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Players question UK government furlough rules after being told not to train

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Furloughed county cricketers have been left frustrated by the specifics of the UK government’s job retention scheme, having been advised by their counties that they should not use net facilities at local clubs despite the fact recreational players are now allowed to.

All but two of the 18 first-class counties – Lancashire and Surrey are the exceptions – have made use of the job retention scheme to furlough their players, whereby the government pays an employee’s wages when an employer’s business has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ECB issued guidelines two weeks ago permitting recreational cricketers to return to the nets providing they follow a series of health protocols including maintaining social distancing, but counties have warned their professionals that they should not follow suit while they remain furloughed.

Under the terms of the scheme, employees are not allowed to do “any works that [either] makes money for your organisation… or provides services for your organisation,” but are permitted to “take part in training”. But it is understood that because the term “training” is considered to take on a different meaning within elite sport when compared with an office setting, counties have their hands tied.

Gloucestershire players Ryan Higgins and Ian Cockbain both expressed their confusion about the situation via Twitter on Friday. “Why can’t we train only for the love of the sport? Baffles me,” Higgins said, while Cockbain suggested that players training should not be considered to be different from employees in other sectors furthering their skills through studying or taking exams.

Higgins told ESPNcricinfo that he had asked the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA) for clarification but had been left with the impression that the issue was a “grey area”. A PCA spokesperson said: “We totally understand the frustration this is causing players and we are speaking to the ECB around some clearer directives”.

The Daily Mail reported this week that rugby union clubs had been told by HMRC on Thursday that they would be able to bring players back into a formalised training setting while they remained on the furlough scheme, but ESPNcricinfo understands that the ECB has not received any such guidance.

As things stand, counties are planning to take their players off furlough around four weeks before the start of whatever season is possible, with the start date currently pencilled in as August 1, and the ability to bring players back into training without taking them off the scheme would provide a significant financial boost to the county game.

The frustration for county players will be felt particularly keenly after England named a 55-man training squad on Friday, which will see those involved taken off furlough before they resume.

An HMRC spokesperson said: “Our guidance is clear that furloughed employees can engage in training. But they must not do anything to provide services to, or make money for, their employer or a company linked or associated to their employer.”



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Ben Stokes promises to take ‘positive route’ as England captaincy looms

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There have been times in Ben Stokes’ career – you know the times; we don’t need to rehash them here – when the captaincy of England seemed a distant dream.

So it is a reflection of how much he has matured as a cricketer and a man that he seems the obvious choice now. With Joe Root expected to miss one of the Tests against West Indies to attend the birth of his second child – the need to self-isolate for a week before returning to the team environment will extend his absence – Stokes, the side’s vice-captain, is set to step up. At some stage in the next couple of weeks, probably in Southampton for the first match of the series, Stokes is likely to become England’s 81st Test captain.

While his experience is extremely limited – he captained Durham Academy in three matches in 2008; he’s never done it in first-class, List A or T20 cricket and says the job as “never been a goal” – he is the natural choice. Already a leader in the dressing room, he has the complete respect of his team-mates, an understanding of the culture of the side and no long-term designs on the job. Root can, therefore, go away safe in the knowledge that his team will be in safe hands in every way.

Perhaps, were this a long-term appointment, there may be concerns. The media obligations, the meetings, the mental burden of planning, managing and worrying for 10 others can start to weigh on even the most enthusiastic captains.

Certainly that seemed to be the case when Sir Ian Botham, the man who perhaps most resembles Stokes as a cricketer, was appointed in 1980. England won none of the 12 Tests in which Botham was captain and, during that period, he averaged 13.14 with the bat and 33.08 with the ball. To be fair to Botham, nine of those Tests were against an outrageously good West Indies team. In retrospect, drawing six of those matches doesn’t look such a bad effort.

Either way, this is not a long-term appointment. It is likely to last, at this stage at least, just one game. Stokes’ shoulders should be plenty broad enough to carry the burden for a few days. There is no other option that can, at this stage, be considered an automatic selection for every game (James Anderson and Stuart Broad could well be rotated this summer; Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali are fighting for their places) or possessing the requisite experience. In a year or two’s time, Rory Burns may come into the equation in such situations.

With the bat, Stokes’ role will remain just about the same. In recent times, as he has evolved from a dangerous batsman into a consistent one, he has tended to build his innings in fairly traditional fashion. Yes, he has another gear that few can emulate. But the basic role of a batsman – clearing their head and focusing on the next ball – will remain. An England batting line-up missing Root needs Stokes’ runs more than anything else he can contribute.

It’s in the field where Stokes’ role may change. Root has tended to use him as something of a last-resort bowler; the man he turns to when the pitch is flat, the ball old and the opposition set.

He’s a better, more versatile bowler than that, though. Whether the situation requires him to find swing or test the batsmen with the short ball, he has the weapons to prosper and may operate in a more conventional third- or fourth-seamer role.

He laughed off the suggestion that he could over-bowl himself. Initially, at least. “If it is flat, I will throw the ball to Jofra, Jimmy and Broady and say ‘here you go’,” Stokes said.

But the opposite is probably true. It may be in those moments, when the pitch is at its flattest, that Stokes is most prone to take on too much responsibility and over-bowl himself. Andrew Flintoff did something similar at Lord’s in 2006 when he hurled himself through 68.3 overs (51 of them in the second innings) and rarely looked as potent again. In those moments, it will fall to England’s other senior players, the likes of Broad and Buttler, to have a quiet word.

There may be a perception that they will need to step in if Stokes starts to lose his cool, too, but that seems unlikely. While Stokes has not been short of a jibe to an opposition player, he is, at this stage of his career, very much in control of his emotions.

Perhaps the least surprising aspect of all this is Stokes’ promise to “always” take the “positive route”. At one stage on Monday, he joked he would be the sort of captain to employ “nine slips and a gully” – a novel solution to England’s wicketkeeping uncertainty – but he also acknowledged both his own experience (he has played 63 Tests now; that’s 11 more than Sir Don Bradman) and the experience within his team. He won’t be short of advice if required.

“I’ve been a senior player in the team since 2016,” Stokes said. “Being able to learn from Alastair Cook and Rooty in different situations has rubbed off on me.

“At the same time, we’ve got some really experienced guys. I’d like to think that I’ll be quite an open captain. I wouldn’t want to think that my way is the only way. There are 11 guys out on the field, so why not get 10 other opinions?

ALSO READ: England to pick strongest XI despite rotation plans

“I guess I’ll have to be a bit more mindful if I am the one making the decision about how much I bowl. If I am bowling well, Rooty doesn’t just say ‘keep going’. He says ‘one more’. And he will say that for another four or five overs.

“But I have been in so many different situations on the field that I can relate back to. And I can ask ‘what would Joe expect me to do in this situation?'”

The toughest aspect for Stokes may simply be retaining focus in the field. His catching ability is a crucial asset for England, so being able to compartmentalise the concentration required for that alongside planning for the next bowling change could be demanding.

“I always try to set the example in terms of attitude and commitment,” he said. “Having the added responsibility of being a captain also comes with pressure, in terms of making decisions through tough periods of the game.

“But that’s not going to change the way that I go about things. I’ll try to make a positive impact with the ball or bat in my hand. No matter what I do, it will always be the positive route.

“I’ve never set a goal out to be a captain. Alastair Cook was always destined to be England captain after Andrew Strauss. Root was always destined to be captain after Cook. I’m not one of those people you would necessarily think of as the next England captain

“But it’s a huge honour. Even if it’s only the once you can still say ‘yeah, I’ve captained England’. So I’m really looking forward to it if the opportunity presents itself. But I know I’m only stepping in for one game because of Joe’s personal situation.”

There’s a symbolic aspect to all this, too. Stokes admits in his most recent book, On Fire, that losing the vice-captaincy was the most painful of all the sanctions he faced after the incident in Bristol. This promotion to the captaincy cements the impression that he has not just won back the trust of the team management; he is seen as a role-model, an inspiration and a leader. He is a top player at the peak of his powers. There’s no reason to think he won’t cope.



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Jermaine Blackwood keen to prove himself against England attack

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Jermaine Blackwood believes he has something to prove against the world’s leading bowlers, should he find himself back in West Indies’ line-up for the upcoming Test series against England.

A measured 112 not out against England in April 2015, in just his sixth Test, remains Blackwood’s only international three-figure score. Having been dropped two-and-a-half years after that century in Antigua, he was a concussion substitute last August and regained his place in the Test squad to tour England after topping the run-charts in the Caribbean’s domestic four-day competition.

Earlier this month, Blackwood told ESPNcricinfo his “new way going forward” was to “bat as long as possible”. Now that he is in a position to make the XI for the first Test at the Ageas Bowl on July 8, Blackwood said that remained the plan, rather than going gung-ho from the off.

ALSO READ: West Indies to wear Black Lives Matter logo

“Over the years people have got the wrong impression about me, like I’m a ball-beater or whatever,” Blackwood told the Press Association after the first day of West Indies’ four-day intra-squad warm-up match at Emirates Old Trafford was washed out on Monday.

“But it’s just natural for me, I’m from the Caribbean, it’s only natural for me to score runs. I want to add a little bit more to my game and bat time. I’m really pushing hard for that and I’m really putting the mental work as well in to bat time. Once I bat time, I will score runs.

“It’s been two-and-a-half years that I’ve been out of the Test team. This opportunity has come out and I have to grab it with both hands. I have something to go out there and prove against all the best bowlers in the world, I want to score runs against them.”

Blackwood’s ton came against an attack featuring James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes, a trio who will almost certainly line up for England in Southampton.

A career average of 30.26 in 28 Tests swells to 55.33 in six matches against England, so it is little wonder Blackwood is relishing the chance to face the same opposition.

“I always love to play against England because they are one of the best teams in the world and they have one of the best attacks in the world as well,” Blackwood said.

“Anderson and Broad are two world-class bowlers so whenever I get the chance, once I bat some time against them I know I will score runs. They are wonderful bowlers but once I can wear them down and let them bowl spell after spell, that is going to be the key thing for me in this series.”

Blackwood made 3 and 15 in West Indies’ first intra-squad warm-up last week and his hopes of pressing his claims in the second practice match were dented as intermittent showers conspired to frustrate the squad’s preparations. The match represents the final chance for those on the fringes of the side to push their case for the first Test.

Whereas the first practice game between Kraigg Brathwaite’s XI and Jason Holder’s XI was played out amid a heatwave last week, several downpours and a strong gust were the order on a dreary Monday in Manchester.

Any prospect of play was officially ended just before 3pm and it is understood that the idea to award the match first-class status has been scrapped, potentially allowing all 25 members of the squad to feature at some point.

The initial team-sheet was missing wicketkeeper-batsman Shane Dowrich , who hurt his side in the first warm-up match, and fast bowlers Oshane Thomas and Keon Harding, but there is now no reason why any of the trio should be ruled out of contention altogether. Harding suffered a facial cut when he was struck while attempting to field the ball during that earlier game.

West Indies have announced that a Black Lives Matter logo will be displayed on their shirts in the series against England but, for this contest, they will line up in the maroon and navy training kit they wore last week.



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County cricket to return from August 1, but formats remain to be decided

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The ECB has confirmed that the delayed 2020 county season will get underway on August 1. However, there is still no update on the status of the recreational game in England and Wales, despite reports that the government was preparing to give the sport the go-ahead for a return in early July.

As yet, there is no confirmation of which formats will be played in the truncated county season. With the Vitality Blast sure to be restored as the most financially important form of domestic cricket, the first-class counties were recently split 14-4 as to whether to play Championship or 50-over cricket as well, and a revised fixture list will be released following a meeting in early July.

“It is a significant step for our game that we are able to approve the start of the men’s domestic season for 1 August and one which will be welcomed by everyone connected with County Cricket,” said Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive.

“It follows extensive consultation between the 18 First-Class Counties, the Professionals Cricketers’ Association and ECB and has only been achievable thanks to the significant hard work that continues to occur as we prepare for a domestic season unlike any the game has faced before.”

Harrison added that the first priority throughout the discussions had been the “safety of our players, staff and officials”, and that government guidance would “continue to shape our planning and preparation”.

The ECB have also committed to ensuring that some form of women’s domestic cricket is able to take place this summer in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic, but added that it “may differ from the planned rollout of the new women’s elite domestic structure”.

ALSO READ: ‘Clubs are desperate for cricket, just to stay alive’ – Mark Wood

Last week, 25 domestic retainers were announced across the eight regions that comprise the new-look women’s domestic scene.

The first season of the Women’s Hundred has already been postponed until 2021, but subject to a final decision on recreational cricket from the UK Government, the Vitality Women’s T20 County Cup could still form part of the 2020 calendar.

“Planning for the return of the women’s domestic game remains ongoing, but our commitment to women’s domestic cricket is unwavering and we look forward to sharing further news shortly,” said Harrison.

“Our strong preference is that the women’s new elite domestic structure starts this summer and we will work hard to ensure that happens. For this to be achieved, brand new infrastructure still needs to be rolled-out, alongside imperatives we need in place when playing competitive cricket during a pandemic.

“Our first choice remains to do everything we can to start this year and build on the fantastic momentum in the women’s game. In the event that proves impossible, we will explore other options for play to enable our women’s players to enjoy competitive domestic cricket in 2020.

“We will continue to work closely with both the men’s and women’s domestic game to ensure necessary safety measures are in place to protect the wellbeing of everyone involved.”

The ECB remain optimistic of confirming the return of recreational cricket in the near future, in the wake of comments from the prime minister, Boris Johnson, that a cricket ball is a “natural vector of disease”.



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