New Zealand, one of the few places in the world to have virtually defeated the novel coronavirus and resumed “normal” life, currently has only 59 active COVID-19 cases within its borders. It should be a matter of concern to Pakistan that more than 16% of these cases comprise none other than our beloved cricket team.
With 10 of the 54 Pakistani cricket players currently in New Zealand having tested positive for the virus, it is important to question just how such a situation could have come about. If even the nation’s most important public figures can become victim to such mishandling, the average Pakistani citizen has much to worry about.
Let us recap the situation, and decipher what went wrong.
The Pakistani national team returned to Pakistan from its England tour in September in a bio-secure environment. The squads who played three Tests and Twenty20 Internationals (T20Is) each comprised a combined total of 23 players, with more than half the players overlapping between both squads. These 23 players travelled to and from England in a chartered flight, maintaining their bio-bubble, and stayed at exclusive hotels within the premises of the stadiums where matches were scheduled. The bubble was maintained in Pakistan even as the PSL took place, and cricket in Pakistan proceeded relatively smoothly, considering the pandemic.
However, things took a downwards spiral at the time of the New Zealand tour, with an unprecedented number of players testing positive for the coronavirus. This time, the situation differed from the England tour in a number of significant ways: the contingent flying to New Zealand comprised a whopping 54 players, including 20 support staff—all of whom travelled via commercial flight. Sources reveal that at least 12 of these players were seated in economy class. While a chartered plane took the players from Auckland to Christchurch, most of their travel, including connecting flights—from Lahore to Dubai to Kuala Lumpur—was public. Moreover, the Pakistani contingent in New Zealand were provided accommodation at hotel premises that also hosted other people.
A casual observer of these facts is bound to question why the circumstances of this tour—one occurring at the peak of the second wave of the virus—differed so greatly from earlier in the year, and whether someone is to be held responsible.
Some answers appear obvious. The squads travelling this time comprised too large a number for a bio-bubble to remain secure. With a number as great as 53, the odds for contamination of the bubble remained high. Any irresponsibility on part of even one player could cost the entire team, as it has now proven to do so.
Moreover, the travel arrangements for the players were less than ideal. The 54 Pakistani players should have been provided with exclusive air travel, and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) must be held accountable for not negotiating a better deal for its players with New Zealand, as it had done with England. Considering the precarity of the global health situation, accepting anything lesser than a chartered flight and exclusive accommodation for the Pakistan teams reflects poorly on Pakistani standards and expectations.
With all our players testing negative in the two COVID-19 tests conducted in Pakistan, and then positive in New Zealand, blaming the travelling arrangements would not be unfounded. With six players testing positive in the first test in New Zealand, another two in the second, and an additional two in the third test, it is evident that the virus could have been contracted in flight or while in New Zealand. In this case, most, if not all, positive cases could have been prevented had the teams been provided a higher standard of travel and accommodation facilities.
Alternatively, there is a valid possibility of some players having carried the virus from Pakistan. However, this raises serious questions—on an international stage—against Pakistan’s testing facilities.
Such questioning also occurred during the England tour, with some players producing differing results after getting tested for COVID-19 from multiple facilities. Muhammad Hafeez’s case remains most prominent, with his privately procured COVID-19 test displaying negative results immediately after he appeared positive according to tests arranged by the PCB. While fortunate for the player, this event proved embarrassing for the PCB and for Pakistan.
If such a scenario indeed occurred again, then the 4-day window granted to players to meet their families, between the England tour and the PSL, is the most probable time they could have contracted the virus. If so, it implies that they did not strictly comply with COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs) and must be held responsible for being lax about social distancing guidelines.
While individual players have a responsibility to comply with the COVID-19 restrictions, the authorities responsible for them are equally culpable. With the Pakistani contingent comprising many young, inexperienced players, especially those participating in the ‘A’ squad or as backup, greater attention could have given to training the enthusiastic newcomers by captains and coaches.
However, as the PCB and the Pakistani players become the target of international scrutiny, the role of New Zealand authorities must also not be side-lined.
New Zealand reserves the broadcasting rights of the matches played with Pakistan, and will be hosting the matches to crowded stadiums. The willingness of the Pakistan team to proceed with the tour during such times, at great personal cost, must not be discounted. Having been encased within bio-bubbles, adhering to strict restrictions, and being away from their loved ones, Pakistani players have gone to unprecedented lengths this year for the sake of cricket. While New Zealand seeks to financially benefit from the Pakistan tour, and its players remain more comfortable due to their control of the virus, Pakistan’s decision to play hangs in the pursuit of maintaining bilateral ties.
Given their unyielding dedication, even under suffocating restraints, the Pakistani cricket teams should have been afforded greater respect and care by the New Zealand authorities, as they were by England. Likewise, the PCB should also demand better for its players, while providing them the guidance and tools to perform their best.