The bubble has burst. Of all the problems South African cricket faces at the moment, this is the one CSA wanted to avoid most. Their capacity to host international cricket has been compromised by what appear to be breaches of the bio-secure environment and now a tour hangs in the balance.
After three positive cases of their own, South Africa’s visitors England are waiting for ratification of two positive results on their side. If it is confirmed that members of the touring party have Covid-19, both them and their close contacts will have to quarantine in South Africa before returning home, something that could cut into festive season plans.
Considering that England came off a bubbled home summer, in which there were no recorded positive cases, and some of their players were also in a bubbled IPL, where early cases emerged but the tournament progressed without a hitch, their experience in South Africa has left much to be desired.
England expressed concerns about the integrity of the bubble when a South Africa player tested positive on Thursday. Now that the virus may have reached their own camp, those worries can only have multiplied. And South Africa will need to be more proactive in attempting to figure out where things went wrong.
CSA conducted an investigation to determine what appeared to be a potential breach that resulted in Thursday’s positive test but were unable to conclude how that may have happened. They denied that the player, or anyone else, could have left the bubble and their scrutiny of security footage did not reveal anything incriminating. They are also unsure how two hotel staff members tested positive, with the Vineyard confirming that the pair do not work in the same part of the hotel, and have not left the establishment since November 16. But not every member of staff is living at the hotel.
ESPNcricinfo understands that around 60 staff members are resident at the hotel and, of those, there are 20-30 who come into contact with players. The hotel also has a separate isolation wing, where the two staff members and the player who tested positive are being put up.
CSA insists the South Africa player who tested positive did not come into contact with any of his team-mates, which is why no one else is in isolation and it stands by the assertion that the two teams have not mixed at all. South Africa and England occupy different areas of the hotel and do not even use the same corridors. A source close to the camp insists that if players talk to each other, they do so “at a distance”, although technically this should not be necessary if the bubble is secure.
The warning signs were there on November 20 that this bubble may not be. That’s when a second South Africa player tested positive, having been in the bubble for two days.
The first player had not entered the bubble at all, and was accommodated separately from the rest, so he did not pose any risk. The second player is understood to have contracted the virus from the outside, before the tour began, and taken it into the bubble. He was removed from the hotel but no one else was isolated because CSA said the players had been socially distant and the rest of the group all had negative results.
The third incident is believed to have no relation to the second and has arisen inside an established bubble, creating the most cause for concern. It is not known whether England’s cases, if they are positive, are a result of the third case.
All we do know is that this bubble is not as tightly controlled as those that were in place in England or at the IPL. Players are allowed to leave for rounds of golf at Boschenmeer, near Boland Park in Paarl, and South Africa have permission to train at the Vineyard Oval, across the road from the hotel. The insider confirmed that CSA tried to be flexible in allowing for some recreation, because of concerns about player welfare and bubble fatigue. There is also an indication they may have to relook at that idea for the next series, if there is one.
South Africa are also due to host Sri Lanka, Australia and Pakistan this summer and doubtless all of them will look at the way this series played out when deciding if they want to make the trip. Sri Lanka have the least time, and are expected to depart their relatively Covid-free island in 12 days to play two Tests in the Highveld over the festive season. CSA is planning on putting both teams up at the Irene Country Club in Centurion, rather than a hotel, because of the range of activities on offer. The club has an 18-hole golf course, six tennis courts, a bowling green, squash courts and a driving range. Sri Lanka will be comfortable, but they might want assurances that they will be safe as well.
Venues for the Australia Tests have yet to be announced but CSA was planning on playing at the coastal venues in Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. At the moment, Nelson Mandela Bay, where Port Elizabeth is located, is a coronavirus hotspot and has stricter regulations than the rest of the country, while in Cape Town there has been a 43% increase in new Covid-19 cases over the last week. Those trends may change by the time Australia are due to arrive in mid-February but, given how well Australia have handled the pandemic (they are playing sport with spectators in the stadiums), it would be understandable if they were wary of traveling to South Africa. And that is something CSA cannot afford.
The England and Australia tours are the only opportunity for the organisation to host profit-making series this summer and will be crucial for when its broadcast rights deal is renegotiated next April. South Africa can command a decent television rights deal if their team is strong and if the results of series against India, England and Australia are uncertain. The team’s form in the last 18 months and the shrinking economy means that the broadcast deal is already at risk of being lower than CSA might like. For an organisation staring at the red – losses were previously forecast at US$42 million for the current four-year cycle – these are worrying signs.
The problem is that to host matches successfully, CSA has to spend money and, in these times, much more money than usual. As an example, it is carrying the cost of all the Covid-19 tests, at R850 (US$55) each. With several hundred tests needing to be conducted across the entire South African and English camps, all the hotel staff and match officials, CSA is footing a huge bill, which also explains why it is so desperate for this series to go ahead.
The six matches are understood to be worth US$4.2 million and though CSA has already made some of that through the T20s, it will lose some from the abandoned first ODI and more if the rest of the series doesn’t go ahead. South Africa is already losing its reputation as one of the sporting world’s best organisers – remember that the 2009 IPL was moved here with just a few weeks’ lead time, while the 2010 Football World Cup was hailed as a success – and appears unable to put the required measures in place for the times. Tmen’s team are also losing the chance to earn points in the World Cup Super League.
Cricket South Africa and cricket in South Africa are in crisis and this will only deepen it. The bubble has burst and the aftermath is likely to be messy.
Recent Match Report – Essex vs Sussex South Group 2021
Skipper slams 75 from 44 to help make short work of small chase
Sussex 130 for 3 (Wright 75) beat Essex 128 for 8 (Garton 3-31) by seven wickets
The Blast’s all-time leading run-scorer missed the opening two rounds after splitting the webbing in his hand while practising fielding on the eve of the competition. But he made up for lost time by bringing up his fifty in 33 deliveries as Sussex chased down Essex’s below-par 128 for eight with 36 balls to spare.
Wright looked at home right from the start, with boundaries from his second and third deliveries – two of eight fours.
Opening partner Phil Salt earned a life when he bludgeoned a full toss to mid-on, only to earn a reprieve for the umpire to judge the ball to have been above waist-height, much to Simon Harmer’s chagrin. Salt was run out for 13, after putting on 54 with Wright before Travis Head added 60 together with the skipper.
Wright continued to his 26th Blast half-century, going past 8000 T20 career runs, with a pair of straight sixes and another over cow corner. He departed with six still needed but Delray Rawlins clattered the winning runs over long-off soon after.
Wright’s day had started perfectly as he won the toss and stuck the hosts in – although Will Buttleman struck successive sixes in the fourth over. On a used hybrid pitch, scoring proved difficult for Essex with only Buttleman, Michael Pepper and Jimmy Neesham’s strike rates topping 100, for those who reached double figures.
The strain on scoring was exemplified by the last over of the Powerplay, which saw just one run, as Paul Walter struggled to lay a bat on Chris Jordan – the run rate throughout the innings hovering just below seven an over.
To add to the Eagles’ woes, wickets were a regular occurrence. Tom Westley and Buttleman fell in the Powerplay – the former picking out deep midwicket off George Garton and the latter slapping a Tymal Mills slower ball to cover.
Walter was stumped, Ryan ten Doeschate clubbed old pal Ravi Bopara to long off, Pepper – having scored 38 off 25 balls – drilled to extra cover, Harmer miscued to midwicket, Jack Plom skied to mid-off and Neesham was comprehensively bowled.
Garton ended up with 3 for 31, with Mills, Jordan and Bopara all going at under a run-a-ball.
Recent Match Report – Hampshire vs Middlesex South Group 2021
Imposing Hampshire target overhauled with two balls to spare in outground thriller
Middlesex 217 for 7 (Cracknell 77, Simpson 62) beat Hampshire 215 for 6 (Short 48, McManus 47, Weatherley 41) by three wickets with two balls to spare
Middlesex pulled off their second highest T20 chase – by three wickets with two balls to spare – in a memorable match at Radlett which saw the next generation take charge of a county going through a difficult transition, and leave another ailing T20 side, Hampshire, fearing that they don’t seem to be in much of a transition at all.
Radlett is about as far away from the ECB’s vision of T20 cricket as it is possible to be. The dream is maximum revenue from large stadia, a football-style atmosphere and a sense of theatre that delights a TV audience. Start an overly loud, alcohol-fuelled chant at Radlett and you may be blackballed from the golf club or become the subject of gossip in the Ladies Circle.
Hampshire’s first 200-plus total for three years was eminently chaseable in perfect batting conditions. But patently not by Middlesex, most of their supporters would have suggested. At 30 for 3, with Morgan trudging off, having reached at a very wide one to hole out at deep backward point, a philosophical kind of pessimism had taken hold.
Radlett is an idyllic county ground: a good batting surface, a ground lined by trees and hedges, and a convivial crowd adopting a Country Show attitude to any minor privations in the marquees and the portable toilets. They were allowed not far short of 1,000 spectators which is roughly the same as some of the smaller county grounds, which have stands and things. All to do with pinch points apparently.
They were on the verge of a colossal Powerplay with 68 garnered from the first five overs and Vince and D’Arcy Short in a blissful world where they could do much as they pleased. With Middlesex lacking five pace bowlers because of injury or (in the case of Tom Helm) recovery from Covid-19, a colossal score looked on the cards.
Then came Cullen. Three off the first over; Vince’s head-high hook falling to deep backward square in his next. In his final over, he twice troubled Hampshire’s ex-Middlesex man, James Fuller, twice for pace, the first of them gloved to third man.
Cullen, a former England U19, has played for Middlesex since the U10s, and both player and club are beginning to reap the reward of years of endeavour. Pacey, with a strong action, he can reputedly swing the ball in four-day cricket, but here, he adapted intelligently and hit the pitch. The assessment of Middlesex’s director of cricket, Angus Fraser, that he “bowls like a grown man” could not have been more apparent.
Green’s night did not begin well. He averages below seven runs an over in a career spanning more than 70 matches, making him beloved of T20 aficionados, and he was also on the back of a five-for against Kent, with four wickets taken in the final over. He was Middlesex’s most expensive bowler, leaking 55 from four overs as his method of pushing it fast and wide across the right-hander brought no dividends.
Middlesex missed chances in the field, and a succession of shots escaped clawing fingers. The most damaging, in more than one sense, was Sowter’s drop of Dawson, running in from deep backward square, his right ankle sprained in the process. But not damaged enough for him to play a part in Middlesex’s uplifting victory.
David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps
Recent Match Report – Kings vs Zalmi 24th Match 2020/21-2021
Peshawar’s bowlers restricted Karachi Kings to their lowest ever PSL total before Zazai made short work of it
Peshawar Zalmi 109 for 4 (Hazratullah Zazai 63, Imad Wasim 2-2) beat Karachi Kings 108 for 9 (Abbas Afridi 27*, Abrar 3-14, Wahab 3-34, Gul 2-13) by six wickets
Only Islamabad United have gunned down a target quicker, and even their ten-over chase against Quetta Gladiators earlier this week looked like it would be eclipsed comfortably. In the end, three late wickets slowed things down slightly, but it still meant Zalmi had coasted to the target with nine overs to spare. Karachi Kings’ poor run since the resumption of the league continues, but the damage this defeat will inflict might reflect just as heavily in the minds as it will in the run-rate column.
Zazai’s devastating debut
Zazai is set to become a T20 franchise darling over the years, but even so, the contempt with which he lay waste to experienced, wily Kings bowlers in his first PSL game was a sight to behold. Once Kamran Akmal was dismissed in the second over, Zazai decided he wouldn’t let it scupper plans to wrap up the game in a hurry, and Amir was the unfortunate recipient at the end of his first offensive.
The first six was a shade streaky, a top edge over third man, but there was nothing chancy about the three boundaries that followed in an over that leaked 21. It was followed up by an over from the other Aamer Yamin – which proved even costlier, two sixes and two fours from the Afghan seeing him hurtle along to a blitzkrieg half-century. The timing and power were both astonishing, a fearsome 97-metre swipe over square leg perhaps the shot of the night. The 50 would come in just 17 balls – a joint record – and by then, the match had long been over as a contest.
Abrar haunts his old franchise
When legspinner Abrar was first introduced to the PSL by Karachi Kings in 2017, he looked a proper mystery spin bowler, one who might go on to become a valuable asset for his franchise. Opportunities were hard to come by and he was let go after a couple of seasons, but making his debut for Peshawar Zalmi, he showed his old side what they missed. Coming in when Imad Wasim’s side were already hobbling after a difficult first ten overs, he kept the Kings on a leash in his first over, allowing just two runs.
The 22-year old burst to life in the one that followed, though. He broke the budding partnership with a carrom ball Najibullah Zadran ended up holing out to long-off, before one that drifted back in put paid to Yamin’s brief stint at the crease. With Wahab deciding to bowl him out consecutively, he would sign off by deceiving Waqas Maqsood with a googly, two balls after the batsman had smashed him for six. He would end his day with figures of 4-0-14-3, and they didn’t flatter him in the slightest.
Where they stand
Karachi Kings were top when the league resumed, but slipped to fifth, outside the qualification spots. Peshawar Zalmi moved up to 10 points alongside Lahore Qalandars, and into second place.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000
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