important in the calendar.
Even with the Australia side in a mild state of turmoil over the position of coach Justin Langer, England would appear to be on a doomed mission. With the best available side, they have lost the past two series Down Under 5-0 and 4-0.
Many players would prefer for the blue riband series to be delayed by a year, but that seems highly unlikely. Not only do the Australian government not want to be the leadership that cancel the Ashes, but the ECB do not want to be the board that heavily disrupt the cricketing calendar and leave their Australian counterparts in the lurch.
There is also a sense at ECB that they owe Australia, who were one of four teams — the West Indies (men and women), Pakistan and Ireland were the others — to tour this country in biosecure bubbles last summer, saving the English game from financial ruin.
It seems certain that the Australian government will cede ground, allowing England players' families to enter the country, but whether that is enough to persuade players to tour this winter is not clear.
Quarantine on entry to Australia — a requirement for all travellers for the past 18 months — is a major sticking point. That the touring party, including families, will need to quarantine is certain, it is just a question of whether that will be a "hard quarantine" (confined purely to a hotel room for a fortnight) or "soft", which would allow some mixing within the bubble.
But that would be unlikely to work for players whose families contain school age children, as much of the holiday period around Christmas would be spent in quarantine.