The world of sport, which got a fillip with the resumption of, among others, major football tournaments La Liga and Premiership League, hit a major hurdle last week to throw administrators, players and fans into despair.
The coronavirus, unsparing in its character and contagiousness, showed up starkly in tennis and cricket, leading to much dismay about how the second half of the year, which had looked so promising for sport a week back, would now play out.
World Number 1 tennis player Novak Djokovic’s misadventure with a charity event was the big blow which brought this to the forefront. The Serbian star had cocked a snook at those who advised him against hosting this exhibition tie, the outcome of which was that four players ended up testing positive for COVID-19.
One of these was Djokovic himself. The other three were Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki, who tested positive before the world No.1 and wife Jelena too joined the list of COVID-19 victims, reducing the exhibition event into a disaster.
Djokovic is a disbeliever in conventional medical pedagogy (he is opposed to vaccines, for instance) and probably thought that athletes in prime physical condition would not be susceptible to the virus which is why he went ahead with the charity tournament.
It blew up in his face. The only relief for the tennis ace and his wife was that their children tested negative: small consolation for a man who had countered all arguments against hosting the tournament with smug bravado.
While Djokovic was contrite and apologised to all concerned, the damage had been done. More than just the tournament being disrupted was the impact this episode had on tennis (and other sports) as the world battles to emerge from the pandemic.
It almost certainly has alarmed the tennis world about the feasibility of ‘opening up’ so early. That four players became victims was both a rude shock and reminder that COVID-19 can’t be messed around with. Apart from the administrators, what’s perhaps more pertinent is how players themselves will react.
So far, there’s been nothing encouraging for Djokovic from the fraternity, which suggests that the players themselves – quite a few of who had got into training mode – are nonplussed, alarmed, fearful or all three.
Tennis is not the only sport where things have gone awry where COVID-19 is concerned. The Pakistan cricket team, which flies to England on Sunday for Tests and limited overs contests, has had 10 players testing positive for the virus before the squad assembled for departure.
Initially three players – Haider Ali, Haris Rauf and Shadab Khan – were found to be afflicted by the virus. This was a big and unexpected setback, but the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse the next day.
Seven more players – Fakhar Zaman, Imran Khan, Kashif Bhatti, Mohammad Hafeez, Mohammad Hasnain, Mohammad Rizwan and Wahab Riaz – also tested positive in this round to send alarm bells ringing from Lahore to London.
In a bizarre turn of events, veteran batsman and former captain Mohammed Hafeez went and got himself (and his family) tested for COVID-19 privately the following day. Interestingly, in this test, the results turned out negative!
Clearly Hafeez wasn’t convinced about the testing facilities of the Pakistan Cricket Board, which reacted strongly to the player not only bypassing the PCB’s procedure, but also leaking the results of the test to the media.
Nevertheless, what is germane to the issue is not whether Hafeez will find favour to go on tour (if he recovers in time), but that so many players should have tested positive. None of the 10 players had shown any symptoms before the mandatory testing was done.
All of them are now in isolation and will have to through another test after the quarantine period is completed. However, this episode has put selectors, coach, captain and other Pakistan players under duress as also the host England Cricket Board, and England cricketers who are likely to play against the visiting team.
Of course, no effort has been spared in putting safeguards in place. All visiting players have to be COVID-19 free when they land in England where they will go through some more rounds of testing before being allowed to play.
The West Indies team which is already in England, was tested before taking the flight from the Caribbean and after landing in London. Thankfully all tested negative. Even so, they were quarantined, as is the required procedure.
In the quarantine period, the visiting team will be allowed to practice and closely monitored. The Pakistan team, for instance, will spend 14 days in Derbyshire, and after a final round of health clearances, the international matches will be played in a bio-secure environment.
Hopefully, the cricket series’ in England featuring West Indies and Pakistan will be completed without setback. But the message for the sports world from corona virus is loud and unmistakable.
‘I’m still around. Don’t be cavalier with me!’
The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.