A fresh wave of Covid cases in South Australia has emerged as an even more serious threat to the Test series between India and Australia than Virat Kohli returning after the first Test to be with his wife when she delivers their first-born.
Kohli’s paternity leave has been the talking point in the past couple of weeks. This is a blow to India’s prospects and has also obviously not gone down well with the official broadcasters Down Under.
The fresh Covid threat could make debate over Kohli’s presence or not in the Test series superfluous. In fact, it puts a large and grim shadow on the series being played at all.
Cricket Australia has downplayed the threat, more in hope than conviction, that the current wave of cases will subside before the Test series starts in late December. Yet, the portents are ominous.
Inter-state movement to South Australia has virtually come to a standstill. Adelaide, where the first match of the series – a day/night, pink-ball affair – has been particularly badly hit.
This could make things difficult for the first Test, if not the entire series. Disruption to India’s tour would obviously be not only disappointing to fans, but also land Cricket Australia in a pickle where finances are concerned.
With cricket – like every other sport – badly hit by the corona pandemic -- It took a lot of give-and-take over a protracted period of time between Cricket Australia and the BCCI for this tour to materialise.
Facing a deep financial crisis, Cricket Australia finally agreed to forego hosting the T20 World Championship to accommodate the IPL, which was recently played in the UAE.
The ICC remained reluctant to cancel the T20WC till the very end. It took intense joint lobbying by the BCCI and CA (after it agreed to the IPL) being played or the ICC to relent.
The pre-condition for ensuring a window for the IPL was that India would undertake a `full’ tour of Australia – as was in the calendar before Covid-19 struck -- immediately after the IPL, to shore up CA’s dwindling finances.
This led to 4 ODIs, 3 T20s and 4 Tests being incorporated into a tour that became widely acknowledged as the most important in the cricket calendar for Season 2020-21.
What is not so widely known is that with the peril of Covid not completely mitigated and Australia governed by a strong federalism, where each state can decide independently on strategy to tackle the menace, a proposal to have all three series in the UAE was made.
According to a BCCI official who didn’t want to be identified, the proposal was shot down by Cricket Australia, which was keen to `bring home’ the action.
As it happens, the Covid situation Down Under is currently precarious. While there is no resurgence of cases in New South Wales, where the Indian team will play the ODIs starting November 25, worries about the Test series are multiplying.
Of the three rubbers, the Test series was seen as the most significant; in fact as the unofficial championship for top honours in the longest format even though India are currently placed at no. 3 in the ICC rankings, behind Australia and New Zealand.
Till late last season, India was at no. 1 before being humbled by New Zealand, much to the chagrin of fans in this country. The unexpected defeat allowed Australia and New Zealand to inch ahead of India.
Only two points separate Australia (116) and India (114). Interestingly, in the official Test Championship points, India are no. 1 (360 points) and Australia one place behind, with 296.
The fact that India beat Australia in the Test series when they toured Down Under last time (2018), adds a greater competitive dimension to this season’s contest.
In 2018, Australia were without stalwarts Steve Smith and David Warner, serving out their one-year ban for ball tampering. Also, Marnus Labuschagne was hardly the major batting talent he has emerged as in the last 18 months.
In a sense, this was billed as a revenge series for Australia, and for India, a series that would vindicate their status as the best side in the longest format too, having been no.1 for 36 consecutive months till March this year.
The fate of this series now hangs not so much on the talent and performance of players from the two teams, but the whims of a nasty virus that refuses to surrender.
The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.