England and the West Indies return to action at Emirates Old Trafford tomorrow (Thursday) for the second of their behind-closed-doors Tests, with the Manchester venue adapting to a new reality in which “everything has changed”.

The Ageas Bowl in Southampton hosted the first Test, a four-wicket win for the tourists, last week, with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) blazing the trail for the sport in terms of hosting internationals safely amid COVID-19.

The ECB chose Emirates Old Trafford and the Ageas Bowl to host the three-Test series back in June. The series was originally due to take place at Lord’s and The Kia Oval in London, and Edgbaston in Birmingham, from June 4-29 but was postponed due to the global pandemic. That left the ECB to reassess its options and the homes of Lancashire and Hampshire were chosen mainly due to the grounds featuring on-site hotels.

Emirates Old Trafford will host back-to-back Tests from July 16-20 and July 24-28. The venue had an earlier part in the planning as the West Indies squad arrived in the UK on June 9, travelling to Emirates Old Trafford for quarantining and training. This was their base for a three-week period before moving to the Ageas Bowl for the first Test.

International venues were encouraged to submit their expressions of interest in hosting rights based on several fundamental criteria. Venues had to demonstrate key principles to create a bio-secure environment, meeting key criteria covering biosecurity, medical screening/testing provision, social distancing and venue/cricket operations.

Regarding why Emirates Old Trafford was chosen, Angela Hodson, sales director at Lancashire Cricket, told TheStadiumBusiness.com: “We’re obviously very capable of delivering large events anyway, such as through the concerts we host where you’re talking about 60,000-plus people coming into the venue at any one time.

“Last year was a mega year in terms of The Ashes, Cricket World Cup and the domestic season we delivered as well. So, we’re a venue that’s got a lot of credibility in terms of delivering events that safely cater to vast numbers of people coming in.

“But in terms of the bio-secure environment, from a venue perspective we’ve got the Hilton Garden Inn Hotel on site with 150 bedrooms, which is a massive attribute to the venue because it means we can safely host people within this space.

“It’s a gated venue as well, while we have flexible event space. Because these rooms are so big, you can easily establish socially-distanced setups within them.

“It’s a 17-acre site, so we have lots of parking and external space in which we can set up safe areas and protocols. There’s a bridge linking the hotel and venue as well, which means you can easily move between the two.”

Emirates Old Trafford is receiving an administration fee for staging the Tests and all additional central costs are being met by the ECB. Ahead of the fixtures, the venue has been introducing additional safety protocols and procedures, including rigorous deep cleaning measures, providing PPE for all players and staff on-site, social distancing measures in place adhering to government guidelines and increased hand sanitisers at each touch point for all on-site.

Adaptation of Emirates Old Trafford has included conference and hospitality space The Point, which has been turned into an entertainment hub for those staying on site, offering the likes of golf simulators, table tennis and pool tables, basketball hoops, arcade machines and giant TV screens.

The whole process has been somewhat of a baptism of fire for Steve Davies, Lancashire Cricket’s new operations director, who only started in the role in April following a 15-year stint with visitor attraction company Merlin Entertainments.

Davies said: “Every sort of normal operating procedure that you take for granted has been changed, from how we serve food, how we get people into a bedroom, how we clean that bedroom, how we park a car. If you think about every sort of basic requirement, we’ve had to rethink that and almost start again.

“That’s come on the back of plenty of research. We started working on this in the first week of April, before the ECB even approached us about potentially doing it, just assuming that we might get the opportunity. We spoke to (football’s German) Bundesliga, and people across all industries, to find out what we can do.

“You come onto site now, and for those that have been before you know straightaway that it’s a safe environment. To get on-site you have to have had a COVID-19 test, and cleared that, you then get a health questionnaire by medics on site.

“You then get your temperature tested twice, before you even get into the hotel. You’re asked to park separately from everyone else, there’s sanitisers all the way around, plus PPE when you come into the hotel and conference space as well, and one-way systems.

“So almost everything you can possibly think of has changed and that’s been a massive challenge for us to do the groundwork and research. You can’t just tell people, ‘this is what we’re going to do’, and expect them to deliver. We have to make sure we’re risk assessing everything we’re doing.

“Somewhere in the region of 80 new risk assessments have been done. Every one of these needs a new SOP or NLP to go with it. Then we have to train and assess everybody to make sure they’re doing what they should be doing.”

A maximum of 300 people will be allowed on site at any one time during the Tests, including brief visitors such as delivery drivers, although this figure is not expected to be met. All visitors, except for brief visitors, will have to be COVID-19 tested and remain in their allotted zone, as Davies explains: “Essentially we have three zones, a ‘red’, ‘amber’ and ‘green’.

“We have a core group of individuals we allow into the green. For the Test match that’s the cricketers, the support staff, match officials and the media. This covers the hotel floor, pitch-side, the changing rooms and where they eat.

“Amber is everyone else, myself for example. We’re allowed on the periphery of all of that, but at no point should we cross over. Red is the outer zone. That’s where we don’t want anyone to access, so for example when we get a delivery, they’re allowed into the red zone to drop it off. We then sanitise the delivery and bring it on-site. On some occasions, we put a delivery, linen for example, into isolation for 72 hours.

“Within each zone, I think there’s a perception that everyone can roam freely, but that’s not the case. There’s a two-metre social distancing space in place. If you take the players for example, they’re having their meals sat separately, have their own hotel rooms and even within the changing rooms they have a bigger space than they would normally.”

Emirates Old Trafford and the Ageas Bowl have stepped into the unknown in terms of staging international cricket during a global pandemic. Regarding the challenges and problems leading into the Tests, Davies said: “With most things you do, whether that be a concert or a major conference or cricket match, you have a base of information.

“In this case you haven’t, so the hardest part is trying to assure yourself that what you’re doing isn’t only good enough, but I believe in our case, world-class. That’s done by looking at what other sectors or industries are doing, speaking to the guys at the Bundesliga.

“The ECB have been phenomenal throughout this, in my opinion. Clearly the team here are the experts in terms of putting on anything at Emirates Old Trafford, but what the ECB have done is provide us with medical expertise as well. We’ve then taken this a step further by bringing in an external health and safety expert to guide us, as well as other medical experts.

“The government guidance obviously helps. So, for everything that has happened, whether that be return to training for international cricketers or domestic and international cricket, the government has set out guidance, which deals with conferences and hotels as well.

“We take that and interpret it with experts. So, for cleaning, we’re asking how regularly, with what chemicals, what PPE needs to be worn etc.”

Check out TheStadiumBusiness.com tomorrow for more insight into Lancashire Cricket’s future event planning amid COVID-19, and the latest thinking behind how fans can be safely returned to venues.

Images: Lancashire Cricket