The fifth and deciding Test between England and India in Manchester was dramatically cancelled on Friday just over two hours before the scheduled start because of Covid-19 concerns in the tourists’ camp.

The England and Wales Cricket Board said fears over the coronavirus, related to an outbreak among backroom staff, had left India unable to field a team at Old Trafford.

Following all-night talks, it was not until shortly before 9:00 am local time (1:30 pm IST) on Friday, just over two hours before the scheduled start and minutes before the gates at Old Trafford were due to open to a sell-out crowd of 22,000, that the match was called off due to Covid-19 fears within the India camp – a decision that leave English cricket facing a financial ‘black hole’ estimated at £40 million ($55 million).

Reports of a physiotherapist in close contact with the Indian players had tested positive for Covid appeared to be the final straw in persuading an India side already missing head coach Ravi Shastri, bowling coach Bharat Arun and fielding coach Ramakrishnan Sridhar due to positive Covid tests, with senior physiotherapist Nitin Patel self-isolating, not to take the field.

India were 2-1 up in the five-match contest after a 157-run win in the fourth Test at the Oval and were bidding to complete a notable double just months after winning a series in Australia.

An enthralling series featuring three hundreds from England captain Joe Root, several fine innings from India’s Rohit Sharma and bewitching bowling from the tourists spearhead, Jasprit Bumrah, had been denied a fitting finale and now seems set to be marked with an asterisk in Wisden, cricket’s annual of record.

Here’s a look at the events that led to the cancellation of the fifth Test between England and India and what possibly lies ahead:

Shastri and Co sidelined

The beginning of the unforfurtunate end to what was a fascinating series can be traced back to the end of day three of the fourth Test at The oval.

India head coach Shastri’s Later Flow Test returned a positive result for Covid-19 and that forced him and his close contacts – Arun, Sridhar and Patel – to self-isolate. The four of them weren’t allowed at the ground for the last two days of the fourth Test, which India won on the back of a brilliant performance on day five.

To make matters worse for India, they couldn’t travel to Manchester for the fifth Test as Shastri, Arun and Sridhar tested positive for Covid-19 at the end of the fourth Test.

Now, it still isn’t clear how Shastri got infected in the first place but reports have suggested that a well-attended London launch of his new book two days before the fourth Test could be the reason.

Whether or not Shastri’s presence at the book launch was acceptable under current guidelines remains a debatable point. Unlike last year, where teams were kept in bio-secure bubbles, the 2021 international season in England saw restrictions loosened as officials felt it was unsustainable to expect sides to keep playing under such strict regulations.

Pre-match drama

India cancelled their final training session and mandatory pre-match press conference a day before the start of the fifth Test after reports that a physiotherapist who had been in close contact with the players had tested positive for Covid.

India were already without Shastri, Arun and Sridhar, who had all previously tested positive, with senior physiotherapist Patel having to self-isolate.

On Thursday evening it had appeared the match was going ahead when a fresh round of tests within the India camp produced a set of negative results.

However, reports said several Indian players had expressed concerns over the potential spread of the virus and were unwilling to play, meaning they could not put out a team.

Test cancelled, statements issued

The morning of Friday, which was supposed to mark the start of the fifth Test, was frantic as reports and bits of news kept coming in about the possible fate of the match.

Initially, it was reported that the start of the Test could be pushed ahead by a day or two as members of the Indian team were still apprehensive about taking the field.

But soon enough, both the ECB and the Board of Control for Cricket in India put out statements informing the world that the fifth Test was cancelled.

The first statement issued by the ECB suggested that India had forfeited the match, but they quickly made a change and stated that “India are regrettably unable to field a team”.

Latest statement by ECB on Friday:

Following ongoing conversations with the BCCI, the ECB can confirm that the fifth LV= Insurance Test between England and India Men due to start today at Emirates Old Trafford, will be cancelled. 

Due to fears of a further increase in the number of COVID cases inside the camp, India are regrettably unable to field a team. 

We send our sincere apologies to fans and partners for this news, which we know will cause immense disappointment and inconvenience to many. 

Further information will be shared in due course.

A little later, the BCCI put out a statement as well:

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) along with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) have jointly decided to call off the 5th Test Match scheduled at Manchester in ongoing India’s tour of England 2021.

The BCCI and ECB held several rounds of discussion to find a way to play the Test Match, however, the outbreak of Covid-19 in the Indian team contingent forced the decision of calling off the Old Trafford Test Match.

In lieu of the strong relationship between BCCI and ECB, the BCCI has offered to ECB a rescheduling of the cancelled Test match. Both the Boards will work towards finding a window to reschedule this Test match.

The BCCI has always maintained that the safety and well-being of the players is of paramount importance and there will be no comprise on that aspect.

The BCCI would like to thank the ECB for their co-operation and understanding in these trying times.  We would like to apologise to the fans for not being able to complete an enthralling series.

What next?

The status of the Old Trafford match – and with it the fate of the series – appears uncertain after the ECB retracted an initial statement that India had “forfeited” the game.

Covid is an acceptable reason for cancelling a match under the regulations for the World Test Championship if it has a significant impact on a side’s ability to field a team.

The International Cricket Council is now set to decide the result of the match and series although a quick verdict is unlikely.

“I think we have to just take a breath and do some work with the ICC, to formally ask them to adjudicate on the result of this,” said ECB chief executive Tom Harrison.

Meanwhile, the BCCI has said it had offered to reschedule the game after a cancellation “jointly decided” by both boards .

However, with the lucrative Indian Premier League, itself disrupted by Covid, resuming in the United Arab Emirates on September 19, the Test will not happen anytime soon.

But with India meant to tour England next year for a white-ball series, it could yet be slotted in at Old Trafford.

Even though the cancellation of the Test could cost the ECB millions of pounds, Harrison insisted the IPL was not to blame.

“This Indian cricket team are as passionate about Test cricket as fans in our country are,” Harrison told reporters. “Let me be super-clear about this – I don’t think the IPL has got anything to do with this. This is not a situation which has been created by a rescheduled IPL. I fundamentally do not believe that for a second.”

According to a report by ESPNcricinfo, there has been a lot happening behind the scenes. If the cancelled Test cannot be rescheduled, the ECB wants it to be considered as forfeited by India. This would mean the series ends as 2-2 and it will also allow the ECB to make insurance claims.

Harrison on Friday said that fear of Covid, rather than Covid itself, was the reason behind the cancellation – a difference which could impact on the hosts ability to make an insurance claim.

Meanwhile, Mumbai Indians and Royal Challengers Bangalore confirmed on Saturday that they have arranged for private charter flights to fly their Indian players from England to the United Arab Emirates for IPL 2021.

(With inputs from AFP)

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