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Tour and tournament reports

South Africa vs England in 2020-21

A review of South Africa vs England, 2020-21

Neil Manthorp
04-Jan-2022
The big screen at Boland Park confirms the first ODI's abandonment, South Africa vs England, Boland Park, December 6, 2020

The big screen at Boland Park confirms the first ODI's abandonment  •  Gallo Images/Getty Images

Twenty20 internationals (3): South Africa 0, England 3
Positive Covid-19 tests on players and hotel staff led to the last-minute postponement of the first one-day international, then its cancellation, and finally England's return home halfway through their six-match tour. After enormous effort by Cricket South Africa to create a biosecure environment - including exclusive use for both teams of the four-star Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town, and strict security at Newlands and Paarl's Boland Park - local disappointment was immense.
The trip, originally scheduled for the northern spring of 2021, had already been brought forward at the ECB's request, because of concerns about fixture overload. For a while, tension between South Africa's government and cricket board threatened to scupper the tour, with sports minister Nathi Mthethwa urging the board to step down amid accusations of mismanagement. But it was clear that cancellation suited no one - and might even have bankrupted CSA, who hoped to net £3.5m in TV revenue from England's visit.
While South Africa's internal squabble inevitably resolved itself, with the entire board standing down on October 26, and replaced by an interim committee, the ECB dealt behind the scenes with Graeme Smith, CSA's director of cricket. The ECB had paid for the charter flights that brought West Indies and Pakistan to the UK during the summer but, conscious of the hosts' precarious finances, now funded their own travel. And so, on November 16, a squad of 23, and almost as many management and coaching staff, flew to Cape Town for ten days of semi-quarantine, during which they played two intra-squad matches, and plenty of golf - a condition of touring, not simply a request.
For the two teams, those ten days could not have been more contrasting. Before they entered the mini-lockdown, South Africa were already isolating three players - Andile Phehlukwayo, who had contracted the virus outside the bubble and, as a precaution, "close contacts" Temba Bavuma and Kagiso Rabada. None of the trio was originally named. Next day, the South Africans called off a practice match after David Miller - again unnamed - tested positive too. They also ceded all common areas of the hotel to the England players, including the gym and swimming pool, and for six days made use of goods entrances and fire exits, until the entire squad had tested negative three times.
England's warm-ups, between Team Morgan and Team Buttler, were intense and entertaining, with Buttler's XI comfortably winning both, across 40 overs at Newlands, and 20 at Paarl. South Africa did not even have a middle practice, with their non-IPL contingent - which was most of them - having played no white-ball cricket for almost nine months. The fact that they were competitive in the first two T20 internationals was surprising, though they lost the series 3-0.
Then, the day before the first ODI, another South African player, Heinrich Klaasen, tested positive; two days later, so did two of the hotel staff, including one who had been working in England's section of the accommodation. The tourists were en route to Newlands when the game was postponed. Meanwhile, when news emerged that England had apparently broken their own strict protocols by using the nets behind the stands at Newlands, rather than those set up for them on the square, there was danger of a tit-for-tat row. England insisted they had been granted permission to use the nets, but the SA Police Service brigadier in charge of biosecurity was so incensed he threatened to press charges, until pacified by CSA. The South African team had been denied permission to use the nets.
The original schedule of three ODIs in six days was always tight but, displaying an admirable willingness to continue, England agreed to three in four days - then, after the first was cancelled, two in two. But when two of their own party had returned unconfirmed positive tests, the tourists were spooked. And even though the two positive tests proved negative 12 hours later, they had had enough. Next day, the tour was called off.
CSA's chief medical officer, Dr Shuaib Manjra, was "devastated" by the decision, and said expectations had been "unrealistic" - probably because the ECB had managed to get through a condensed home summer involving five touring teams without a single positive case. "In some ways, they were a victim of their own success, and set the bar unrealistically high," he said. "They spent millions, and created more of a vacuum than a biosecure environment. It was obvious they were experiencing some bubble fatigue, so we tried to incorporate some leeway, without compromising their health and safety." Manjra cited England's request to play golf - the players were driven straight to the first tee at prearranged courses, bypassing the clubhouses - as evidence of their desire to be a bit more relaxed. "None of the smaller nations outside the Big Three can afford to spend the money the ECB did, and nobody can guarantee there will be no infections, in any environment," he said. "What matters is how you manage the infections."
He believed it was safe and reasonable for England to have played at least the second and third ODIs. Just days after the tour was abandoned, the ECB's own medical team joined a conference call between CSA and Sri Lanka Cricket to assure the Sri Lankans that everything had been done to keep the players safe, and that they should have no doubts about visiting South Africa for two Tests shortly after England's departure. After initial concerns, SLC played ball.
Graeme Smith and ECB chief executive Tom Harrison agreed the one-day series would be rescheduled "within the current cycle" of World Cup Super League matches building up to the 2023 World Cup, and the tourists would pick up the £400,000 hotel bill. The fact that they stayed on for the full scheduled duration of the tour was seen by locals as indicative of the danger they really believed they were in. As for the cricket that was played, England captain Eoin Morgan gave his team "seven out of ten, maybe eight for the last game". Nonetheless, the series win moved them to the top of the T20 rankings, while more clinical batting from Dawid Malan, twice named Player of the Match, confirmed they also had the format's top-ranked batsman.