Updated 30-Nov-2021 • Published 26-Nov-2021

Newsfile - New Covid-19 variant threatens South African home summer

By Firdose Moonda

Overview

  • A new Covid-19 variant has come up in South Africa in late November
  • With Covid-19 cases rising, a number of series are at stake; among the highest-profile of these is India's men's team tour of South Africa for three Tests, three ODIs and four T20Is scheduled to start from mid-December
  • South Africa has been added to the UK's red list and travel restrictions from several countries are in place

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    'Whatever best we can do to not compromise the series, we will try'

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    South Africa welcomes Indian cricket teams to the country

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    WHO says Omicron carries a 'very high global risk'

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    'Everything is on track' - CSA head on India's tour of South Africa

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    Effects felt across sporting events in South Africa

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    What next?

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    More cancellations

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    Please come, India

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    A decision on the series to be made in the next 24 to 48 hours

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    Partial lockdown in Netherlands?

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    Rugby matches postponed in South Africa

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    Official update at 3.30pm local time

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    Impact on SA-India series?

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    Cricket Ireland issue statement on Women's World Cup Qualifiers

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    Netherlands-SA series hanging in the balance

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'Whatever best we can do to not compromise the series, we will try'

Not long after the statement from the South African government, BCCI treasurer Arun Dhumal told PTI: “We stand with them (South Africa); the only thing is we won't compromise on players' safety. As of now we have a chartered flight going to Johannesburg as scheduled and players will be in a bio bubble.”

On the possible change of venues within South Africa to deal with the threat, Dhumal said, "We are in constant touch with the Cricket South Africa (CSA) officials.

"Whatever best we can do to not compromise the series we will try and do but if situation aggravates and if it compromises our players' safety and health, we will see. In the end, whatever is the Government of India advisory, we will abide by that.”

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South Africa welcomes Indian cricket teams to the country

Even as some amount of uncertainty hovers over the senior India men’s team’s all-format tour of South Africa, the second South Africa A vs India A four-day match has started today in Bloemfontein.

The South African Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation, meanwhile, has issued a welcome note of sorts to the visiting teams, saying, “South Africa will take all precautions necessary to ensure the health and safety of the Indian teams. A full bio-secure environment will be established around both the South African and Indian ‘A’ teams as well as the two national teams.”

It was back in 1991 that South Africa were readmitted to the cricket world, and their first series was in India, for three ODIs. This year marks the 30th anniversary of that series, and the ministry said that a “commemorative event” would take place in Cape Town on January 2 to mark the occasion.

“India’s decision to show solidarity by choosing to continue with the tour of the Indian ‘A’ team stands in contrast with a numbers of countries who have decided to close their borders and to restrict travel from Southern Africa after South Africa announced the detection of the new Omicron variant,” the statement said. “The South African Government has expressed its appreciation to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for allowing the tour to continue and for not letting travel restrictions negatively impact on international sports.”

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WHO says Omicron carries a 'very high global risk'

World cricket will once again be on the alert after the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Sunday warned that the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, which was first detected in South Africa a few days ago, carries a “very high global risk” and if there is “another major surge” of Covid-19 the consequences could be “severe”.

The WHO alert comes two days after it had said Omicron was a variant of concern on November 26. “Given mutations that may confer immune escape potential and possibly transmissibility advantage, the likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high,” WHO said in a paper released on Sunday. “Depending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences, depending on a number of factors including where surges may take place. The overall global risk related to the new VOC Omicron is assessed as very high.”

The announcement is bound to keep all the cricketing boards as well as the ICC anxious with several ongoing bilateral series globally as well as marquee events like the Ashes and the Men’s Under-19 World Cup and the Women’s ODI World Cup being played over the next few months.

One of those boards that is bound to be nervous is Cricket South Africa, with India scheduled to arrive in South Africa around December 9 for a full tour comprising three Tests, three ODISs and four T20s. While the white-ball segment is all scheduled in Cape Town, which will also host the final Test, the first two Tests are scheduled in Johannesburg and Centurion. Both Jo’burg and Centurion, which is in Pretoria, are in the Gauteng province where the bulk of the cases related to Omicron have cropped up. The province has experienced an increase in hospital admissions over the past 14 days, and this is expected to spread to the rest of the country in the coming weeks.

WHO said: “At present, local transmission has been reported in South Africa and there is evidence of spread to several countries in four WHO regions (African, Eastern Mediterranean, European, and Western Pacific regions). While most of the cases identified in these countries are travel-related, we expect this to change as more information becomes available. Overall risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron is thus considered very high.

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'Everything is on track' - CSA head on India's tour of South Africa

Cricket South Africa has held positive talks with the BCCI and remains confident India's tour will go ahead as planned. Although one of the country's top epidemiologists Dr Salim Abdul Karim predicts that the country will be registering over 10,000 cases daily by the end of the week, up from 275 a day last week, CSA has given the BCCI assurances about the integrity of their biosecure environments (BSE) in both Gauteng and the Western Cape.

"We've been engaging with them (the BCCI) and they are very keen to come," Pholetsi Moseki, CSA's acting CEO, said. "Our government is very keen to support us and to reassure our Indian counterparts. Everything is on track."

The Gauteng province, where the first and second Tests will take place, is where most of South Africa's new cases are occurring, with the Western Cape expected to follow. CSA successfully hosted Sri Lanka and Pakistan in Gauteng last summer and were preparing to host Australia there as well, but the Western Cape has been less successful. England abandoned their tour of South Africa last December after positive cases in their Cape Town hotel. CSA has since tightened the bubble, with players not allowed to leave the hotel for any reason, including to play golf, and do not foresee needing to change the venues of this series.

"We had prepared for two BSEs. We learnt a lot from the England tour last year. When we planned for this tour, we always planned for Gauteng and Cape Town, because of the quantity of games," Moseki said. "The plan is to charter a flight from Jo'burg to Cape Town. That was always the plan, even before this new variant."

As things stand, CSA has not made any other contingency plans to play the tour elsewhere or at another time. Instead, it expects the India series to go ahead and add much needed revenue to the coffers after the loss of England and Australia last season. "If the tour doesn't happen, it will definitely put us in a difficult position. We will have to put some programmes on pause. We will be in a difficult position for a year or two," Moseki said.

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Effects felt across sporting events in South Africa

Meanwhile, our colleagues at ESPN India report that the Commonwealth Wrestling Championship, to be held in Pretoria from tomorrow, has been postponed to early next year. Vipin Tomar, assistant secretary of the Wrestling Federation of India, told Jonathan Selvaraj that the squad was due to leave early tomorrow morning but the trip was cancelled.

The Junior Women's Hockey World Cup, due to be held in Potchefstroom next month, has already been postponed. The international hockey federation (FIH) took the call on Saturday. "The safety of everyone involved in the FIH events is an absolute priority. Additionally, many countries, including from some of the participating teams, have now strongly increased their travel restrictions with South Africa, including halting flights. Therefore, it simply isn't possible to maintain this event as planned," FIH CEO Thierry Weil said in a statement.

India’s Olympic gold-medal winner Neeraj Chopra is also likely to cancel his training camp in South Africa; he had spent several weeks there in early 2020 training for the Tokyo Olympics before the pandemic broke out.

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What next?

Things have moved pretty quickly here in South Africa on this first day of the international summer and already we're wondering how many days we'll have. This is not just about the discovery of a new variant, especially in a cricketing sense because Cricket South Africa pride themselves on the state of the biobubbles, but about travel restrictions. Teams are understandably reluctant to move in and our of countries which require them to quarantine, so that puts South Africa in a difficult position. There's a lot that needs to be thought through over the next few days, and those questions look a little something like this:

  • Will the series against Netherlands be completed?
  • With India A playing in Bloemfontein, will their series against South Africa A continue?
  • And the big one: Are the Indian men's team going to travel to South Africa for their three-Test, three ODI and four T20I series? And if they do, will the fixtures remain the same or will they be confined to the Highveld, to eliminate the risks associated with traveling?

Our India insider Nagraj Gollapudi has this to add: "While the BCCI has not officially made any statement concerning the India tour, the board, Indian team management and the players will have some key questions. First and foremost would be if the cases spread across South Africa then will they need to postpone and tweak the schedule? Also, will the Indians need to quarantine upon landing in South Africa? Can families travel with players and coaches in the wake of this development? Another important question would be if India puts South Africa on the red list – will that have an impact on the tour even though the team will be travelling on a charter flight?"

So we're in a tricky and evolving situation and both CSA and BCCI are bound to engage on a regular basis as the questions are likely to rise rather than recede. We'll keep you posted in the coming days.

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More cancellations

This time in hockey. England's under-21 players will not be traveling to South Africa for the junior women's World Cup. The event is scheduled for December 5 to 16 in Potchefstroom.

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Please come, India

That's the cry from South Africans, including former international Farhaan Behardien.

He won't be alone in this. An India tour is lucrative for any cricket country and absolutely necessary for South Africa, whose coffers are depleted from previously abandoned series. England left last year, at around this time, without playing their ODI series and Australia did not arrive for a four-Test series scheduled for earlier this year. If another of "Big Three" country absconds, Cricket South Africa's cashflow will be severely compromised.

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New variant spreads

If you're interested in more about the new variant, we've had confirmation that it's made its way to Europe. And it's Netherlands' neighbours, Belgium, who have reported the first case.

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A decision on the series to be made in the next 24 to 48 hours

So what we know is that we don't really know anything yet. Cricket South Africa have issued a statement confirming that the Dutch team are looking to leave the country but may not be able to this weekend and a decision on the series will be taken in "the next 24-48 hours." The next match is on Sunday, so there's not much time.

"Cricket South Africa (CSA) and Koninklijke Nederlandse Cricket Bond (KNCB) are aware of news reports doing the rounds regarding the Netherlands tour to South Africa being cancelled or postponed. Both boards can confirm that following updated information, it is highly unlikely that the visiting team will be able to fly out of South Africa over the weekend.

The KNCB is reviewing all of its options, while prioritising the physical and mental well-being of its players. A decision on the continuation of the series will follow in the next 24 to 48 hours, while all flight options are being considered.

No other comment will be offered until a definite resolution has been reached."

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Partial lockdown in Netherlands?

The Dutch caretaker prime minister Max Rutte will hold a news conference at 6pm GMT and is expected to announce new measures to curb rising cases, according to The Guardian. You'd think that's likely to affect the state of mind of the team in South Africa, even if they can't get home for another week.

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Rugby matches postponed in South Africa

But it's not looking good for sport to go ahead. SA Rugby have announced that the United Rugby Championship matches, which involve teams from the UK, will not go ahead as scheduled.

"The Vodacom United Rugby Championship announced on Friday that this weekend’s round six matches in South Africa had been postponed due to the emergence of a new variant of COVID-19 (B.1.1.529). Next week’s round seven matches have also been postponed.

In a statement, organisers said that due to the sudden developments that had placed South Africa on the UK and EU travel red list the matches would be rescheduled for later this season.

The safety and well-being of our participating clubs' players, coaches, support staff and match officials is the foremost priority and the URC is currently working with the four visiting clubs – Cardiff Rugby, Munster Rugby, Scarlets and Zebre Parma – to facilitate their return as soon as possible,” the statement advised.

This decision is based upon the latest guidance against non-essential travel to and from South Africa, the ban on direct flights to the UK and other home destinations and the potential hotel quarantines enforced upon those returning from South Africa.

As has been the operating practice throughout the pandemic, the URC will continue engaging with our Medical Advisory Group, our union shareholders and respective governments to plan according to the latest health guidelines.

A period of assessment will now be required to better understand the impact of these new travel restrictions and how to reschedule these games within the current season. Given the nature and speed of these developments URC will provide further updates at the appropriate time through official channels only.”

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Official update at 3.30pm local time

Cricket South Africa have confirmed that an official update on the status of the Netherlands trip to South Africa will be provided at 3.30pm local time (which is about 18 minutes from now if you're reading it live).

ESPNcricinfo understands a meeting is underway with the two teams to determine whether they are in the right frame of mind to play and that the Dutch team are unlikely to be able to get a flight out before December 3. The next two matches are scheduled for Sunday, November 28 and Wednesday December 1.

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Impact on SA-India series?

This is the big question, isn't it? South Africa are due to host India for three Tests, three ODIs and four T20s with matches due to be played in Johannesburg and Centurion, where case numbers have risen exponentially, and Cape Town, where a fourth wave has started. The India A side is currently in Bloemfontein and word is that their fixtures will continue for now. India have put in place stricter testing measures for travellers from southern Africa but no ban.

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Cricket Ireland issue statement on Women's World Cup Qualifiers

Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe the Women's World Cup Qualifiers are underway and could also be threatened by the restrictions imposed on southern African countries. The Dutch and Irish teams are part of that tournament and those are two of the countries that are not letting travellers from six countries. We understand that the ICC are due to have a teleconference in the next couple of hours. For now, there's this statement from Cricket Ireland.

"Cricket Ireland has been actively monitoring and engaging in discussions with the ICC and government about the reported new Covid variant in southern Africa and its potential implications for teams participating at the current ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe.

The Ireland Women’s cricket team is currently based in Harare, and have played two matches in the Group Stage of the tournament, with their next match scheduled for Monday. After the side’s win yesterday over the Netherlands, it is likely they will progress to the Super 6 round, where matches are currently scheduled for 1st, 3rd and 5th December.

Warren Deutrom, Chief Executive of Cricket Ireland, said:

“We are very concerned about the latest developments regarding the reported new Covid variant in Southern Africa as we have our Women’s squad currently in Zimbabwe playing a World Cup Qualifier.

“While the circumstances around travel restrictions and health advice is a fast-moving one, we have been in close contact with the ICC, the Irish government and sports bodies in both jurisdictions to better understand the facts, and to properly inform and reassure the squad leadership.

“Our decision-making will be first-and-foremost based on the health and safety of players and support staff.

“We will provide updates as soon as we can.”

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Netherlands-SA series hanging in the balance

Well, well. Hello everyone! It's the start of South Africa's second summer in the pandemic and it seems Covid-19 could already have an impact. The Netherlands, who are currently waiting out a rain delay in the first ODI against South Africa at SuperSport Park, are trying to get back home after several countries shut their borders to travellers from South Africa because of a new variant.

What we know so far is that a decision was taken between CSA and KNCB to call the tour off after this match but that the Dutch players are struggling to get a flight out and could be in the country until December 3. If they are here, why not play? We're expecting an official word soon.

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