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England tour in balance as bubble bursts for South African cricket

CSA facing further financial losses and doubts about viability of upcoming tours

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
The first ODI was abandoned at short notice for a second time  •  Getty Images

The first ODI was abandoned at short notice for a second time  •  Getty Images

The bubble has burst. Of all the problems South African cricket faces at the moment, this is the one CSA wanted to avoid most. Their capacity to host international cricket has been compromised by what appear to be breaches of the bio-secure environment and now a tour hangs in the balance.
After three positive cases of their own, South Africa's visitors England are waiting for ratification of two positive results on their side. If it is confirmed that members of the touring party have Covid-19, both them and their close contacts will have to quarantine in South Africa before returning home, something that could cut into festive season plans.
Considering that England came off a bubbled home summer, in which there were no recorded positive cases, and some of their players were also in a bubbled IPL, where early cases emerged but the tournament progressed without a hitch, their experience in South Africa has left much to be desired.
England expressed concerns about the integrity of the bubble when a South Africa player tested positive on Thursday. Now that the virus may have reached their own camp, those worries can only have multiplied. And South Africa will need to be more proactive in attempting to figure out where things went wrong.
CSA conducted an investigation to determine what appeared to be a potential breach that resulted in Thursday's positive test but were unable to conclude how that may have happened. They denied that the player, or anyone else, could have left the bubble and their scrutiny of security footage did not reveal anything incriminating. They are also unsure how two hotel staff members tested positive, with the Vineyard confirming that the pair do not work in the same part of the hotel, and have not left the establishment since November 16. But not every member of staff is living at the hotel.
ESPNcricinfo understands that around 60 staff members are resident at the hotel and, of those, there are 20-30 who come into contact with players. The hotel also has a separate isolation wing, where the two staff members and the player who tested positive are being put up.
CSA insists the South Africa player who tested positive did not come into contact with any of his team-mates, which is why no one else is in isolation and it stands by the assertion that the two teams have not mixed at all. South Africa and England occupy different areas of the hotel and do not even use the same corridors. A source close to the camp insists that if players talk to each other, they do so "at a distance", although technically this should not be necessary if the bubble is secure.
The warning signs were there on November 20 that this bubble may not be. That's when a second South Africa player tested positive, having been in the bubble for two days.
The first player had not entered the bubble at all, and was accommodated separately from the rest, so he did not pose any risk. The second player is understood to have contracted the virus from the outside, before the tour began, and taken it into the bubble. He was removed from the hotel but no one else was isolated because CSA said the players had been socially distant and the rest of the group all had negative results.
The third incident is believed to have no relation to the second and has arisen inside an established bubble, creating the most cause for concern. It is not known whether England's cases, if they are positive, are a result of the third case.
All we do know is that this bubble is not as tightly controlled as those that were in place in England or at the IPL. Players are allowed to leave for rounds of golf at Boschenmeer, near Boland Park in Paarl, and South Africa have permission to train at the Vineyard Oval, across the road from the hotel. The insider confirmed that CSA tried to be flexible in allowing for some recreation, because of concerns about player welfare and bubble fatigue. There is also an indication they may have to relook at that idea for the next series, if there is one.
South Africa are also due to host Sri Lanka, Australia and Pakistan this summer and doubtless all of them will look at the way this series played out when deciding if they want to make the trip. Sri Lanka have the least time, and are expected to depart their relatively Covid-free island in 12 days to play two Tests in the Highveld over the festive season. CSA is planning on putting both teams up at the Irene Country Club in Centurion, rather than a hotel, because of the range of activities on offer. The club has an 18-hole golf course, six tennis courts, a bowling green, squash courts and a driving range. Sri Lanka will be comfortable, but they might want assurances that they will be safe as well.
Venues for the Australia Tests have yet to be announced but CSA was planning on playing at the coastal venues in Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. At the moment, Nelson Mandela Bay, where Port Elizabeth is located, is a coronavirus hotspot and has stricter regulations than the rest of the country, while in Cape Town there has been a 43% increase in new Covid-19 cases over the last week. Those trends may change by the time Australia are due to arrive in mid-February but, given how well Australia have handled the pandemic (they are playing sport with spectators in the stadiums), it would be understandable if they were wary of traveling to South Africa. And that is something CSA cannot afford.
The England and Australia tours are the only opportunity for the organisation to host profit-making series this summer and will be crucial for when its broadcast rights deal is renegotiated next April. South Africa can command a decent television rights deal if their team is strong and if the results of series against India, England and Australia are uncertain. The team's form in the last 18 months and the shrinking economy means that the broadcast deal is already at risk of being lower than CSA might like. For an organisation staring at the red - losses were previously forecast at US$42 million for the current four-year cycle - these are worrying signs.
The problem is that to host matches successfully, CSA has to spend money and, in these times, much more money than usual. As an example, it is carrying the cost of all the Covid-19 tests, at R850 (US$55) each. With several hundred tests needing to be conducted across the entire South African and English camps, all the hotel staff and match officials, CSA is footing a huge bill, which also explains why it is so desperate for this series to go ahead.
The six matches are understood to be worth US$4.2 million and though CSA has already made some of that through the T20s, it will lose some from the abandoned first ODI and more if the rest of the series doesn't go ahead. South Africa is already losing its reputation as one of the sporting world's best organisers - remember that the 2009 IPL was moved here with just a few weeks' lead time, while the 2010 Football World Cup was hailed as a success - and appears unable to put the required measures in place for the times. The men's team are also losing the chance to earn points in the World Cup Super League.
Cricket South Africa and cricket in South Africa are in crisis and this will only deepen it. The bubble has burst and the aftermath is likely to be messy.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent