The England cricket team will fly home from South Africa this week, after their one-day tour was called off. The decision to cancel the tour was taken in consultation with the players, with give positive tests for Covid-19 occurring in the tour’s biosecure bubble in recent days.
The situation was causing concern and anxiety among the England tour party. Players and coaches were finding it hard to concentrate on playing cricket after those five positive tests, two of which were among the England party. Those two unnamed cases are believed to be a player and a coach.
Those two cases have subsequently tested negative for the virus, after test results were questioned by the England medical team. The two people have now been cleared of the need to self-isolate, and will return to the main tour party. The tour party has now been cleared to fly home to the UK on Thursday. The two individuals who tested positive will not now need to remain in self-isolation in South Africa until December 15, as was originally feared.
Players’ mental and physical health under pressure
A joint statement from Cricket South Africa and the England and Wales Cricket Board stated that the decision to cancel the tour was taken “to ensure the mental and physical health and welfare of players from both teams.”
Ashley Giles, the director of England Men’s Cricket, outlined that the tour party’s concerns and anxiety related to fears that the tour’s biosecure bubble was not as secure as thought. He said: “There’s clearly concern when infections spring up in what is a supposed to be a biosecure environment. It wasn’t one case. There were a couple of [hotel] staff members, a couple of South African players. That’s the bit that really affected our touring group.”
Anxiety and nervousness among the players appear to have been the primary concern among the group. Much of the anxiety is apparently exacerbated by the effects of having to stay in biosecure bubbles for such a long part of the year now.
That means that other scheduled tours now come under increased scrutiny. England’s Test Match squad is expected to visit Sri Lanka in January for two matches – a tour that was originally meant to take place in March 2020.
England are also scheduled to welcome India to UK shores to play four Tests, three one‑day internationals and five Twenty20s this summer. If players are struggling to cope with the mental demands placed on them now by biosecure bubble arrangements, then there is little hope that they mental health will remain intact for another nine months or so.
It is not just England’s trip to South Africa that has been affected. Australia are set to visit South Africa soon for a three-match Test series – that now looks to be in doubt. That tour is scheduled for February and March, and Cricket Australia remains committed to the tour for now.
But it follows soon after a trip by Sri Lanka to South Africa. Sri Lanka as a country is currently experiencing 3,600 new Covid-19 cases per day. Pakistan are currently touring New Zealand, and six players from their tour party have tested positive while in quarantine there.
English players Tom Curran and Tom Banton have also pulled out of the Australian Big Bash League (BBL) competition. Curran pulled out of the Sydney Sixes squad earlier this week, citing his fatigue at having spent five months of the year in biosecure bubbles. His decision followed that of Banton, who will not now be starring for the Brisbane Heat.
Biosecure bubbles are not sustainable
Covid-19 is clearly now having effects on cricket that go beyond simply having no spectators in the grounds and the logistical problems that the creation of biosecure bubbles entails. Just as in the wider pandemic, there is a cost to be paid in terms of mental health. Players are now isolated from families and friends in ways that are clearly not sustainable over the long term.
That puts future tours in doubt the longer the pandemic continues. Many in other sports will have been looking at the situation in cricket and wondering how it might affect them in the near future. Coping with the pandemic is not simply a case of making sure that games go ahead, just so that broadcasting deals can be honoured.
If the hopes for a vaccine for the virus do not produce the kind of outcomes we are all hoping for, cricket itineraries over the next couple of seasons may well need to be trimmed more extensively. We are definitely entering into a new sporting world in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. What cricket looks like when the pandemic is over will be interesting to see.