After a hiatus since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, international cricket will hopefully return on 8 July when the Windies are set to start a three-match Test series in England. The series is, however, still subject to the final approval of the British government.
But even if the tour is approved, it will not be “business as usual”. Firstly, all the Windies players had to submit themselves to coronavirus testing in the Caribbean. The results of these tests should be known by the weekend. Only those who tested negative will be allowed to board the chartered flight on Monday.
Secondly, the Windies selectors have named no fewer than 11 substitutes, who are due to fly with the team, just in case any of the official squad players contract the disease in England. A total squad of 25 must certainly be one of the biggest in the history of international cricket! And finally, in accordance with current UK COVID-19 regulations, the squad and all management will have to quarantine themselves for 14 days upon arriving.
According to media reports, the Windies management gave the players the option to withdraw. Three of them, Darren Bravo, Shimron Hetmyer and Keemo Paul, decided to pull out of the tour. Cricket West Indies subsequently revealed that the players withdrew because of concerns for the health of their families and that their decisions will not be held against them.
As with the issue of force majeure discussed a few weeks ago, a player’s decision to withdraw from a team or team activity because of health concerns places in the spotlight clauses in cricketers’ contracts often not given a second thought.
Professional cricket contracts in South Africa all deal with matters like the obligations on players to always be available to play when selected, make sure to the best of their ability that they are healthy and fit, and attend team functions and ceremonies. However, matters of team safety and security and a duty of care towards every individual player are the responsibility of the team. No contract makes any mention about procedures to be followed in case of a general health and safety issue, for example a pandemic or war.
Bravo, Hetmyer and Paul were given a choice. One can foresee that will be norm around the world as things start opening up again. But one can also foresee that giving players a choice will gradually be phased out. The day could arrive when the demands of the team and a player’s personal safety concerns are not aligned.
For the overwhelming majority of players their professional contract is their only source of income. A player will therefore not do something that would put his livelihood at risk. The Guyanese all-rounder Paul, who is only 22 years old, is the sole breadwinner in his entire household and wider family. He had to weigh up the loss of income from the England tour with the long-term consequences for his family if he contracted COVID-19. It was no doubt a heavy decision. There are many players in South Africa in a similar situation as Paul.
As much as we all would like cricket to get going in South Africa when the 2020/21 season arrives, players’ legitimate health concerns will have to be heeded perhaps a little longer than their respective teams would prefer. After all, I am sure that no one would want a “line in the sand” moment between a team and a player.