England’s tour of South Africa is in jeopardy and now hinges on a fresh round of Covid-19 test results on Saturday morning after the latest positive case among the home team that saw the first one-day international at Newlands called off.
Eoin Morgan’s players arrived at the ground on Friday ready to warm up for the series opener only to be told 90 minutes before the toss that it was postponed and they must return to the team hotel. It was South Africa’s third positive result since the tour began and, as before, their identity has not been disclosed publicly.
Officially Sunday’s match in Paarl now begins the 50-over leg of the trip, which counts towards qualification for the 2023 World Cup, followed by games two and three in Cape Town on Monday and Wednesday. But with England now expressing concerns over the integrity of the biosecure bubble, little is certain.
The positive result in the Proteas camp was shared with the tourists the evening before the match at Newlands but it wasn’t until talks between Tom Harrison, chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, and his South African counterpart, Kugandrie Govender, that the final decision was made.
The latest outbreak has prompted South Africa to order a new round of tests for their players on Friday night and then for both squads on Tuesday, between the proposed second and third games. The hosts are also speaking to players and scouring CCTV footage to determine whether any close contacts need to isolate.
The teams have been staying in separate wings of the Vineyard hotel in Newlands for the duration of the tour. Communal areas are subject to a rota system and deep cleaned in between usage, while mixing between the two squads other than on the field of play has been banned. The hotel staff are also residing on site.
England’s 24-man squad has been permitted to play golf nearby under strict protocols drawn up – Saturday’s intended round has been cancelled - but South Africa have denied talk of any unauthorised departures from the bubble, with the hotel gates guarded by security officers and also overseen by the Claremont police.
“There is a cause for concern and England has expressed a concern. England are questioning the confidence they have in the biosecure environment and rightfully so,” Dr Shuaib Manjra, CSA’s chief medical officer, said. “This [result] surprised us because we have confidence in the integrity of the biosecure environment. Further tests indicate that this is a more recent case that occurred within the biosecure environment. So clearly there seems to be some kind of breach which we have investigated in great detail to try and determined where this happened.
“I am fairly convinced that 99% of the time this environment is working. There may be a breach that is unbeknown to us. I am not saying there is zero risk. There may be a slight risk. There are a lot of moving parts in a tour such as this and we are trying to control that.”
England’s players are due to return home on Thursday via a chartered flight, with a small number heading to play in Australia’s Big Bash League. They had already privately expressed some private unease about the bubble, which is not deemed to be as stringent as that witnessed during their recent home summer.
It followed two players – believed to be David Miller and Andile Phehlukwayo – testing positive before England’s 3-0 clean sweep in the T20s and two other close contacts in the squad being forced to isolate as a result. Heinrich Klaasen also missed Tuesday’s final game, with captain Quinton de Kock stating he was unwell at the toss.
As with the tour as a whole, England players who are uncomfortable about the situation have permission to withdraw from the series without it being held against them as regards future selection. No one is believed to have taken up this option yet.
The tour is worth around £3m to the home board in total and its cancellation at the midway point would be devastating to their already ailing finances. It would also place upcoming visits by Sri Lanka, Australia and Pakistan in serious doubt.
But with players unable to be drafted into the Proteas squad, and their squad already reduced to 18 after Kagiso Rabada’s groin injury and the decision to release Faf du Plessis, Pite van Biljon, Bjorn Fortuin and Reeza Hendricks, further positive results or the determination of close contacts who need to isolate could prove decisive.
Both Ashley Giles and Graeme Smith, the respective directors of cricket for England and South Africa, were due to speak to the media about the situation on Friday before deciding against it.
The former instead issued a statement that read: “Our number one priority is the health and safety of the England team and management group, and the correct decision was made following discussions between the two Boards and respective medical teams.
“The England party will remain at its base in Cape Town on Friday and Saturday, and we are hopeful that the three-match series will be played before we depart next Thursday starting with the match at Paarl on Sunday.”