South Africa have been encouraged by the BCCI’s willingness to play three T20Is at the end of August, provided government regulations on both sides allow the fixtures to go ahead. The series, which is not part of the Future Tours Programme (FTP), was negotiated by Cricket South Africa’s director of cricket Graeme Smith and BCCI president Sourav Ganguly during a CSA executive trip to India in February, and finalised via teleconference yesterday as both boards consider ways to get their teams back on the park.
Of course, there remain significant challenges to the series going ahead, with both countries still under lockdown, with their Covid-19 infection rates on an upward curve. South Africa is preparing for a September peak in infection rates, which would make hosting matches in August seem unlikely. In such a case, CSA’s acting CEO Jacques Faul said the BCCI expressed “willingness” to play the matches later in the South African summer.
Hosting is crucial to CSA’s finances and hosting India would generate significant profits at a time when the board is bracing for big losses. Ahead of the 2019-20 season, CSA was forecasting losses of R654 million (USD 36 million approx) over the next four-year cycle and the South African Cricketers Association put that figure at closer to R1 billion (USD 56 million approx). Although the coronavirus pandemic has not cost South African cricket heavily yet, the long-term projections are grim and an India series would go a long way to putting South African cricket in a more stable financial situation.
From a financial perspective, as long as the India series is played before the end of the financial year, which ends on February 28, 2021, CSA will be able to mitigate some of its projected losses.
Arun Dhumal, the BCCI treasurer, confirmed that the Indian board had spoken to CSA on Wednesday but also said the tour would be subject to the travel guidelines at the time. “We are positive. We’ve had a healthy discussion, but it is work in progress as of now,” Dhumal told ESPNcricinfo.
According to Dhumal the BCCI would not want the India players to be quarantined. “We have committed that in case there are no travel restrictions, everything is safe, then we would like to work it out. Our commitment is to that level. We have not firmed up any date.”
Before that possibly happens, sporting activity would first need to resume in South Africa. The country is on its 55th day of lockdown, which is among the strictest in the world. While individuals are allowed to exercise outdoors between 6am and 9am daily, group activity remains prohibited, which has caused all professional sport to be halted. The country is set to ease some restrictions on June 1, when it moves to Level 3 of a five-stage lockdown (with Level 5 being the most severe), but indications are that sport would only be allowed at Level 2 or lower.
CSA, through the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, is seeking an audience with the country’s sports minister to ask for permission to play behind closed doors, if needed.
“This will relate to the possibility of the India incoming tour,” Faul confirmed.
If government approval is obtained, CSA would then look to create a bio-bubble, similar to what the ECB, which it has been in consultation with, is planning. “It will be a sanitised cricket biosphere with strict entry standards and limited movement out of this cordon, and this will require regular testing of all those in the bubble,” Dr Shuaib Manjra, CSA’s chief medical officer, said. “We will create a cordon sanitaire, where people will not be allowed to leave or come in unless strict criteria are met.”
Ideally, a bio-bubble is created at a ground that has accommodation options on-site. If that is the case, the South African venue best suited to this is in the student-town of Potchefstroom, outside Johannesburg. The facility is often used by touring teams in preparation for series because it has a complete sports complex, including accommodation, within one area.
As per the FTP, India’s next international assignment is a limited-overs series in Sri Lanka in July followed by another limited-overs series in Zimbabwe in August. Dhumal said the South Africa tour would be “on top of” the latter tour if it materialised. Dhumal said both the Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe series were not yet firmed up but India would “like to” travel provided it was safe for players to do so.
Hosting India in late August would impact the rest of South Africa’s calendar. They are scheduled to play two Tests and five T20Is from mid-July against West Indies, but it appears this series will be moved to a later date. “We are working with the West Indies board to try and find a window, post their tour of England, which would shift our dates,” Smith said.
West Indies are due to be in England until July 29, and with South Africa hoping to host India at the end of August, they would be looking to visit the Caribbean either in the small window between the end of the West Indies tour of England and the home series against India, or after the India T20Is. With teams likely to have to spend two weeks in quarantine either side of series, squeezing the West Indies tour into August would appear unlikely and South Africa will instead look at playing that series after hosting India, perhaps even outside of the islands.
“We are looking at all avenues,” Smith said. “It seems to be Trinidad is their favoured venue from a playing and a health perspective. Or to a neutral ground. Or playing in South Africa. It’s a time for members to work closely together and try and find a way to get cricket going and to support each other.”