Empty stands the Old Trafford, Manchester, following news of the cancellation of the fifth cricket Test match between England and India on September 10, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

The Manchester Test has been postponed indefinitely, but the accusations and counter-accusations rumble on. On the outside, the cricket boards of India and England are on the same page, making the right noises. But there seems to be plenty of discordant notes.

One of the main sticking points is the status of the fifth and final Test. Officially, it’s postponed, which means it could be played at a later date. The England and Wales Cricket Board and the Board of Control for Cricket in India are said to be exploring the possibility of staging the match at a later date.

With a packed cricket calendar, the chances of holding the match this year are very remote. Almost impossible, I would say. Reports say that a Test match could be squeezed into the itinerary when India tour England for a One-day International series in 2022.

What the playing conditions say

If that happens, what’s the status of the Test? Will it be deemed as the fifth Test of this series or a one-off Test. Whatever is the decision, it will have immense ramifications.

If it’s not part of this series, India will have to be declared winners of the Pataudi Trophy. That would no doubt please India and its skipper Virat Kohli immensely. But that would be a huge financial blow for ECB. They would lose the insurance payout.

The playing conditions of the World Test Championship allow a game or a series to be cancelled if COVID-19 impairs a team’s ability to field a team. India argue that’s the case since several players have reservations about playing after assistant physiotherapist Yogesh Parmar tested positive for the new coronavirus. The news came soon after coaches Ravi Shashtri, Bharat Arun and R. Sridhar were laid low by COVID-19.

What’s the risk of playing the Test?

The Indian cricketers have reason to worry since many would have had close contact with the assistant physio. Imagine what must be going through their minds. Although all players have returned negative tests, at least one of them could fall ill during the match if you consider the incubation period of the SAR-CoV-2 virus.

If a player on the pitch exhibits COVID symptoms, what will the ECB do? They will have no choice but call off the match and place all the players in isolation. Will the ECB risk the health of the English players, given the high possibility of one of them contracting COVID from one of the Indian cricketers.

The answer is no. The COVID mortality rate is low, but all of us have lost a close friend or a relative to the coronavirus; some were in the prime of their youth. Health and fitness mean nothing to the newer strains of the virus, especially the Delta variant.

What’s the estimated loss?

But what drives the ECB to have the match declared forfeited. That would put the series level at 2-2, and the English cricket board can claim insurance payout. So money is at the centre of the wrangling.

True, the Lancashire Country Cricket Club stands to lose an enormous amount of money: somewhere in the region of £1 million (around $1.28 million). And the ECB setback will be bigger: about £20 million (around $28 million). This could well be the reason for the reported behind-the-scenes jousting.

In BBC’s Test Match Special podcast, former England captain Michael Vaughan agrees that money is the issue. But his reference was about the Indian players. He says Indian players want to be ready for the Indian Premier League, which resumes in the UAE on September 19.

What Vaughan and Atherton say

Vaughan feels that the Indians did not want to miss the IPL, valued at $6.3 billion in 2018. His sentiments were echoed by another former England captain, Mike Atherton, who told Sky Sports that the players and the Indian cricket board are more concerned about the IPL.

The arguments of Vaughan and Atherton may be compelling, but on closer examination, it doesn’t hold water. They seem to have forgotten that Suresh Raina walked out on the Chennai Super Kings last year when a spate of COVID cases erupted in the camp. Although he cited a family emergency as the reason, the timing and manner in which he left gave the impression that COVID must have been on his mind. Add to that Harbajan Singh’s no-show at IPL 2020.

This year, English cricketer Liam Livingstone flew home from the Rajasthan Royals camp when COVID cases rose in India. Several Australian players too made an early exit before their country banned flights from India. All of them would have lost handsome amounts of money.

These instances amply illustrate that players value their health more than the IPL money. So the comments of Atherton and Vaughan are totally off the mark. ECB Chairman Tom Harrison too was swift to dismiss the perceived IPL link. “I fundamentally do not believe that for a second,”

ECB says this is not a COVID cancellation

But Harrison insists that this is not a COVID cancellation. “This is a match cancelled because of serious concerns over the mental health and well-being of one of the teams…You can’t be flippant about issues of mental health, and this is what this is about…Playing at this level, week after week, is difficult. Even if we feel we are emerging from the pandemic, life is different for the players. When COVID creeps into an environment, it can accelerate very quickly,” ESPNcricinfo quoted him as saying.V

Former Indian wicketkeeper Dinesh Karthik, part of the Sky Sports commentary team, has also reportedly agreed with Harrison’s assessment. But the ECB chief added that the postponement of the Old Trafford Test would impact the ECB balance sheet as they will have to reimburse the ticket holders. There’s more to it. The impact on broadcast rights and other commercial avenues can be huge.

That explains why the ECB seems keen to consider the match forfeited. It would help secure an insurance claim that would offset at least some of the lost revenues. But India, and especially Kohli, wouldn’t want the series to be considered a 2-2 draw.

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A series win will be huge legacy for Kohli. More so since the last Indian win came in 1986 under Kapil Dev’s captaincy. Kohli would have done everything to play this Test so that India could hold their heads high before heading to the UAE.

The Indian captain must have realised there are things beyond cricket. Mental health, peace of mind, or COVID fears, whatever it may be, the players’ concerns have to be respected. India and Kohli recognise that. It’s time the English critics did.

Even if the International Cricket Council rules against India and awards the match to England, it wouldn’t matter. There are matters beyond cricket. Beyond winning and losing. Mental health matters.