It was touted to end with a bang; instead, the final act of a compelling, riveting series that showcased the best of Test cricket turned out into a damp squib in another grim reminder of the terrible, uncertain times we live in.
Less than two hours before the start of play at Old Trafford on Friday, with India seeking to build on their hard-earned 2-1 advantage, the England and Wales Cricket Board announced through a revised press release that the fifth Test in Manchester had been cancelled. This statement came after much drama and posturing. In an earlier statement, English cricket’s governing body had said India had ‘regrettably forfeited’ the match. Wise heads and saner counsel prevailed because nothing could have been more callous and insensitive than the ECB ostensibly seeking an Indian forfeiture following the players’ reluctance to take the field once a fourth member of the support staff-tested COVID-positive inside a week.
Yogesh Parmar, the junior physio in charge with top man Nitin Patel in isolation after being identified as a close contact of head coach Ravi Shastri, bowling coach B Arun and fielding coach R Sridhar (who all tested positive in London over the weekend), returned a positive test a day before the final Test was to begin, forcing India’s players to abandon a match-eve optional practice session and isolate in their respective rooms. All players and other members of the touring contingent tested negative in a subsequent RT-PCR test on Thursday evening, but given the gestation period of the coronavirus, it was understandable that the players were unwilling to put themselves at risk by taking the field collectively.
After all, had even one of them subsequently tested positive, he could so easily have passed on the virus in the interim to one or other mates during the customary huddle or frenzied celebrations at the fall of a wicket. In an age where mental health is finally grabbing the upper hand in its battle to conquer unreasonable social stigma, to have asked the players to turn up or else would have been more heinous than holding a gun to their head.
The ECB and the Lancashire County Cricket Club, owners of Old Trafford and who had been desperately looking forward to this game to augment their coffers, have every reason to be disappointed, but that’s the price one must be prepared to pay when the pandemic is still raging. There is talk of the ECB losing almost 20 million pounds in broadcast-related matters alone; Lancashire’s woes are no less significant. Sell-outs for the first three days, vendors eyeing handsome profits, hotels packed to the rafters… There was great cause for optimism at a venue that doesn’t get Tests every season. Those hopes now lie buried in a heap of nothingness, with no one to blame.
That hasn’t stopped the motivation from pointing a finger at Shastri, and his book launch event at a London hotel ahead of the fourth Test at The Oval. The ECB has claimed the Indian team management didn’t seek their dispensation, though one fails to understand why they would expect to be approached in the first place. After all, all bets are off in England. Since the third week of July, there has been a complete opening up of life and livelihood; the mask mandate has gone out of circulation, audiences have been allowed at full capacity at sporting and other entertainment events indoors and outdoors, and life has been allowed to return to normal since normalcy is possible when the country is still reporting close to 40,000 positive cases a day on average.
In the absence of clinching evidence, it will be puerile to blame Shastri for contracting the virus at the launch of his first book and passing it on to Arun, Sridhar and Parmar. Despite their best efforts to stay secure, the extended Indian squad can’t but avoid contact with hotel staff, hotel guests, dressing-room staff, bus drivers etc. It’s possible that the book-launch event was where Shastri was infected, just as it’s equally likely that the infector could have been someone else, somewhere else.
The need for scapegoating was perhaps instigated by the imminent resumption of phase two of IPL 2021, which is now just over a week away. Long before the start of this series, the Board of Control for Cricket in India had tried to impress upon the ECB the exploration of advancing the entire Test series by a week. To protect their interests and not compromise The Hundred, the latest English innovation aimed at further abridging an already condensed format, the ECB opted not to play ball, as is their right. To now point a finger at the IPL as being the primary driver for India’s call not to play at Old Trafford is, at the very least, the pot calling the kettle black.
Most playing members of the Indian squad – Hanuma Vihari, Abhimanyu Easwaran, and Arzan Nagwaswalla excepted – will be on a chartered plane with some of their English counterparts as they move from one recently formed bubble in Manchester to another with their respective franchises in the UAE. The BCCI’s proactiveness to protect its most prestigious and lucrative brand is no different from the ECB’s stance vis-a-vis The Hundred. Nor is India’s Old Trafford decision dissimilar to England’s abandonment of their tour of South Africa last December due to COVID-allied concerns.
It is a shame that a series that had promised and delivered so much must end this. There is talk that when India travels to the UK next summer for three ODIs and as many T20Is, they will make good this cancellation by playing a solitary Test, most likely back at Old Trafford. Early indications are that that will be a one-off game and not a part of this series. If that’s how things pan out, India will have wrested the Pataudi Trophy away from the hosts for the first time since 2007, following their 2-1 triumph. How unfortunate, though, that there will be no images of Virat Kohli proudly lifting the silverware, of his warriors joining the skipper in unfettered celebrations.