Australia's three-Test tour of South Africa, scheduled to start in March, has been postponed, with Cricket Australia informing Cricket South Africa that the Covid-19 situation in South Africa has left it with "no choice" but to reschedule the travel plans.
"Due to the public-health situation in South Africa, which includes a second wave and new variant of the virus, and following extensive due diligence with medical experts, it has become clear that traveling from Australia to South Africa at this current time poses an unacceptable level of health and safety risk to our players, support staff and the community," Nick Hockley, Cricket Australia's interim CEO, said.
Former chairman of CSA's interim board, Judge Zak Yacoob, had said on January 21 that the tour was likely to be rubber-stamped
in late January, even though he had warned that the ever-changing situation with the pandemic could result in a rethink. At the time, South Africa was experiencing over 10,000 positive cases every day, with a peak of 21,980 on January 8. Numbers have since dropped to an average of 5000 per day, but with Variant 501.Y.V2 now rampant, and possibly spreading more easily than Covid-19, even CSA's best efforts were not enough to persuade Australia to tour.
"We acknowledge the significant amount of work by CSA in planning for the tour, during which we made it clear that CA was prepared to take on additional cost and effort to make the series happen," Hockley said. "This decision has not been made lightly and we are extremely disappointed, especially given the importance of continuing international cricket at this time, our valued relationship with CSA, and our aspirations to compete in the inaugural ICC World Test Championship (final).
"However, we have been consistent since the start of the pandemic that the health and safety of our people is always our number one priority and unfortunately despite best efforts to agree a bio-security plan, the risks are simply too great at this time. As difficult and disappointing a decision as this is, especially for Justin [Langer, the Australia head coach], Tim [Paine, their captain] and the team, we have a duty of care to our people and their health and safety can't be compromised."
Australia had toured England in August-September last year for a set of ODIs and T20Is, when the Covid-19 numbers in England were low, before some of their players went to the UAE to take part in the IPL.
Restrictions in South Africa had eased as of Tuesday morning. While the country remained at Level 3 of its lockdown (with Level 5 being the strictest), public parks and beaches were open, and the curfew had been eased - from 11pm to 4am as opposed to 9pm to 5am as was the case through January. Social gatherings, including spectators at sports stadiums, continue to be prohibited and the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, warned that the level of transmission remained relatively high.
"As difficult and disappointing a decision as this is, especially for Justin, Tim and the team, we have a duty of care to our people and their health and safety can't be compromised"
It was through these rising infections that South Africa hosted Sri Lanka over the festive season, when the lockdown tightened during the Boxing Day Test. The two teams were housed at the Irene Country Club in Centurion and the tour took place without incident. CSA were planning on using the same venue for the Australia series.
Matches were slated to be played at SuperSport Park and the Wanderers, with the Test series due to start on March 3 and finish on March 25. The country club is considered a "lifestyle" hotel, with access to a dam, driving range and various outdoor activities. ESPNcricinfo understands that Cricket Australia was also in talks to build an additional makeshift gymnasium on the property and both CSA and the country club were doing all they could to accommodate the touring party's requests.
The rescheduling of this series is a major financial blow to CSA, which has already lost money after England pulled out of their white-ball tour in November, with the ODI series yet to be played. Concerns over the integrity of the bio-secure environment in Cape Town, where the England series took place, arose after three South African players and two hotel staff tested positive for Covid-19. Two members of the England camp also returned positive tests that were later clarified as false positives, by which time England had opted to return home. CSA had to forego US$ 1.5 million in television rights as a result. The Australia series will result in losses to the tune of Rand 30 million (US$ 2 million) to Rand 40 million (US$ 2.6 million), further adding to CSA's woes. Their forecast losses for the current four-year cycle hover between Rand 654 million and Rand 1 billion (US$ 43.7 million and US$ 66.9 million).
The Tests were also an opportunity for both Australia and South Africa to make gains on the World Test Championship table, with Australia aiming to finish in the top three and challenge for a place in the final and South Africa hoping to settle on a new Test captain and move into the top half. "While disappointing for both playing groups and cricket lovers all over the world, this is a prudent decision considering the prevalence and virulence of the Covid-19 strain in South Africa," Joe Connellan, Australian Cricketers' Association interim CEO, said.
Connellan said the player body would work with CA and CSA in "exploring new options for this series to be rescheduled".