The cancellation of the Test match between India and England which was to be held at Manchester has kicked up a huge controversy in the cricket world. Allegations and counter allegations are being hurled by former players and officials of both sides and as is natural in such situations, unfounded rumours are flying thick and fast too.
Indeed the whole ugly episode has raised questions that will take a long time to answer. As yet, there is no clarity of the fate of the series or how many points will be awarded to each team in the WTC system.
First of all, we must ask an important question. Was it really the fear of COVID being spread that was the actual cause of the decision to call off the Test? Or was there another reason which was the motivating factor? Everyone knows that the cash-rich IPL tournament is due to begin soon and a few days of rest and quarantine will give the players a little more time to regain freshness for the IPL clashes.
So has the IPL become more important than Test matches nowadays? Although none of the bigwigs in the cricket set-up will admit this, it is a known fact that the hoary status of Test cricket as the ultimate level of world cricket, is under threat. Many players, by their deeds and decisions, have made it clear that playing in the IPL is a big priority for them now. It is even more important than playing for the country. The IPL is where the big money is. So it is quite possible that the overriding factor behind the decision could have been the forthcoming IPL matches.
The next question that arises is how did so many support staff members of the Indian team contract COVID? Why was this carelessness allowed? It began when coach Ravi Shastri, Bharat Arun (bowling coach) and R. Sridhar (fielding coach) and senior physio Nitin Patel all tested positive for COVID. Ravi Shastri had attended a book launch event on August 31st. There are photographs in the media of Shastri and others without their masks during the event.
Should this have been allowed at a time when the teams are under quarantine? Later assistant physiotherapist Yogesh Parmar also tested positive. The level of laxity and carelessness should be condemned. Being experienced members of the Indian team, these people should have acted in a responsible manner and taken care not to expose themselves.
After seeing the support staff all down with COVID, the senior players requested Jay Shah, Secretary of the BCCI, to inform the England Board (ECB) that the Indian players do not wish to play for fear of becoming COVID carriers. Especially since some had families with them. When the ECB heard about this, they offered to postpone the start of the match by two days. After much negotiation and discussion, it was decided to do another RT-PCR test on all players. All tests came out negative. So everything seemed fine. The match would go ahead as per schedule, it was announced.
But the next morning (the day the match was to begin) the Indian players including Virat Kohli again made a request to the BCCI stating their wish not to play despite being fit and fine. They cited the example of England calling off their South Africa tour earlier due to COVID and so India can also do the same, they argued.
Again there followed a parlay between the BCCI and the ECB after which ECB first issued a statement saying that India had forfeited the match. But later, the ECB changed its words and said that the match had been cancelled. What is intriguing is that by that very afternoon, some of the players took a flight to Dubai, all ready and willing to take part in the IPL.
So now what it looks like is that they can play in the IPL but they cannot represent their country in a Test match. What a shame!!
Now the immediate and urgently required action is that ICC will have to find a way out of this mess or it will happen again and again. Players representing their country will decide to suddenly walk away from their national duties to go and play elsewhere for the sake of money. There is a need for the ICC to formulate very strict rules of penalising such players. Preferably they should be slapped with a hefty suspension. They should be suspended from all forms of cricket including IPL for a year or two. A monetary fine will make no difference to these crorepati cricketers.
Meanwhile, the ECB is facing an estimated loss of about Rs. 300 crore in advertising and sponsorship. Spectators who had bought tickets will want to get a refund and may have to take some trouble to get back their money. Is it fair to cricket fans? Some of them had already reached the ground before they came to know that the match would not be played. The decision indicated to the fans that they were not important and their wishes deserved no respect. What a wonderful way to popularise cricket!
According to the latest news, the BCCI is still in negotiations with the ECB to try and sort out the matter. It is not only the ECB that has been hurt by all this. The image of India has been damaged too. Needless to say, the BCCI which is the richest body in world of cricket will throw some money around and give some assurances of holding the Test in the future. It will try to solve the problems with its money. It remains to be seen how far such tactics will succeed.
Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects.