The risk of matches being cancelled if a squad returns too many cases of Covid-19 remains real as the South African summer gets underway on Friday.
The hosts have already been hit with two positive tests and have since been tested twice more, including a final round on Thursday morning. Their third test run revealed no new cases.
Asked what would happen if the pre-match tests showed a significant number of cases, CSA’s chief medical officer, Dr Shuaib Manjra explained it could impact the schedule.
“There probably won’t be a game. If you’ve got lots of positives you’ve got a quarantine context,” he said. “We cannot bring in a player from the outside without testing them at least twice before we bring them into this space. If a large group of people test positive we wouldn’t have adequate opportunity to bridge people into the bio-bubble. But we’ve got a squad of 24 so hopefully we can put a team together.”
This is South Africa’s first experience of operating in a bio-secure environment as a national team (although several players have just returned from 11 weeks of doing it in the IPL) and will become their new-normal for the next six months. In a country where healthcare resources are challenged and where, as of this week, overall Coronavirus case numbers are going up, South African cricket will have to learn to box clever in the environment and with the welfare of their players, making this the most complicated season yet.
Ahead of this series, the 24 players were tested before entering their base and one returned a positive result. He was kept out of the bubble and quarantined at a different venue. Two other players who were deemed to have come in close contact with the player were isolated and have since tested negative. A second player then tested positive a few days later, having already been in the bubble, and had to be removed. Both players will be retested and if negative, will rejoin the squad on Saturday, ending a tough period for both of them.
“The players were devastated on receiving the news that they had tested positive for Covid,” Manjra said. “He (the first player) has taken quite a bit of strain in the sense that he’s been isolated in a hotel all alone and not participating in training.
“There’s going to be a lag period in him coming to the squad and getting back to fitness because of injury concerns. If you’ve been in a hotel room for 10 days we can’t simply throw you onto the park. We’ve got to give at least another seven days to return to match fitness in order to consider him for any of the games. It takes a mental toll on him and all the others.”
Manja described the period around testing as “stressful,” and the tests themselves as “uncomfortable,” but unavoidable. “Players don’t like the Covid test. We had a guy here doing the test on Monday and the players complained, so we had to try and get somebody else. Some of them are over enthusiastic, and not only get into your nose but into your sinuses and into your brain as well,” Manjra said. “It’s an uncomfortable test, but it’s very short.”
And it will have to happen continuously as the summer goes on. Testing will be done again between the T20s and ODIs “to ensure the integrity of the bubble is maintained,” and before each Test match. South Africa have five scheduled for the summer.
“Building resilience is not about removing distractions. It’s how you deal with those distractions, which will always be there.”
Dr Shuaib Manjra, CSA’s chief medical officer
During the period in which they are in the bubble, players will have to continue to operate in small groups, whether at training or socially. “In the event that somebody tests positive we isolate a small group of people rather than the entire contact or non-contact group. That has a role to play in the dynamic of the team in terms of training, dining and socialising,” Manjra said.
Those limitations, the administrative crises at CSA and the controversy over the way South African cricket has handled the Black Lives Movement have all made for an imperfect build up to the series but, Manjra believes, helped them become closer as a squad.
“Preparing without distractions is an ideal situation, but in the real world you always have distractions. One of the things that allowed our team to build resilience is much of the kind work we’re doing in the background with the squad,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity during lockdown for the players to interact with each other and get to know each other, and play out some of the dynamics we’ve been speaking about.
“For us it’s not only about symbolism but about living particular experiences and sharing them — demonstrating what we believe in. The lockdown has a positive effect in those terms. Building resilience is not about removing distractions. It’s how you deal with those distractions, which will always be there.”
Eoin Morgan, the England captain, was understanding of the challenges of keeping the sport’s bio-secure environments safe.
“During the summer we did a magnificent job in not having any cases at all,” Morgan said. “We felt in a very privileged position, not to have to worry about the virus in our bubble, but this has presented different challenges.
“South Africa have had two cases. One was off site, one was on the site, at the hotel, which presented a different challenge. To us, very similarly in the summer, if we had a case, we needed to be able to demonstrate that we could contain it to make every team, and every player within that bubble secure and safe, and South Africa seem to have done that so far.”
Morgan also acknowledged the importance of the series being played at such a difficult time amid the pandemic, describing the role it could play in providing some relief and entertainment as “huge”.
“As a sportsman, there are very few times you play sport or contribute to things when people actually really need it,” he said. “I went through this experience myself towards the back end of our first lockdown period when sport just started to be reintegrated into people’s TVs at home, and the smile it put on my face and the community that I live in was outstanding.
“Given the circumstances, how bad they still are, particularly at home, it’s important for us to go out there and hopefully put on a bit of a show. Because it’s certainly a lot of different challenges at this moment in time but certainly sport can help relieve that a little bit.”
Eng vs SL 2021 – Jos Buttler ruled out of Sri Lanka white-ball series with calf injury
Dawid Malan added to ODI squad after MRI scans reveal small calf tear
Buttler, England’s vice-captain and wicketkeeper, scored an unbeaten 68 opening the batting in the first T20I. According to the ECB, he “felt tightness and discomfort” at the end of the game and was sent for an MRI scan on Thursday morning, which revealed a small tear. He sat out the second T20I, which England won by five wickets.
England had already suggested they may use the Sri Lanka T20Is to experiment, with Jonny Bairstow moving up to open in Buttler’s absence – although he made a three-ball duck as England initially struggled in their chase of 112. Liam Livingstone, whose unbeaten 29 helped secure victory, regularly opens in T20 cricket and could also deputise.
Dawid Malan, the No. 1-ranked T20I batter, has been added to the ODI squad, with Bairstow and Sam Billings in contention to take the gloves in the 50-over format. Billings scored his maiden ODI hundred last summer and would have been vying for a middle-order berth, regardless of Buttler’s availability.
“In terms of ODIs I had a really good summer last year and averaged 83 in that format so I would be pretty disappointed if I didn’t get a gig but this team is a very hard one to get into to,” he said.
England have already secured the T20I series ahead Saturday’s third match, at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton. The teams will then play three ODIs, at Chester-le-Street, The Oval and Bristol.
ENG vs SL 2nd T20I – Mickey Arthur on England and Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s head coach said he wants the batsmen to be more proactive against a world-class England attack
“Just not enough runs again,” Arthur told the BBC, when asked for his take on his side’s defeat. “We’re coming up against a really good bowling attack. They’re ranked No. 1 in the world, we’re ranked No. 9, and you can see the difference. We’ve started a journey with a young team and for us it’s about getting better, competing, learning from every game and every experience and getting better and better as we go along.
“It’s tough. We’re consistently talking about freedom, about taking the handbrake off as a batting unit. But you can only bat as well as you’re allowed to and I thought England were world-class with the lengths they hit. They put us under a lot of pressure with the bat.
“We can be more proactive and we’ve got to go back and work on that. We can walk around the crease a little bit more and try to do different things but our batters are learning all the time, particularly in these conditions. We’ve got a really exciting batting unit in our conditions but it’s about transferring those skills to conditions outside our own environment.”
“I thought we bowled really well,” he said. “Our fielding has gone up to another level. Fielding is all about attitude, it’s measurable, and I think the guys are getting better and better with that. We’re really excited with our bowling unit and we’ve got a couple of guys that are injured as well, so when we get them back we’ll be good.”
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
England vs Sri Lanka T20Is – Liam Livingstone makes virtue of versatility in pitch for England World Cup role | Cricket
Teams can take a squad of 33 players to cover 15 starting positions in rugby’s next World Cup, and 23 for 11 spots in football’s, but cricket diverges from the norm. England will take a 15-man squad to the T20 World Cup this winter – albeit with the possibility of a couple of reserves as a Covid precaution – and as a result, the ability of back-up players to cover a range of roles is crucial.
With that in mind, Liam Livingstone has done his chances of inclusion no harm at all in the first two games of their T20I series against Sri Lanka in Cardiff. An innings of 29 not out off 26 balls and four tight overs of liquorice-all-sort spin that have cost 19 runs do not demand retention in themselves, but have demonstrated the flexibility that Livingstone would add to a touring party as a utility player.
“It’s something that I pride myself on, being as versatile as I can,” he said after the second T20I, in which he won the match award after steering England home from No. 6. “It’s something that’s rolled into my bowling as well, trying to bowl both legspin and offspin to give people different options [and] it’s the same with my batting, trying to make myself a player who can bat all the way from No. 1 to No. 8.”
While he has made a reputation for himself as a power-hitter who deals in sixes – in last year’s Big Bash, he scored a higher percentages of his runs in sixes (39.4%) than anyone else in the top 25 run-scorers – Livingstone’s innings on Thursday night demonstrated his willingness to adapt, with a single ramped six standing out alongside a series of clips and pushes into gaps to suit the situation and build a partnership with Sam Billings. Four years on from a pair of frenetic innings in his first two T20Is, he looked a different player.
Importantly, given England’s logjam of top-three options, it also demonstrated an ability to bat in the middle order. Twenty-five of Livingstone’s last 26 innings in domestic T20 cricket for Lancashire and Perth Scorchers have come as an opener, with Jos Buttler even moving down to No. 4 in order to accommodate him at the top in this year’s T20 Blast, but there is little chance of him batting there in an England shirt.
While he will have limited opportunity to do so before the start of the World Cup, Livingstone should consider shuffling down the order for one of his clubs if he can – potentially for Birmingham Phoenix in the Hundred – in order to gain more experience in the role, though batting in the middle order for Peshawar Zalmi and Cape Town Blitz two winters ago meant he had something to lean back on.
“I batted at No. 4 and 5 in the PSL and in the South African T20 [MSL],” he said. “I guess that’s the reason I go away and play in these competitions: trying to get experience of batting in different roles, which has obviously helped me coming into an England side, batting in a position I’m not really used to.”
But it is with the ball that Livingstone is particularly multi-talented, as he has demonstrated in this series. He generally bowls legbreaks to right-handers and offbreaks to left-handers, and while not a prodigious turner of the ball, he gets enough spin both ways to keep batters guessing and forcing them to watch him carefully out of the hand.
“It’s certainly advantageous isn’t it?” Buttler said after Wednesday night’s game. “It’s a fantastic skill to have, to be able to bowl offspin and legspin to international standard. We will potentially see that come into the game more and more. He’s an exciting package, a great guy to have in your squad and your XI.”
Livingstone is not the finished article with the ball. Two of the three most expensive overs of his T20 career have come at crunch moments, confirming Lancashire’s exits in the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the last two Blast seasons when Ravi Bopara and Dan Christian took him down, but he insisted that those experiences have been beneficial in the long run.
“[My bowling] has always been well-regarded at Lancashire,” he said. “I’ve obviously had a couple of tough moments with it over the last couple of years, but they are the moments that have made me a better bowler. It’s something I’ve worked hard on for this sort of opportunity, to push my way into a team as someone that can offer something in all three facets of the game.”
As an excellent outfielder too, Livingstone’s case for inclusion in the World Cup squad is strong: even if he is unlikely to start once Ben Stokes returns from injury, the fact he offers some overs as a second – or even third – spinner, can cover a number of batting roles and is a good option to come on as a substitute fielder mean that he has quickly become England’s Mr Versatile.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
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