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News Analysis

How did so many Pakistan players test Covid-positive?

Questions over PCB's procedures before the side's departure to New Zealand

Umar Farooq
Umar Farooq
Sarfaraz Ahmed calls his team into a huddle, Pakistan v Australia, 1st Test, Dubai, 4th day, October 10, 2018

Sarfaraz Ahmed calls his team into a huddle  •  Getty Images

Two weeks ago, all 54 members - players and support staff - of the Pakistan squad tested negative for Covid-19 and were cleared to fly out to New Zealand. There were supposed to be 55 travellers, but Fakhar Zaman had symptoms similar to Covid-19, and was thus left behind; he would return a negative test the following day. The rest of the squad departed, apparently, with no cases of Covid-19 among them.
However, after testing upon arrival the following day, the New Zealand health ministry found half-a-dozen players had tested positive, and four players who had what was called historic infections. With this many of the travel contingent found to be carrying Covid-19 at some point since arriving in New Zealand, questions arise about whether the PCB's procedures and processes before the squad departed were rigorous enough.
The same processes weren't in place, before the New Zealand tour, as there had been before the England tour earlier in the year. Ahead of that tour, the PCB carried out two tests, including an antibody test. To comply with their stated policy for the England tour, players had to test negative twice before being cleared for travel. They were together in a hotel for seven days. For the New Zealand tour, the PCB carried out just one test, keeping players in the hotel pre-departure for only two days.
The entire squad of 35 players and 20 coaching staff and officials assembled in a Lahore hotel on the afternoon of November 20. They were tested for Covid-19 the next day and all returned negative tests. The team then departed for Dubai on a connecting flight to Auckland via Kuala Lumpur. A chartered plane then took the squad to Christchurch to begin what should have been a 14-day quarantine period.
Before flying out, the players had been part of a hectic home season in which many of them would have played in the National T20 Cup, the Quaid-e-Azam trophy in Karachi (first and second XI), the white-ball series against Zimbabwe in Rawalpindi and four PSL matches in Karachi. Though the PCB had created bio-secure bubbles for players during these matches, there were breaches, leading to a PCB reprimand for certain players during the National T20 Cup.
Earlier this week, left-arm spinner Raza Hasan was sent home from the Quaid-e-Azam trophy and banned for the rest of the season for a serious Covid-19 breach, which involved him leaving the bio-secure premises without prior clearance.
This has coincided with a time when Covid-19 has seen an alarming spike in Pakistan over the past two months. After a first peak died down in July, bringing official cases down to as low as under 500 a day in August, cases and deaths from the virus began to creep up again in October. Pakistan averages over 3,000 cases a day over the past fortnight, with the state acknowledging further precautions needed to be taken. Notably, however, a second lockdown has not been imposed, and while regional lockdowns are officially in place, enforcement remains feeble.
Between the second and third round of games in the QeA Trophy, nine Sindh players, including captain Sarfraz Ahmed, experienced flu-like symptoms. But because their results came back negative, they all remained in the bubble and only fast bowler Mir Hamza returned home after being declared unwell. Balochistan's wicketkeeper-batsman Bismillah Khan had tested positive for Covid-19 during the second round match against Southern Punjab in the Quaid-e-Azam trophy, but hadn't been tested until the fourth day, after which he was substituted on the field by Adnan Akmal - who himself would test positive a round later and is presently in quarantine in Lahore.
Five members of the Multan Sultans squad have either tested positive post the PSL, or are currently the part of the Pakistan squad who are being investigated for a historic Covid-19 infection, meaning an infection that is no longer contagious. Sohail Tanvir, part of the franchise, played the PSL, but then tested positive on arrival in Sri Lanka for the Lanka Premier League.
Zaman, who was pulled out a day before the departure for New Zealand, tested negative but his Lahore Qalandars team-mate Dilbar Hussain tested positive after landing in Australia to play in the BBL. Hussain had tested negative before leaving Pakistan, and is now in quarantine in Perth. And before playing the PSL, Shaheen Afridi underwent various tests which threw up what are believed to be inconclusive results. He was ultimately cleared to play after two negative tests, but it is understood he is one of the four players in New Zealand who are being investigated for historic infection.
The historic infection cases, in particular, throw up questions about testing in Pakistan. The four players repeatedly returned negative results during the many tests conducted over the course of the domestic season. All four were also part of the squad to England which means that they are now throwing up historic signs of an infection, despite having tested negative repeatedly since June.
The PCB is confident they did what was required of them before the departure for New Zealand. It is worth noting the PCB do not carry out the testing themselves, but outsource it to certified laboratories. And it is not as if the PCB has not tested enough: across the domestic season so far, they have conducted nearly 3000 tests.
"During the nine tournaments/series to date, as many as 2,830 Covid-19 tests have been conducted on players, players support personnel and match officials as the PCB has strictly followed and implemented its strict protocols, which were designed in-house, and have been put together for the health and safety of all participants," the board said in a statement.

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent