As the Sydney Ashes Test rolls to the start line, the conversations about selections and form and conditions do not really matter. What matters is that it is miraculous this match is going ahead.
England have almost an entire coaching staff wiped out by Covid. Australia have lost their Brisbane century-maker Travis Head, with three players named as cover. The Cricket Australia chief executive, Nick Hockley, is out and Glenn McGrath will miss at least part of his foundation’s fundraising efforts. In Australian domestic cricket, Big Bash teams are losing quorum to the virus. Yet the show will go on.
Sydney is complicated, a town built on blood and corruption from the first days of its colonial founding. It is beautiful, with a beauty bought by wealth and subsidised by poverty. When you walk its hills at night it can be disarmingly gentle, the humid air curling around you, distant lights on quiet streets, the leaves of the Moreton Bay fig trees or the white-gold petals of frangipani unbearably lush.
The harbour unwinds through the city’s core, unspooling in all directions, those waters captured in the words of Kenneth Slessor. To the east is the ocean coast and its storied beaches. To the west it becomes another city, growing ever outwards.
In the past year, Sydney has also become the centre of Australia’s viral explosion. By now nobody can remember which wave this is, but a country that successfully held back a global inundation for nearly two years has now given in. Political leaders have sold the idea of a harmless variant and the fantasy that everybody getting sick and getting better will mean an end rather than just another waypoint on a road that has miles to run.
For those in countries that have suffered worse and earlier, Australia’s situation may seem tame in comparison. But there has been an abdication of responsibility, leaving people to fend for themselves.
It is in Sydney, as cases leap by the day and as leaders find ways to stop counting, that the fourth Ashes Test will be held. It is safe to say that had this series been played at any other time in the pandemic era, in any other country, between any other two teams, it would have been called off by now.
England left South Africa in 2020 after one positive test from a worker at the team hotel. Australia gave South Africa an escalating list of demands in 2021 and still refused to tour. India left England early last September when the coach and a physio were infected. The suggestion above is not hypothetical.
And yet, this is the Ashes, the main source of revenue for the two boards involved. England’s authorities gain nothing directly from a series played in Australia, but need the reciprocal goodwill to make sure Australia’s touring commitments in the other direction go unaffected.
CA’s entire financial existence hinges on the quadrennial infusion from this tour, with broadcast deals in particular based on the popularity of even a one-sided contest. Ultimately it will not matter which players are available or where matches are played, as long as they are on television screens in sufficient quantity to meet the contract.
There will be plenty of ticket revenue too, thanks to a New South Wales government that could most charitably be described as laissez-faire in its public health approach. Under current rules there will be no crowd caps, no requirement to wear masks aside from a few indoor areas, and no check-in required with the government app, which presumably means vaccination certificates will not be checked on entry. A large attendance is expected.
So England’s players turn out for the crowd again, despite a week of shambolic preparation and the barrage of distraction from the situation they are in, with a team unchanged bar one bowling selection from the surrender in Melbourne.
In fairness, there is little else on the selection front that could be done. The bigger question is how they can possibly find some confidence or motivation to tackle the rest of this series, rather than simply hoping to get it over with.
The Australians in contrast should be less affected, coming into the fourth Test with the buoyancy of the first three when almost every move has paid off. Aside from replacing Head for one match, that team will be unchanged from a position of strength rather than weakness, with Scott Boland retained after his dramatic debut with the ball at the MCG.
Ultimately, the Test will be seen as sport fulfilling its purpose as a means of distraction for people who want to stop thinking about problems outside the ground. Sport is always more than that, inextricably part of its wider world, and this match cannot be divorced from its context. It should be seen, too, for illustrating the way cricket’s richest countries treat each other, as opposed to those outside their tiny club.
But it is happening. Sydney is, most of all, a town of glitz and cash, where success matters more than how it is achieved. The show will always go on.