International cricket is at the crossroads. One road leads to bilateral series that are important for television money and the inaugural World championships. The other to ‘bubble exhaustion’ and even COVID-19 infection.
England have called off their tour of South Africa half-way through following news of two of their own players (possibly) contracting COVID-19 to add to the two home players and a member of their hotel staff who had already done so.
England team director Ashley Giles said there were doubts about the bio-secure bubble from the start, thus raising the levels of anxiety in the team. There’s just so much golf you can play, just so much staring at the walls in your room that you can do, just so much disquiet you can handle.
International sport at the best of times causes anxiety and apprehension. Now there is the added fear of contracting a deadly virus far away from home and family. You can’t play cricket when your mind is on other things.
England had played host to the West Indies, Ireland, Pakistan and Australia in the summer without a single positive case of COVID-19. The South African doctor in the charge of his country’s bio-secure bubble, Dr Shuaib Manjra, has been quoted as saying that England’s cricket board created more of a ‘vacuum’ than a ‘bio-secure environment’, adding it was not financially or logistically possible to create such an environment elsewhere, especially since England had hotels attached to the venues of the matches. He might have put his finger on an important issue.
As the sporting lockdown is extended, it becomes increasingly difficult for young, fit, athletes to confine themselves to hotel rooms.
The bio-security breaches wherever they occur need to be studied so they are not repeated. From all accounts, South Africa were unhappy with England changing the venue of their nets, Pakistan might not have checked their own players well enough before departure from home, and earlier there were cases of players meeting those outside the bubble. It is costing cricket boards a small fortune to keep the players safe and to bring the matches to our television screens.
Three questions arise from the recent COVID-19 cases — six Pakistani players tested positive on their current tour of New Zealand, although subsequently the team has tested negative — and need to be addressed by the authorities.
One, how secure is bio-secure, and what are the lessons to learn from the English summer? Two, where will such issues leave the World championships in Test cricket as well as One-Day Internationals where points count towards identifying the finalists.
And three, with India hosting England for four Tests, three ODI and five T20I in February-March next year, what guarantees can the Board of Control for Cricket in India provide?
To take the last question first, the BCCI might point to the successful conduct of the IPL in the UAE where eight teams were involved in a 53-day tournament, and once it began, there were no casualties. India’s officials are in talks with England’s to persuade them that spreading the matches across the country is the way to go rather than playing at one or two centres. That might be a bit ambitious under the circumstances. Fewer centres mean fewer problems, but the BCCI might have too many officials and centres to satisfy.
There will be discussions about the imminent vaccines too, although it would be useful to remember what England’s captain Eoin Morgan has said — that cricketers should be at the back of the queue.
No country can afford to get it wrong. Already Sri Lanka and Australia, the two teams scheduled to tour South Africa next, are beginning to wonder if they ought to take the risk, even if the dates are a few weeks hence.
The BCCI will have to deal with yet another virus — its own insistence on hanging on to seats illegally. Senior officials beginning with the President have overstayed their welcome according to the original Supreme Court decision, but the matter is back in the Supreme Court for a ruling which is unlikely to come this year.
When decisions on tours have to be made quickly and decisively, will the office-bearers be able to look beyond personal issues and focus on the crucial matter of bio-security?
Taking a new look
As for the World Test Championship, the new chairman of the International Cricket Council, Greg Barclay has already said the whole plan will have to be looked at afresh after the final scheduled for June next year.
It is unlikely to be a satisfying finish to the first cycle, and the ICC will have to decide whether it is best to leave things as they are, or change the plan. So not really a crossroad, but a side road that needs attention too.