The responsibility of the teams, and their Boards, is not just to themselves here. There are larger implications at play and missteps will relegate an already diminished game down to a marginal existence, and irreversibly so.
There was a time when one could announce the arrival of rain through the sensory stimulation that precedes it. From the feel, the static that hangs in the air and the cold draft that hits you much before anything else. The wind picks up, and, as if in tune, actions are quickened, so that chores can be completed. Better to be tucked inside while the weather plays sport or spoil sport. Having grown in a town that enjoys the lion’s share of the rains that storm through the Indian subcontinent over the course of the two monsoons each year, I had honed a sixth sense of sorts for its arrival.
However, in the clouds of Delhi, I seem to have met my match. The unpredictability of rain in and around the Indian capital is such that one can’t tell for sure when it will arrive or leave. The usual cues and teasers mean nothing. Things will build up to a tropical storm, only to frizzle out in front of the scorching sun. The unpredictability and erratic nature of the Delhi rains has no match. Or maybe it has. In Pakistan cricket, perhaps.
Over the last four decades following the game, first as a fan and then as a journalist, I have fallen in love with Pakistan cricket for various reasons. It begins and ends, no doubt, with the magic their fast bowlers could conjure, and the flamboyance and even arrogance in their street-smart batters, though at times the beauty came with the pain of an Indian loss. The almost naive, yet sharp wit which the neighbours showcase in press briefings are highlight reels in themselves. However, the biggest charm of Pakistan cricket is the unpredictability that they bring onto the table. It is boring to be predictable, after all.
The saying goes that one can never be sure which Pakistan side will turn up on a given day. Ahead of the England tour (for the record, most players will reach England later today) that saying has been stretched beyond imagination, the unpredictability touching unprecedented heights. We are not even sure which players will make it to the squad, forget the playing XI or the performance persona they come out of the dressing room with.
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Pakistan cricket and betting has been so synonymous that one is wondering whether the bookies have already started receiving wagers on which players would turn negative and who will be positive in the coronavirus tests the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has been conducting rather diligently ahead of the tour. Sarcasm apart, the seriousness of the situation cannot and will not be missed.
The flip flops in the coronavirus tests of the England-bound Pakistan squad has once again shed light on the confused state that cricket finds itself there. Over the course of the last week, we saw 10 players test positive for Covid-19. They were quarantined while the rest of the players of the 20-strong squad meant to travel were asked to protect themselves. A couple of days later, six out of the 10 returned negative in a retest. The PCB was quick to hint that it would reconsider the fit ones for the tour of England if they come out negative in one more round of tests. While the news that some of the players had false positives in their Covid-19 tests is heartening, the fact that so many players of a tour-bound national team were infected in the first place tells us the callous way in which the PCB handled the build-up to what is a big occasion for not just Pakistan cricket but the global game as a whole.
There is a lot at stake in the restart of international cricket. It starts in England from next month, beginning with their Tests against the West Indies. Following the WI series, Pakistan play three Tests and T20Is against England in August-September. The hosts have set protocols in place, largely borrowed from the football establishment over there. The Premier League began on June 17 and, along with the Bundesliga and La Liga, have successfully established a working protocol for staging sports in a controlled, closed environment for a broadcast audience.
The PCB had nothing much to do than to follow what European football clubs did when they began convening their players for pre-restart camps. The PCB, instead of sensitizing players and officials and setting up a system taking safety into account, called for its players to convene in their centres for testing, exposing everyone involved to a situation of embarrassment which could also turn into a life and death one. Fingers crossed on that.
As things stand, Kashif Bhatti, Haris Rauf, Haider Ali and Imran Khan have tested positive again while Mohammad Hasnain, Shadab Khan, Fakhar Zaman, Mohammad Rizwan, Mohammad Hafeez and Wahab Riaz tested negative on Saturday. The ones who are negative will not be part of the main squad of 20 players to start with. “These players were asymptomatic, which means their chances of regaining complete fitness are higher and brighter than most,” PCB chief executive Wasim Khan said in a statement.
“As soon as these players test negative twice through the PCB testing process they will be flown to England to join the squad.”
The question now is over the veracity of the PCB’s testing protocols, which created the confusion in the first place, highlighted when Hafeez went on to test himself and his family at a private lab just to be sure. It returned negative.
Of course, coronavirus tests are known to produce false negatives and positives and to counter that, the PCB should perhaps have insisted on double takes in the first place, before announcing the results. This, again, underscores the lack of planning in how things were executed ahead of the tour. The PCB seems to be slow learners too despite the testing fiasco. Reports in Pakistan media say the Board has decided to let Twenty20 specialist Shoaib Malik travel to India to meet his family and join the squad later, towards the end of the Test series.
“With the Test series being played first in August, Misbah [Ul Haq, coach] is satisfied with the group of players that are travelling on Sunday as the focus will be on red-ball preparation,” the PCB CEO added.
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While getting Malik to join the team later is understandable, under the present circumstances, it is safe for everyone involved that he remains under the PCB team management’s glare right through till the matches happen. Circumstances dictate such drastic measures and if Malik is serious about the game as well as the safety of his teammates and family, he should also take a responsible stance on this. After all, no matter what the protocols are, it will fail if the end users, the players, flout them.
In England, many of the Pakistan players (same for the West Indies team members who are already there) will have close friends and family nearby. Some may even be tempted to jump curfew and leave the bio safe bubble they will be forced into. Hopefully the PCB has taken into account these possibilities and the right guidelines and a modicum of understanding has been imparted to the players. For that to happen though, the Board itself has to start thinking of setting a logical way of functioning which would not just help them during this pandemic, but also beyond, for a brighter, well-planned future.
The PCB, as per reports, is now planning to stage the matches of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) later this year. One can only hope better sense and execution is employed when they embark on that adventure, or misadventure.
This side of the border, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) suddenly seems vindicated. Its stance of not restarting centralized training for its contracted players or embarking on bilateral series or tournaments has been proven correct. The Board, while protecting its business interest and that of the Indian Premier League (IPL), can always justify it by saying its uncooperative stance towards international cricket is to protect the players.
Then again, the big football clubs of Europe and the leagues, the England and Wales Cricket Board, and the West Indies Cricket Board are all concerned about player safety, I am sure. That’s the reason why the decision to restart action — and shore up the losses — was made after establishing painstaking and at times depressing protocols of isolation. The players, coaches and support cast have all started adhering to a way of living and training that go vehemently against the social ethos of sport. A necessity in these uncertain times, no doubt.
Necessity, they say, brings out the best in human spirit as well as endeavour. A bilateral series in England will help all parties involved keep their noses above the water as the economic realities begin to hit the sport. That makes it all the more important for those involved — players, management and other stakeholders — to ensure that the endeavour is a success. Cricket needs to adapt and improvise to ensure this does not end in embarrassment, or worse, a disaster. The PCB, ideally, should have ventured in after fully understanding the gravity of the moment.
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The responsibility of the teams, and their respective Boards, is not just to themselves here. There are larger implications at play. Any missteps will relegate an already diminished game down to a marginal existence, and irreversibly so.
Deep inside, it is quite charming to see the West Indies and Pakistan as cricket’s frontline warriors against the coronavirus. These teams have mesmerized cricket lovers with magical performances and legendary implosions in equal measure. They have left one drenched, caught unawares, much like the rain in Delhi. The unpredictability of cricket and the rain are both magnetic. Wish one could say that about the uncertainty around this pandemic. Maybe soon. One tour at a time, one match at a time.
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