England fight for India to return after Test called off amid Covid outbreak

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

English cricket will fight to ensure India return for a one-off Test match that averts a £40m financial black hole after the series finale in Manchester was called off at the 11th hour in response to a Covid-19 outbreak among the tourists.

Senior officials at the England and Wales Cricket Board were privately fuming at the decision by India’s players to call off the much-anticipated fifth Test less than two hours before the toss, with nearly 90,000 ticket-holders now due a refund and the result of the series set to be decided by the International Cricket Council.

Related: India reacts with stunned silence as final Test against England is called off

It followed a fourth member of the Indian support staff testing positive for Covid-19 on Wednesday night, news of which left their players unwilling to take the field on Friday morning despite clearing an emergency round of PCR Tests and the fact that, sitting 2-1 up, they could secure their first series win in England since 2007.

They argued that, with physio Yogesh Parmar the latest case, and having treated a number of injured players, proceeding risked further spread of the virus. In turn this could have affected their ability to travel on to play in the Indian Premier League that resumes in the United Arab Emirates on 19 September.

“It’s a really sad day. My heart goes out to fans. We’re absolutely gutted,” said Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive. “There are no winners in this scenario, it’s just a really, really sad day for Test cricket, globally.” Asked if the fifth Test would have gone ahead without the IPL looming, Harrison replied: “Let me be super clear, I don’t think the IPL has anything to do with this. This is not a situation which has been created by the rescheduled IPL. I fundamentally do not believe that for a second.”

This forthright answer was in keeping with a briefing that saw Harrison unwilling to publicly apportion blame. But it also came amid a difference of opinion between the two boards over the precise cause of a cancellation that left Lancashire’s chief executive, Daniel Gidney, fearing a “seven-figure” loss for the county.

Related: England v India fifth Test called off after Covid cases – live reaction

India were keen to stress this was due to Covid-19, something which would see the match officially abandoned under the ICC’s regulations for the World Test Championship. Harrison however said it was a result of “serious concerns over the mental health and wellbeing of one of the teams” and this, in fact, differs from a cancellation caused directly by the virus.

This semantic argument appears to stem from the ECB’s desire to seek an insurance payout for the estimated £10m in lost ticket sales and hospitality – the belief is that a Covid-19 outbreak would not see this covered – and, in terms of the result of the match also, this belief is underpinned by all 20 Indian squad players testing negative on the eve of the match.

Either way, it is clear the ECB intends to hold its counterparts at the Board of Control for Cricket in India to their promise of a rescheduled Test – either a standalone fixture or the completion of this series – and possibly next year, when Virat Kohli’s team is visiting England for limited-overs cricket.

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Doing so would see the ECB avoid losing around £30m in broadcast money from Sky, BBC, Sony in India and other overseas rights holders. If not, a governing body that was hit with a £16.5m loss last year, and has seen reserves that sat as high as £73m in 2016 drop to just £2m, would be facing further financial hardship.

Behind the scenes there was frustration about India’s interpretation of the relaxed biosecurity rules in place this summer. Players were permitted to go out in public, provided they remained outdoors while socialising, but eyebrows were raised at Ravi Shastri, the first member of India’s support staff to test positive, and his players attending a book launch in London with 150 members of the public present. England privately claim they were told this was a team dinner.

Reduced beer prices as the Test is called off.
Reduced beer prices as the Test is called off. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Harrison refused to be drawn on this specific example – perhaps after attending himself, according to the Evening Standard – and defended the relaxation of last year’s stringent protocols due to mental health concerns. With this came an admission that too much international and domestic cricket is being scheduled, despite the ECB itself launching the Hundred this year and keeping the England men’s fixture list crammed.

India’s players similarly face a deluge of fixtures with this tour followed by the IPL, the T20 World Cup and a tour of New Zealand. They have been on the road since 16 May, when they first underwent a period of isolation in Mumbai before departing for the World Test Championship final against New Zealand in Southampton.

Related: So the blame game begins, but are India really the right target for your anger? | Andy Bull

While Shastri and two assistants tested positive last weekend during their 157-run win at the Oval, the first signs the fifth Test was in the balance emerged 24 hours before the toss. India’s pre-match training session and press conference were both cancelled and players confined to their rooms at Manchester’s Radisson Hotel pending the results from an emergency round of PCR tests.

When these came back negative the ECB briefed that the match would go ahead. However, India’s players mobilised that evening, telling the BCCI that further positives could not be ruled out and onward journeys could be jeopardised as a result. Those with IPL deals are now due to fly to the UAE on Saturday, with Moeen Ali, Sam Curran and Dawid Malan among the England contingent doing the same.

Dinesh Karthik, the former India wicketkeeper and Sky commentator who has a direct line to the Indian dressing room, said: “[India] have done a lot of work with that [physio] and now he tests positive. Now that is the problem.

“If it was someone else, someone working in logistics, they wouldn’t be this afraid. But when this person got it, that’s when they got the jitters.” There are echoes of England’s decision to postpone three ODIs against South Africa last December after a positive result for a member of staff at their hotel – someone who had been serving them – sent a surge of collective anxiety through the camp regarding their ability to join family at home or overseas for Christmas.

Back then players were not vaccinated (as is the case now), the matches were being played behind closed doors and South Africa’s squad had already experienced three positives in the preceding weeks. But it still set a precedent which has ultimately left the ECB scant room for complaint now a repeat of this situation has occurred on their doorstep.

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