England’s tour of South Africa lurched back into crisis on Sunday when the first one-day international was cancelled and two members of Eoin Morgan’s touring party tested positive for Covid-19.
The match in Paarl had officially become the series-opener after a positive case in the South African camp on Friday – their third since England’s arrival on 17 November – led to the initial fixture at Newlands being called off and a fresh round of testing ordered for the home squad. But an hour before the start of play it became apparent this game was in doubt when neither team appeared at the ground.
The announcement of a delayed start was then followed by the match’s full cancellation. Monday’s second ODI will not take place until Tuesday at the earliest, and the entire tour is in jeopardy. England still have an enlarged 18-man squad here – down from 23 during their 3-0 series win in the Twenty20s – and the new “best-case” scenario is described as two back-to-back 50-over matches at Newlands on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Little is certain after England were told at 5pm on Saturday that two members of staff at the Vineyard hotel – the base for both teams – had tested positive for the virus, one of whom had been working in close contact with the tourists.
The England camp was immediately tested again that evening and two positive results came back in the morning. All players and support staff were then forced to isolate in their rooms, although this was later relaxed to allow everyone bar the two positive cases some limited use of the outdoor areas.
In the joint statement announcing the cancellation of the match, these were described as “unconfirmed positives” and it is understood that England’s medical lead on tour, Dr Moiz Moghal, has requested independent verification of the results.
The two cases in question are reporting no symptoms and there is said to be a query over unusually high levels of viral load shown up in their respective PCR tests; England’s suspicion here is that two false positives may have been returned.
If the cases are confirmed following this new analysis, the two unnamed members of the touring party face a 10-day isolation period before being permitted to leave South Africa, pushing them beyond the team’s departure via charter flight on Thursday.
Anyone deemed to be a close contact – at least 15 minutes face-to-face in the 48 hours before their latest round of tests – may also have to stay behind. The bulk of the squad are due a rare Christmas at home, although Lewis Gregory, Liam Livingstone, Tom Curran, Jason Roy and Sam Billings are meant to head to Australia for the Big Bash League.
There remains an obvious will among the top-level administrators of both boards to get some more cricket played before the end of the tour. However the sense of unease at this prospect is growing.
For Cricket South Africa, already struggling financially, a wiped out three-match series would see it lose an estimated £1.5m and threatens upcoming visits by Sri Lanka, Australia and Pakistan during this home season.
The England and Wales Cricket Board, meanwhile, will be reluctant to abandon a tour early in response to a relatively small number of cases given the precedent this may set before a packed 2021 home summer that includes a lucrative visit by India.
There is clear frustration, however, that after an English season which did not return a single positive test result during the visits of West Indies (men and women), Pakistan, Ireland and Australia, the biosecure set-up in South Africa has not worked. The first of the home side’s three positive cases was detected by initial screening on 18 November - before their players came together in Cape Town - with the second, two days after their arrival, believed to have been successfully isolated also.
There was then a 10-day gap before a third player reported symptoms at the start of this apparent recent outbreak, leaving the hotel owners and CSA baffled as to how the integrity of the so-called bio-secure bubble had been compromised.
The hotel staff have been staying on site throughout the tour, with the perimeter guarded by security and overseen by the Claremont police.
The two squads cannot mix and there is a rota for common areas, which are cleaned in between usage.
No one can enter or leave for matches or training unless in an assigned vehicle – the drivers also stay on site – and though golf has also been permitted at nearby Boschenmeer, players do not come into contact with outsiders and there are strict hygiene protocols in place.
All hotel staff were retested on Saturday and returned a full set of negatives on Sunday. Further confusion comes from the fact that two positive staff members have been working in different designated zones throughout.