Column | Cricket in the time of COVID-19

Muted celebration
England's acting captain Ben Stokes celebrates, right, after dismissing Jason Holder in the Southampton Test. AFP
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The COVID-19 pandemic that is sweeping across the world has brought life to a halt in many sectors, with sports and entertainment industries badly hit. The general consensus appeared to be that since the activities associated with these two categories are not vital for the survival of mankind, they could be placed on the back burner till the situation improved and pandemic was brought under control. However, the realisation that the battle with the virus would prove to a long drawn one prompted a rethink on the part of officials involved with conducting sporting events. It was this recognition of reality that sports should also adopt quickly to the “new normal” that led to resumption of Test match cricket, in England, recently.

There would not have been any shortage of sceptics and doomsayers when the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) announced a three-Test home series against the West Indies starting July 8. The series was originally slated to be held in the first half of summer in the months of May and June. However, the outbreak of the pandemic caused the series to be put on hold. The ECB initially announced that it would not be possible to start the series before May-end and subsequently extended that to the entire June as well. It was at this juncture when the tour appeared to be in jeopardy that the ECB and Cricket West Indies got together for discussions to salvage the tour and reschedule it rather than cancel it.

The outcome of the discussions was to play a three-Test series starting on July 8 in a bio-secure environment. This also required the touring side to reach England sufficiently in advance for undergoing the requisite period of quarantine. The probables for the host side had to be identified early so that they could start their fitness and training regime. The respective governments also chipped with the required approval for travel and conduct of the game, thus setting the stage for resumption of international cricket.

Holder leads from the front

Signs of nervousness and apprehension were evident in the body language of the West Indian players when they landed at Manchester airport on June 9. They were without three of their top players - Darren Bravo, Shimron Hetmyer and Keemo Paul - who pulled out, preferring the safety of their homes rather than risking travel and play during the time of pandemic. Jason Holder, skipper of the visitors, realised the momentous nature of the occasion and injected confidence all round with his statement that players were feeling secure and “people were crying out for cricket”. This helped to put everyone at ease and brought focus on the job of ensuring a safe start for the matches.

Memorable outing
Jason Holder, centre, led the West Indies to a famous win in the opening Test. AFP

The International Cricket Council (ICC) brought in some changes in the playing conditions to meet the needs of the times. They banned the practice of applying saliva on the ball to polish it, with a five-run penalty brought in place for transgressions. Relaxations were also made regarding the use of substitutes in case any player was detected as suffering from COVID-19 infection. The ICC also allowed home umpires to officiate matches, doing away with the requirement that officials should be from neutral countries. Provisions were also made for more references under the Decision Review System.

Challenge

A fresh challenge that came in the way of administrators was in organising practice matches for the two sides. Usually tours to England took place during the middle of the cricket season and visitors were slotted first-class games of three days duration against a couple of county sides, to help them get some practice and become familiar with the weather and ground conditions. As this was not possible due to stoppage of all forms of cricket, visitors were forced to form two teams from among their squad and play practice matches! The same norm applied to the host side as well. Thus, the players who lined up at the start of the first Test had played the game on the playing field for less than 10 days during this cricket season!

However, all this paled into insignificance when the Test started at Rose Bowl, Southampton, on July 8 before an empty stadium. England, despite the absence of skipper Joe Root, were very much the favourites as they were placed at No. 4 in ICC rankings in addition to enjoying the comforts of home conditions. West Indies, languishing at No. 8 in the pecking order in the longer version of the game, were not expected to throw any big challenge to the hosts. But the cricketers from Caribbean islands showed that they still packed a punch to pull off a surprise victory by four wickets. After intermittent rain had disrupted the game considerably on the first day and for a short period on the second, the visitors made full use of the conditions to restrict the hosts to a low first innings total of 204. West Indian batsmen applied themselves well to secure a lead of 114 runs in the first innings. England did better in their second essay and scored 313, thus leaving a target of 200, which the West Indies reached, losing six wickets, to seal a famous win.

The match produced many heroes from both sides. Skipper Holder who ran through the England side to take 6/42 in the first innings and Sharon Gabriel who picked up a total of nine scalps in the game conceding 137 runs were the champion performers with the ball for the winners, while Jermaine Blackwood, Shane Dowrich and Kraigg Braithwhite came good with the bat. For England, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley batted responsibly to score half-centuries in the second innings. Jofra Archer almost promised to do the star turn for the hosts with the ball when he reduced the West Indies to 27/3 in the second innings, besides sending off John Campbell with an injury but the visitors managed to recover, helped by numerous dropped catches. The game evolved into a match where fortunes swayed between the two sides on the last day, till the West Indies inched ahead to claim the honours.

Jofra Archer
Jofra Archer was dropped from the England team for the second Test after breaching bio-secure protocols. Reuters

Even as one was thinking that cricketers had mastered the art of playing the game during pandemic times and international cricket settled into the groove in this regard, came the surprise news about exclusion of Archer from the England side for the second Test on account of breach of bio-secure protocols. Archer had unwisely broken his journey between Southampton and Manchester to make a brief visit to his home at Brighton, which necessitated this action. Archer claimed that he was at his home for less than 60 minutes but came in contact with an unauthorised person, which was sufficient to be considered as a breach of protocol. Archer disclosed about his visit to a team attendant, who brought this to the notice of ECB and prompt action followed. The fast bowler was placed in isolation besides being dropped from the side for the game. He was also slapped with a fine and let off with a warning by the ECB.

Thus, the developments during the last 10 days give us a peep into how the game would be played during the days ahead, at least till the pandemic scare subsides. International sides will have to get used to playing before empty stadiums devoid of the roar of the crowd and away from the adulation of millions of fans. Players on their part would have to take special care to ensure complete compliance with regard to bio-secue protocols. In fact, these would become as important as the rules of conduct stipulated to prevent match-fixing and approaches by bookies.

On the whole the ECB deserves a pat on its back for walking the talk and showing the way that facing up to the challenges posed by the coronavirus with due precautions constitutes a better way to tackle the pandemic than stopping all activities related to the game.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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