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Covid-19 effect: South Africa forced to postpone 2020 Mzansi Super League

The tournament, which would have had its third edition this year, has been postponed by a year

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
The Jozi Stars team celebrates with the inaugural MSL trophy  •  MSL

The Jozi Stars team celebrates with the inaugural MSL trophy  •  MSL

South Africa's Mzansi Super League (MSL), the flagship T20 tournament in the country in 2018 and 2019, will not take place this year. CSA said in a statement on Monday that "various national and international logistical reasons caused by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic" have forced the postponement of the tournament by a year - it will now be played in November-December 2021.
CSA is yet to release fixtures for the coming season, but the plan is to play a franchise T20 competition in lieu of the MSL towards the end of the upcoming summer in order to give players game time ahead of next year's T20 World Cup, to be played in India in October-November. That means the six current domestic franchises - as opposed to the eight teams that were to make up the MSL competition - will participate in a single-round of matches around March 2021.
The only other detail known about the new season is that first-class cricket is expected to resume in November, but international tours cannot be finalised until South Africa's sports ministry gives national teams permission to play. South Africa's borders are opening for limited international travel on Thursday but international sport has yet to be approved.
At the same time, while domestic contact and non-contact sports contests are allowed (and are being played) spectators are prohibited from going to watch matches as the country continues to operate under a lenient Covid-19 lockdown. South Africa is currently in stage one of a five-level lockdown, with five being the most severe, and the country's infection rate is relatively stable at around 1500 new cases a day. The recovery rate sits at 90%.
The combined effects of restrictions on international travel and in-stadia attendance, as well as the absence of a broadcast and sponsorship deal, forced CSA's hand when it came to staging the MSL this year.
While the CSA statement said that the competition's "headline sponsor" was disappointed the tournament was not going ahead, no sponsor has been named yet, and the MSL was played without one in its previous two editions. It also did not attract a television-rights' deal, and was understood not to have secured one for this year either, which resulted in CSA footing the total bill for the tournament's production, to the tune of more than Rand 200 million ($11.7 million approx.) over two years. CSA is predicting significant losses in the next four-year cycle too.
Acting CSA CEO Kugandrie Govender, however, did not mention those aspects as the financial reasons behind the MSL's postponement, and instead pointed to player availability and the ban on fans.
"The Covid-19 restrictions and uncertainty around international travel, including the state of control of South African borders, as well as border control at the country points of departure of international players, also compelled CSA to make this rational decision," she said. "Also, the unavailability of national players due to a revised and saturated season, would have diluted the quality that CSA envisions for MSL.
"The fact that we would have to play in empty grounds was another consideration, not only financially but also for player morale and team spirit, which links to fan support. The atmosphere and encouragement our fans have brought to first two editions have been significant and contributed incredibly to the MSL's success. We would not want to lose out on that or the opportunity to position the league as an important way to attract new fans to the game."
Although the MSL does not attract the same number of overseas players as the IPL or the CPL, it has featured the likes of Chris Gayle and Alex Hales in the past and several members of the international contingent have praised the tournament's standard. Similarly, while not all stadiums hosted sell-out crowds, especially in the early stages of last year's tournament, numbers grew, especially in places like Port Elizabeth's St George's Park, Centurion's SuperSport Park. At Boland Park in Paarl, where the reigning champions the Paarl Rocks are based, matches were often played in front of full houses.
For now, South African cricket fans will have to wait for news on when they will see players in action again. If the domestic four-day competition gets going, it is unlikely to be televised (it has not been for many years) and will likely be played behind closed doors. This summer will also see fewer fixtures than normal, with former acting CEO Jacques Faul initially suggesting that the organisation was planning for "half a season", and draft fixture lists showing franchises not playing as many matches as in years before. The players have not been affected yet, but there is talk of pay cuts, especially as CSA remains embroiled in administrative crisis.
The body is at an impasse with the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, who want the CSA Board and Executive to step aside and o be given full access to the forensic report that CSA used to fire former CEO Thabang Moroe. CSA has refused on both counts.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent