England women could follow men into training within weeks

ECB hopeful of England women's return to action this summer (1:33)

Clare Connor says the ECB are looking to go ahead with England women vs. India and South Africa (1:33)

England's women's squad could return to training within weeks in hopes of playing their international series against India and South Africa behind closed doors this season.

Clare Connor, the ECB's managing director of women's cricket, said a planned return of elite women's players was "hopefully just a few weeks away" following the same guidelines as the England men's squad, which has a group of 18 bowlers returning to individual training programmes at venues around the country on Thursday and Friday, with the batsmen returning to nets on June 1.

"The men are back to action in that individualised training environment this week," Connor told ESPNcricinfo. "They are obviously likely to play international cricket before England women this summer and that's why they're up and running first. We're aiming for in a few weeks' time, then we're hopeful of being able to deliver those same sort of protocols in terms of England women's return."

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Speaking during the launch of the ECB's "Together Through This Test" campaign, highlighting initiatives within the cricket community aimed at helping the nation through the Covid-19 public health crisis, Connor said she was hopeful England women could fulfill their international schedule behind closed doors.

Earlier this month, Connor conceded that men's international fixtures may need to be prioritised ahead of the women's this season as a result of the pandemic, with the ECB striving to avoid a projected £380 million deficit by meeting broadcast commitments on the more lucrative men's game. Addressing those demands means trying to cram as many international men's fixtures as possible into a condensed behind-closed-doors schedule at a finite number of grounds deemed 'bio-secure'.

"We are making progress all the time in terms of the whole schedule around England men and women and the whole behind-closed-doors project is going really well, working with government and other sports," Connor said on Thursday. "We're still hopeful of being able to deliver both England women's series against India and South Africa later on in the summer."

India women's tour of England, due to begin on June 25, has already been postponed, but two T20Is and four ODIs against South Africa remain on the calender for September, as planned. That raises the possibility of matches against India being added to those fixtures as part of a tri-series, which would help avert a situation whereby men's international fixtures are played and the women's are not.

"It's something we really, really are working very hard to avoid because of the momentum behind the women's game that we've created, the most recent example of that being nearly 90,000 people at the MCG for the T20 World Cup final back in March," Connor said. "We're desperately committed to being able to stage international women's cricket this summer."

Similarly, talks are continuing on whether a new regional women's domestic 50-over competition will go ahead as planned in September after the ECB earlier this week announced that 24 players would be paid a retainer while the awarding of 40 full-time domestic contracts was put on hold for now. The competition and contracts form part of a £20 million investment in women's and girls cricket by the ECB over the next two years.

Connor reiterated that those funds had not been ringfenced, given the dire financial circumstances the sport could find itself in, but she remained optimistic that the investment would be protected.

"I don't think that any organisation right now can absolutely ringfence anything," she said. "As a sport we are going to lose between £100m and £400m this year. Of all of the investments that we're making across cricket, I'm getting nothing but assurance that the women's and girls' strategy is at the very top of those lists of what needs protecting and that's really heartening."

The "Together Through This Test" campaign focuses on initiatives in areas such as physical and mental health, children and education, and connecting communities.

"We're acknowledging that in this period, or even in times of normality, sport is so important for the mental health of the nation and in keeping moral high," Connor said. "The role that sport can play in people's physical and mental wellbeing must never be underestimated.

"For people who are used to being very attached to their community cricket club, it's probably desperate for some of those people who may be more lonely than others and who aren't able to benefit from the camaraderie and the team spirit that cricket provides in the community."