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Does it make sense for cricketers to be locked down in a country where the public at large is free?

The outbreak of Covid in the England ODI camp throws some of the game's inequities into relief

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Fans at a Euro 2020 game at Wembley Stadium this week  •  Hasan Eden/Getty Images

Fans at a Euro 2020 game at Wembley Stadium this week  •  Hasan Eden/Getty Images

Within minutes of the news of the Covid outbreak among members of the England squad and management, a member of Pakistan's squad sent two messages to an ESPNcricinfo journalist. The first was a link to the news of England's sudden departure from South Africa last winter, after Covid cases emerged in the camps on both sides. The message was captioned: "Interesting read."
The second message was a brown fist emoji: "Brown Lives Matter".
Subtext: if England left South Africa when they did with the pandemic as it was in that country, why should Pakistan not call off this tour now?
Pakistan's squad has been in managed isolation in Derby since their arrival (and they have been in isolation ever since they got ready for the PSL six weeks ago). On Tuesday they left for Cardiff, ahead of the first ODI on Thursday. All of them will have logged the swift spread of the Delta variant of the virus in the country around them. New Covid cases are at 20,000-plus a day as of now and - by the government's own predictions - could reach 50,000 a day by July 19.
On that day - "Freedom day" as it has been unhelpfully dubbed - the UK will lift nearly all remaining government restrictions still in place: masking no longer mandatory; social distancing gone; so too restrictions on social contact indoors and outdoors; mass crowd events will resume - cinemas, theatres, nightclubs, nearly the entire shebang. Rules to battle the pandemic will no longer be enforced by the government. Instead, adhering to guidelines will be left to the good sense of each individual.
Easing restrictions as the number of cases rises may seem like doing things the wrong way round, except that the UK has calculated that its vaccination campaign has damaged enough the link between infections and hospitalisations (and, ultimately, deaths) to move ahead. You will find scientists armed with models who argue this is reckless, as well as scientists armed with models who argue it is not. That only serves to highlight the uncertainty of the moment we are in. Uncertainty for us, and for sport, a glaring incongruity.
Restrictions for everyone in the country have been gradually eased over the last couple of months. People are already mixing, they are eating out, some are back at work, others are going on holiday. Wembley is allowing 60,000 fans in for the semi-finals and final of the Euros. At Lord's, there will be a full crowd for England's second ODI against Pakistan, and 80% at Edgbaston for the third.
All these fans, basking in this freedom, watching professional athletes still imprisoned inside biosecure bubbles. Those biosecure protocols have not loosened at the rate society as a whole has in the UK, as Ashley Giles, managing director of the men's sides, was at pains to point out. Families have been allowed in, with caveats, and players have been allowed to grab takeaway coffee, but that's the extent of the party. In fact, the ECB decided to pull back from plans at the start of the summer to loosen restrictions because of the Delta variant - while the UK government has gone about doing the exact opposite.
The England team are no longer the sole occupants of entire hotels as they were last summer, and spaces in hotels have even been shared with the public. If there wasn't a breach of protocols - and the ECB insists there wasn't - the only explanation seems to be that real life has seeped into the bubble. This is what Giles called the "knife edge" on which England have been operating: how to manage the opening of wider society against the necessity - and mental toll - of keeping international sportspeople in isolation, because travel and mixing leaves them at risk?
The PCB haven't hesitated in having their team stay on, no doubt aware that two trips in two years to England during the pandemic should secure enough goodwill to ensure a return visit later this year to Pakistan
If all this sounds unfair on the England side, it is doubly so for their visitors. It puts into sobering perspective Sri Lanka's recent breach of protocol, not to mention the irony of them being worried now about recent contact with England's players. For sobering thoughts, here's another. By the time the Tests against India begin, we could be, again by the government's own predictions, at 100,000 cases a day. By then the Indian team would have been inside a bubble for a couple of weeks, having spent nearly a month outside, holidaying in a country where the virus is running rampant. And like England and Pakistan and Sri Lanka, they will be asked to lock down while the rest of the country is unlocked.
Above all, it puts into perspective those messages from within the Pakistan squad. If they do feel uneasy about being asked to operate along that knife edge, it's fair for them to ask why they are expected to put themselves at risk in a country where the government is, it has been reasonably argued, acting recklessly.
The PCB haven't hesitated in having their team stay on, no doubt aware that two trips in two years to England during the pandemic should secure enough goodwill to ensure a return visit later this year to Pakistan. Which is precisely the kind of inequity - the sharp end of that "Brown Lives Matter" emoji - that this pandemic has exacerbated. Some opponents are not as important as others, some countries are considered too risky to visit, some are not worth staying on in. At the end of it all, the rich countries take less of a hit and the not-so-rich ones a bigger hit.
As we head deep into a second year of managing cricket in this pandemic, even with - hopefully - better vaccination coverage, none of this is going to get easier. Think ahead to the T20 World Cup in the UAE later this year, with 16 teams arriving from around the world. The UAE has different quarantine requirements for its different emirates (as well as different restrictions after quarantine) as well as for visitors from countries on a green list (such as Australia) and others on more restrictive lists, as well as for those who have been vaccinated and those who haven't.
What of the Ashes in Australia? That country has been much stricter about who it allows to travel in. What of any tour or tournament in any country, when each is at a different stage in the fight against this pandemic, some with access to vaccines, many without, some opening up, others locking down? Almost 18 months in, it's still just about possible to believe that there will eventually be the other side we reach past this, from which we can view this moment in hindsight. It's nowhere in sight yet, though.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo