The fifth and the last Test match between hosts England and visitors India was awaited by cricket lovers with much excitement with India taking an unbeatable 2-1 lead winning the fourth Test at the Oval, because the Indian fans wanted their team to seal the series win while the England fans wanted their team to bounce back and win the Test to share the final honours. All of them were in for a huge disappointment though. As soon as the junior physiotherapist of Team India tested COVID-19 positive on Thursday, the 9th of September 2012, a day before the fifth Test was to start at the Old Trafford, total and clueless uncertainty enveloped the match; head coach Ravi Shastri and possibly one or two members of the team management including the senior physio (not confirmed) were already in isolation testing positive before the fourth Test. The practice session for India on that day was cancelled.
Since a physiotherapist is obviously to get involved with the players ‘physically’ there were risks of players getting infected if the match was allowed to go on, and many cricket mandarins of India had the prospects of the IPL-2021 starting in nine days in their minds. Perhaps getting concerned for the health of the English players a few of whom are also going to play in the IPL to be followed by the ICC T20 World Cup, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) asked the Indian Board BCCI to forfeit the fifth match which meant that in that eventuality the Series would be considered as drawn at 2-2. It was also instinctive on their part as nobody would want their team give up, as it were, the Series without a fight. The two respective Boards got into a seemingly endless bout of deliberations with no communication to the players.
On Friday, the 10th of September 2021-the day the match was to start-the ECB changed its earlier statement slightly, now saying that India was unable to field a team due to the physiotherapist’s infection and that the match was cancelled. The Indian Board also said that fearing a rise in infections among the playing members the match had to be cancelled. Meanwhile all the Indian players were tested and found COVID negative. Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma reportedly objected to the match being called off; although some other report said that they secretly wrote to the BCCI expressing their concern of more infections, because they felt the present status of ‘COVID negative’ might easily change in the course of two or three days. Anyway, the Boards took a long time in deciding, and announced that the fifth Test was cancelled just two hours before the scheduled start. Even the players of both the teams did not know it beforehand.
Now, the verdict of the Series in India’s favour has been the biggest question. If rains had washed out the match India would’ve won the series undoubtedly, but even though the pandemic is also a natural calamity the question is about taking precautions and following the strict protocols, and some in the English camp felt that the Indians were not careful enough. However, we feel that it is indeed unfortunate that the Series was held during a time when England decided to live with the virus after vaccinating most of their citizens, and the matches were fully open to the spectators who were not even asked to wear masks, and in such a situation the players or the non-playing members could get easily infected as they move through the crowds on various occasions, at least while moving through the pavilion stand. There was a soft bubble and necessary tests were done from time to time; and therefore it is not right to blame the Indian camp for their supposed lack of taking adequate precautions.
It was also reported that the ICC would World cup group matches and give the final call on the official result of the Test Series. Perhaps to avoid an imbroglio or any injustice to any team the two Boards finally decided to reschedule the Test sometime next year as there was hardly any time left now with the IPL-2021 starting in nine days followed the all-important ICC T20 World Cup-2021 in UAE. But the problem is far from being resolved, because if the lone fifth Test is going to be held as a standalone or one-off match then how was it to be considered as part of the England Vs India Test Series of 2021, and if it was not considered a part then it must be declared now that India have won the Series at the 2-1 lead achieved after winning the fourth match.
Of course, if the IPL-2021 can be split into two halves-first part already played in Indian venues and the other half in UAE venues-at different time periods with the same league points and standings, then why not apply the same rule here too: hold the cancelled or rather now postponed fifth Test any time in 2022 in England and treat it as part of the 2021 Test Series, the result of which would finally decide the Series verdict. As per the latest international cricket schedule India is supposed to visit England again in 2022. There is an additional aspect of the issue: ECB stands to lose around 40 million pounds on broadcasting rights and hospitality sponsorships from the cancellation of the fifth Test, and therefore, it would be in the Board’s interest to reschedule the match and treat it as a part of the present Series.
The money-game or the money-challenge is everywhere in the game of cricket. Ideally, the series should naturally have been decided in India’s favour and the players should have been flown home immediately to give them the much-needed rest and to prepare them well for the T20 World Cup. But no, the IPL has to be completed for the same monetary stakes for the Indian Board. Another ideal alternative would have been to reschedule the fifth Test in a week’s time, depending on the situation, postponing the IPL-2021 to be held after the World Cup. But no again, for the same reasons; the stakes involve not only the Indian Board, but a large chunk of international cricketers and cricket boards. So then, let’s wait and watch, and enjoy whatever is offered.
Finally, the pandemic is far from over yet, and it has to be taken seriously. Cricket matches must go on being held under strict bubble and behind closed doors. Besides, it is inhuman to keep the cricketers in a bubble-to-bubble scenario and the mandatory isolation plus the endless tests for over a year now. Whatever be the stakes involved in cricket the matches should be held considering all humanitarian angles.
Chinmay Chakravarty has been a cricket lover since his childhood days and played the game at school level and later for social enjoyment. After completing education he started writing on cricket–most on the aspects and games of Indian Cricket. He was an officer of Indian Information Service and superannuated from the post of Director, Press Information Bureau, Kolkata in November, 2019. Published his first solo book ‘Laugh and Let Laugh’ in 2017 and his second book ‘The Cheerless Chauffeur and Other Tales’ in 2021.