Australia postponed their Test cricket tour to South Africa on Tuesday due to the “unacceptable” risk to players with the coronavirus rampant in the country.

Cricket South Africa expressed its “extreme disappointment” and frustration after the Australian team withdrew from the tour, during which it was scheduled to play a three-Test series, and said it will have serious financial implications.

Justin Langer’s men were due to play three Tests against the Proteas, and Australia named their squad last week with the intent to fly out this month.

But the situation became untenable with the outbreak in South Africa accelerated by a new variant said to be more contagious than earlier strains of the virus.

With almost 1.5 million detected infections and more than 44,000 fatalities, it has the highest number of cases and deaths on the continent.

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Cricket Australia interim chief Nick Hockley said the medical advice was not to travel.

“It has become clear that travelling from Australia to South Africa at this current time poses an unacceptable level of health and safety risk to our players, support staff and the community,” he said.

“This decision has not been made lightly and we are extremely disappointed, especially given the importance of continuing international cricket at this time.

“However, we have been consistent since the start of the pandemic that the health and safety of our people is always our number one priority and unfortunately despite best efforts to agree a biosecurity plan, the risks are simply too great at this time.”

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday said the country had “passed the peak” of its second coronavirus infection wave, but the virus remains a major problem.

Authorities are planning to vaccinate at least 67 percent of the population by year’s end. There are currently no contingencies in place for the tour, although Hockley suggested the Tests could be played at a later date.

“We look forward to playing the series against CSA at a date to be confirmed in due course,” he said.

The tour was originally scheduled for February and March.

Expressing his displeasure in a press release issued by CSA, its director of cricket Graeme Smith said, “We are extremely disappointed by the decision of CA. CSA has been working tirelessly in recent weeks to ensure that we meet every single expectation of CA,” Smith, the former South Africa captain, added.

“This was set to be the longest tour in a BSC (bio-safety cabinet or biological safety cabinet) comprising a three-match Test series that was scheduled to begin with Australia’s arrival later in the month. So to be informed about the CA decision at the eleventh hour is frustrating.”

Australia pulling out of the South Africa tour meant New Zealand became the first team to qualify for the final of the ICC World Test Championship, which will be played at Lord’s later this year.

New Zealand’s opponents for the final will be decided by the outcome of the India-England Test series which begins on Friday.

In the CSA release, its chief medical officer, Dr Shuaib Manjra, added that there was nothing more the host board could have done “to appease CA and prepare more appropriately. The protocols we had proposed to CA were unprecedented,” he stated.

“Firstly, we had agreed that our own Proteas team would enter the BSE 14 days prior to the arrival of the Australian team, thus altering their planning during the current tour of Pakistan.

“Amongst some of the other key arrangements made were that all four areas (two hotels and two venues) had a protocol to implement a strict BSE with no contact with anybody outside this area.

“We subsequently agreed to two separate BSEs and had granted Australia full and exclusive use of the Irene Country Lodge, which we shared with Sri Lanka, with a minimum staff present on site.”

This is the second series to be postponed in South Africa due to Covid-19. Last year, England had pulled out of their tour midway through an ODI series after there was an outbreak of cases in the team hotel.

Pholetsi Moseki, CSA’s acting chief executive officer said, “It is indeed sad that after all the engagements and effort made to ensure a secure visit by our Australian counterparts, the tour has been derailed.

“CSA has incurred significant costs related to the planning stages and the cancellation of the tour represents a serious financial loss.”

Australia had also postponed their tour of Bangladesh last year. New dates for the Bangladesh or South Africa tours are yet to be announced.

(With inputs from AFP and PTI)