South Africa left to count the cost after edgy England opt for safety first

Sport

Cape Town was overcast for much of the day on Monday but around 3pm, just as word came through that England’s ODI leg of the tour of South Africa was off, blue skies and sunshine broke out, showing off Table Mountain in all its glory.

The mood in the England squad was in keeping with this change of weather, as increasingly anxious thoughts about forging ahead with the cricket while simultaneously dealing with a Covid-19 outbreak in the camp were replaced by a collective sense of relief.

Despite two early positive cases in the South Africa squad at the start of the bubble, the Twenty20 series was staged in full. But since Friday the tourists had become agitated and having privately queried the efficacy of the so-called biosecure bubble since the start of the trip – albeit without offering specific examples – suddenly they had no faith in it whatsoever.

A third South Africa positive had seen the one-day series opener at Newlands called off at the 11th hour and again in Paarl on Sunday when two members of staff at the Vineyard hotel were shown to have contracted the virus.

Then came the tipping point for the tourists: a couple of their own were suddenly suspected cases and it did not take long for the management to be told that, with the prospect of more infections and a 10-day isolation period that would delay departure, this was all too much.

Eoin Morgan is a powerful England captain, perhaps the most powerful in recent times following last year’s World Cup win. He made it clear four years ago when missing the tour of Bangladesh amid security concerns that he is unwilling to take the field if his mind is occupied elsewhere.

This should have been a relatively straightforward tour by comparison, certainly one that appeared much less complex than the recent English summer. The quickfire trip involved two teams playing six white-ball fixtures at two venues and staying at one supposedly secure hotel.

Yet despite the presence of enlarged squads, providing warm-up opposition and plenty of reserves in the event of any illness, South Africa’s first stab at biosecure cricket was unable to keep the virus out and thus provide the peace of mind off the field that Morgan and his players feel they need.

There has been plenty of renewed praise for the England and Wales Cricket Board in recent days, having shepherded visits by West Indies (men and women), Ireland, Pakistan and Australia this year without one positive Covid result from the 10,000 tests dispensed. And few could argue this was not an impressive feat by Steve Elworthy and his ECB team.

But after years of cricket’s global landscape being tilted towards the so-called Big Three, Cricket South Africa’s pockets are empty, while their leadership remains hugely unstable. Any English superiority here should be kept in check by these facts and the promise to return to play these ODIs must not be hollow.

Relations between the two boards appear amicable on the surface but beneath there has been a spot of back and forth. An email from officials at Western Province appeared on ESPNCricinfo alleging that England broke protocols on Thursday by using nets that were outside of the agreed zones.

England’s response was that the original practice pitches were “not acceptable” and, though they switched location, at no stage was “the safety and health” of players and coaches compromised. It may seem a petty quibble by the hosts but, by the same token, how would the ECB have viewed such a unilateral move by their guests during the summer? The tourists are now staying in the country until Thursday and in a heightened state of lockdown. Word comes from the bubble that face masks are now mandatory and social distancing is at its strictest.

Curmugeons may argue that an overreaction from a group of fit young athletes has taken place, a view that will harden if the follow-up tests for England’s two positive cases provide them with the all-clear to leave South Africa alongside the other members of the party.

But it is worth remembering that even in normal times, cricket is a sport that heavily taxes the mind. Marcus Trescothick (on this tour as a coach) and Jonathan Trott were praised for speaking up about the mental health problems that cut short their England careers and the current generation have seen the pressures increase.

Until they are vaccinated – and Morgan has stressed cricketers should be low down the queue – their movements are limited to hotels and grounds.

There is little escape on tours that previously offered a chance to take in the local surroundings, while the time they spend with their families has returned to levels witnessed during less enlightened times.

With tours of Sri Lanka and India to come after Christmas, a packed home summer and then a winter of fives tours that includes a T20 World Cup and an Ashes campaign, there will be more cloudy days ahead. For South Africa, who must convince others to still tour this season, these are imminent.