Pakistani cricketers Sarfaraz Ahmed (L), and Asad Shafiq, who are part of the cricket squad that left for England tour without 10 players who have tested positive for COVID-19
Pakistani cricketers Sarfaraz Ahmed (L), and Asad Shafiq, who are part of the cricket squad that left for England tour without 10 players who have tested positive for COVID-19

In less than a week, international cricket resumes with the first Test between England and West Indies at Southampton. The world waits with bated breath to see how things unravel.

After this 3-match series ends, another one starts, between England and Pakistan at the end of this month, extending to the end of August. This eight-week period is arguably the most defining in the history of the sport and harbinger of what the post-COVID world holds.

All matches in both series – Tests and limited overs – will be played in a ‘bio secure’ environment. What this means is that apart from regular tests on players, support staff for the virus, other health protocols as decided by the ICC will also be in place.

Of these, the most severe is that no spectators will be allowed into the grounds.

There has been unending debate on whether keeping spectators out of sports arenas is the best solution. Does it not rob sport of flavour and fervour, will it not affect motivation of players, diminish the tempo of play, and make the contest mundane?

But what’s the choice given the terribly vagrant nature of COVID-19 which spreads with alarming swiftness and can have a devastating effect on its victims? All sports bodies are custodians of the well-being of players, support staff, fans et al and wouldn’t want to take more chance than is absolutely essential to afford play.

Moreover, no country where sports events are going to take place will permit anything that can jeopardise health care protocols put in place. Not all governments have come out shining in this pandemic, but there isn’t one which will put its credentials to such risk.

The only way sports engagement is possible currently is to avoid possible community spreading of the virus. Football matches in La Liga and Premier League have managed this successfully so far, which is what is inspiring other sports bodies to take the leap of faith, too.

On the other hand, the ill-fated tennis Adria Tour organised by Novak Djokovic, as mentioned last week, turned out to be a rank disaster because all caution was thrown to the winds. Players mixed with fans, partied among themselves and other people, leading to a rash of COVID-19 positive cases including Djokovic himself!

This was a serious reminder that it is foolhardy to underestimate the threat of the coronavirus. If anything, the precautions have to get more detailed and stiffer. All sports bodies undoubtedly have gotten into renewed discussions on how to maintain medical sanctity in these times.

The challenge for cricket is even more stringent because of the nature of the sport, particularly with regard to the ball. Bowlers have always used spittle to tamper with the ball for assistance. In compliance with health safeguards, this is now banned. Whether cricketers can break a lifelong habit is the question.

Like the concussion substitute instituted last year, regulations now also permit substitution in case a player contracts the coronavirus. This had to be incorporated given how easily human beings have fallen prey to the disease. But what happens if say 6-7 players fall ill?

Given the contagious nature of COVID-19, this is not inconceivable. That would be disastrous, not just for the series under discussion, but for cricket to resume in full measure in the near future. Cricket administrators, players and fans will be hoping that nothing goes amiss.

There have been some bumps along the way for sure. This was perhaps inevitable given the nature of the virus and the pandemic that hit the globe. For instance, three West Indies players, certainties for the tour, pulled out because of the COVID-19 threat.

This earned them both sympathy and opprobrium. Several players across the world were in support and the West Indies Cricket Board said that no action will be taken against them for not being on the flight to England. There were others, however, who believed they should have gone.

Former West Indies captain Clive Lloyd, for one, thinks this was an opportunity missed by these players to support the West Indies and cricket. He said their right to take an independent decision in these excruciating circumstances was absolute, but with so many others willing to tour, they could have been more amenable.

Another episode concerning the England tour involved players from Pakistan who tested positive for COVID-19 barely a week before they were to leave. However, this acquired a farcical dimension with former captain Mohammad Hafeez’s unseemly jousts with the Pakistan Cricket Board.

Hafeez was among 10 Pakistan players who tested positive. He then got himself (and his family) tested privately. The result was negative, which he announced on social media to the chagrin of the PCB, who put Hafeez through another test where he tested positive again.

I wrote about this in my last column when Hafeez’s fate was still to be decided. In the week since, he went through another test under PCB’s scrutiny, was found to be negative and Hafeez is now on the tour of England, having slain the virus not once, but twice over!

The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.

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