What happens now? That was the question cricket fans around the world were asking after the dramatic last-minute cancellation of the deciding fifth Test between England and India in Manchester.
Following all-night talks, it was not until shortly before 9am local time on Friday, just over two hours before the scheduled start and minutes before the gates at Old Trafford were due to open to a sell-out crowd of 22,000, that the match was called off due to Covid-19 fears within the India camp – a decision that leaves English cricket facing a financial ‘black hole’ estimated at £40 million.
Reports that a physiotherapist in close contact with the players had tested positive for Covid appeared to be the final straw in persuading an India side already missing head coach Ravi Shastri, bowling coach Bharat Arun and fielding coach Ramakrishnan Sridhar due to positive Covid tests, with senior physiotherapist Nitin Patel self-isolating, not to take the field.
England had been in a similar situation in December when their ODI series in South Africa was postponed amid fears Covid had infiltrated the team, even if two positive tests were later found to be negative.
“I felt at the time England let South Africa down,” former England captain Michael Vaughan told the BBC. “England flexed their muscles back then and I believe India have flexed their muscles. I honestly feel Indian cricket has let the English game down.”
Unlike last year, where teams were kept in bio-secure bubbles, in the 2021 international season in England restrictions have been loosened as officials felt it was unsustainable to expect sides to keep playing under such strict regulations.
But whether Shastri’s presence at a well-attended London launch of his new book two days before the fourth Test at The Oval, which India won by 157 runs, was acceptable under current guidelines remains a debatable point.
So, too, does ECB chief executive Tom Harrison’s contention that fear of Covid, rather than Covid itself, was the reason behind the cancellation – a difference which could impact on the hosts’ ability to make an insurance claim.
“It doesn’t make a difference in respect of ticket buyers; they will be paid back in full,” said Harrison. “It makes a difference in terms of the ECB balance sheet.”
Covid is an acceptable reason for cancelling a match under the regulations for the World Test Championship if it has a significant impact on a side fielding a team.
The ICC is now set to decide the result of the match and series – which India led 2-1 to leave them on the brink of a notable double after their series win in Australia earlier this year – although a quick verdict is unlikely.
“I think we have to just take a breath and do some work with the ICC, to formally ask them to adjudicate on the result of this,” added Harrison.
?It's a really sad day and my heart goes out to the fans.?
ECB chief executive Tom Harrison says there are "no winners" on a "sad day for Test cricket" after the Old Trafford Test was cancelled.
— Sky Sports Cricket (@SkyCricket) September 10, 2021
Meanwhile, the BCCI said it had offered to reschedule the game after a cancellation “jointly decided” by both boards.
However, with the lucrative IPL, itself disrupted by Covid, resuming in the United Arab Emirates on 19 September, the Test will not happen anytime soon.
But with India meant to tour England next year for a white-ball series, it could yet be slotted in at Old Trafford.
Harrison insisted the IPL was not to blame for the cancellation, saying: “This Indian cricket team are as passionate about Test cricket as fans in our country are.”
And what of those fans?
George Twigg, a geography student, was among a group of four friends who had made a journey of 150km from Derby to Manchester for their annual pilgrimage to a Test.
“We set off at 7:30am. We were halfway to Manchester when we heard about the cancellation,” he told AFP. “They could have done it yesterday [Thursday]. We could have saved on the travel, could have cancelled the hotel. But, instead, they’ve had to wait until this morning and we’ve had to be disappointed as we got here.”
Meanwhile, an enthralling series featuring three hundreds from England captain Joe Root, several fine innings from India’s Rohit Sharma and bewitching bowling from the tourists spearhead, Jasprit Bumrah, had been denied a fitting finale and now seems set to be marked with an asterisk in Wisden, cricket’s annual of record.
© Agence France-Presse