SYDNEY (Reuters) – Cricket Australia are still planning for the five Ashes tests to be played in front of crowds at the scheduled venues around the end of the year despite the challenges presented by third wave of COVID-19 infections in the country.

Chief executive Nick Hockley told local media on Wednesday that rising vaccination rates in Australia gave him “a degree of optimism” that the lucrative series against England would go ahead as planned, starting in Brisbane on Dec. 8.

Melbourne and Sydney, venues for the third and fourth tests in late December and early January, are currently in lockdown as health officials battle to suppress the Delta variant of the virus while the vaccine rollout continues.

Hockley said that he had learned from the last 18 months that agility was the watchword when planning cricket tours during the global health crisis but that shifting matches to other venues would be a last resort.

“At the moment, based on vaccination rates, we’re very hopeful we’ll be able to have crowds in Melbourne and Sydney,” Hockley said.

“The Ashes is so big, every test has its own unique character, in the first instance we’ll be doing everything we possibly can to play the schedule as planned and very hopeful and optimistic that we will have crowds.

“We’ve got a range of protocols that fit any given circumstance and we’ll react accordingly. I think it’s too early to tell.”

British media reports have suggested that some England players would pull out of the tour if they were unable to bring their families with them because of Australian border controls.

Hockley said he had a great deal of empathy for international cricketers, many of whom have spent much of the last 18 months in biosecure bubbles, and was talking to the government about finding a solution.

“We’re working sensitively and constructively with governments to try and put in the best possible plans for players and support staff for both the England squad and our own squad,” he added.

“Both us and the (England and Wales Cricket Board) want to absolutely field our best possible teams with optimal conditions for them to compete at their absolute best in what is ultimately the biggest stage in world cricket.”

Australia’s one-off test against Afghanistan in Hobart in late November is also in some doubt following the Taliban’s return to power in the central Asian country.

Tasmania State Premier Peter Gutwein expressed concerns this week about the match going ahead given the doubts about the future of women’s cricket in Afghanistan.

“We don’t have all the answers right now and there’ll be a number of discussions over coming weeks with the ICC but also with the Australian government to understand what’s most appropriate in relation to the test match,” Hockley said.

(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford)

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