The questions raised by India’s cancelled Test

While no one should ever have to justify a fear, it seems odd that a case of Covid-19 prompted such different reactions in the India team, just a few days apart, during their tour of England.
India captain Virat Kohli and the team. They pulled out of the fifth and final Test citing fear for themselves and their families, after a physiotherapist they’d all been in contact with tested positive for Covid-19. Then they flew, with their families, to the UAE, where the IPL is set to begin today. (AFP) PREMIUM
India captain Virat Kohli and the team. They pulled out of the fifth and final Test citing fear for themselves and their families, after a physiotherapist they’d all been in contact with tested positive for Covid-19. Then they flew, with their families, to the UAE, where the IPL is set to begin today. (AFP)
Updated on Sep 18, 2021 07:13 PM IST
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By Rudraneil Sengupta

Test cricket remains the preeminent format of the game, the format to truly aspire to for all players, Virat Kohli has said time and again.

Except, perhaps, when the alternative is the hypertrophied financial muscle of the Indian Premier League (IPL).

And so there were Kohli and his men, pulling out of the fifth and final Test of what had until then been a breathtaking sequence of Tests, with the promise of India winning a second straight overseas series to truly hammer home their dominance.

The official reason given was that the players were scared after an outbreak of Covid-19 among the coaching staff. With the caveat that fear is by nature irrational and no one who is scared of something need justify it, the Indian team’s argument raises several questions.

The first person to Test positive was coach Ravi Shastri, who began to show symptoms on the Day 3 of the fourth Test, before isolating. The only people who were identified as his close contacts were others on the coaching staff — bowling coach Bharat Arun, fielding coach R Sridhar and chief physiotherapist Nitin Patel, each of whom tested positive a day later and also went into isolation.

In the days leading up to the fourth Test and on Days 1, 2 and 3 of the match itself, the players had of course been in close contact with all these people, in the dressing room, at the nets, at strategy meetings and workouts. But they underwent a couple of rounds of testing, came back negative, and continued playing. They won that Test in brilliant fashion and moved on to Manchester for the fifth Test.

Here, the team’s second physiotherapist, Yogesh Parmar, tested positive. This is when the players decided that they couldn’t take the field. They spoke of how every person on the team had been treated by Parmar and they were all now afraid of contracting the virus.

But here was a situation no different from the one they played through in the fourth Test. Why was close contact with Parmar any different from close contact with Patel?

As in the earlier round, the players were all tested and all tested negative. They were cleared to take the field. Parmar was in isolation.

The players spoke of how they feared for their families, who were travelling with them. The logical protocol then would be for the players to isolate from their families. Instead the players and their families flew together, immediately after the Test was cancelled. They did not return home. They went to the UAE, where the IPL is scheduled to begin today.

“Back home” tweeted Rohit Sharma, with a photo of himself standing with his wife and child. Except it was not Mumbai, but Abu Dhabi. He and his family moved into a hotel in the IPL bubble, together, much as they were in Manchester.

If the players were concerned about not being in a bubble in England, where Covid protocols have been all but non-existent since the middle of July, they didn’t show it during their time there. They attended Champions League and Wimbledon matches. They visited friends and family and attended social gatherings, including the much-talked-about book launch after which Shastri tested positive.

Cricket, as Harsha Bhogle pointed out recently, “has so many stress points. 3 formats for a start, world events where the ICC is a stakeholder, bilateral events where 2 teams have a stake & franchised leagues where one country will protect its finances. Then, Covid!”

This is undeniable. The scheduling is ridiculous. The Indian team had been in England since early June, playing the World Test Championship final and then the five-Test series; there was the IPL immediately after, followed by the World T20 (starting just two days after the IPL final).

Between the bilaterals, major ICC events, multiple formats and franchise leagues, how a cricketer keeps it all together is a mystery. Yet the fifth Test was a commitment just as binding as the IPL is.

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Friday, October 22, 2021