England in Sri Lanka to resume Covid-cancelled Test tour

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Joe Root's (C) men had the small airport in Mattala to themselves as Sri Lanka has closed its airspace to scheduled commercial airlines due to the pandemic

England's cricketers arrived in Sri Lanka Sunday to resume a Test tour cancelled in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, in what officials hope will be a "massive boost" for match-starved cricket fans.

A British Airways charter flight carrying 40 passengers -- players and support staff -- landed in Mattala, in the south of the Indian Ocean island, where they underwent virus tests.

Joe Root's men had the small airport to themselves as Sri Lanka has closed its airspace to scheduled commercial airlines. Only a handful of repatriation flights and charters are allowed into Sri Lanka since May under strict health controls.

"We are very excited about the Galle Tests," Root told a small group of cameramen allowed into the terminal for their arrival.

The England contingent were driven in busses to a nearby luxury hotel, officials said adding that a second hotel has been reserved to isolate and treat any of the visitors who may test positive for the virus.

However, a spokesman for the England team said Sunday's on-arrival tests returned negative, but players will isolate themselves in rooms before another round of testing on Tuesday.

"We will be tested again on Tuesday morning," the spokesman said. "If all tests return negative on Tuesday, we will be able to train Tuesday afternoon for the first time."

Airport staff in white hazmat suits sprayed the hands and footwear of the visitors and their luggage before they were allowed into the terminal for coronavirus tests.

Managing Director of England Men's Cricket, Ashley Giles, said the team looked forward to playing at the seaside Galle stadium adjoining a colonial-era fort.

"To play in Galle will be very special –- it is one of the iconic venues in world cricket," he said in a statement.

"The past 10 months have been uncertain for us all, but having international cricket returning to Sri Lanka will be a massive boost for cricket fans all over the world."

-Bat for charity-

The team will not interact with locals, but sign cricket bats which will be auctioned to raise money for two charities supporting victims of sexual violence in Sri Lanka, the British High Commission said.

Sri Lanka Cricket said the team's hotel in the island's southern district of Hambantota will be off limits for locals as part of quarantine regulations.

During the quarantine period, the England squad will split into two teams in order to play a practice match, a SLC official said.

The local board, meanwhile, confirmed that one if its employees had tested positive for the virus on Saturday, but his immediate contacts had not contracted the disease.

"Sri Lanka Cricket will continue to conduct its normal operations with the most essential staff present at the office, whilst the rest will work from home," the board said after the discovery of the infected staffer in Colombo.

The England team's aircraft was permitted to enter Sri Lanka despite a ban on all flights and passengers from the UK following the discovery of a new, infectious coronavirus strain.

The England cricket board confirmed their players and support staff had tested negative for the coronavirus prior to leaving too.

England abandoned their two-match Test tour of Sri Lanka in March on the second day of a practice match as the pandemic spread.

They will now play their two Tests starting on January 14 at the Galle stadium without any spectators.

Sri Lanka had just six reported cases when England pulled out in March, but the team returned to an island which now has over 44,000 infections and 211 deaths.

The World Health Organisation has said that a new strain found in Sweden and Denmark had entered Sri Lanka since mid September. The island began its second wave of infections from early October.

aj/nr