England’s exit from South Africa leads to finger-pointing over burst bubble

England’s concerns about the failed biosecure bubble in South Africa stem back to the start of the tour when they saw the home players enter the hotel and immediately hold a team barbecue that evening.

The Proteas had already seen one player test positive for Covid-19 before their arrival on site on 18 November but there was shock among the tourists, who checked in 24 hours earlier, when they then saw their opponents immediately gather in a large group.

Under the agreed protocols, both squads were expected to socially distance before their first-round tests inside the bubble at the Vineyard hotel. England were all clear but when South Africa announced a second positive on 20 November – a player present at the gathering – alarm bells began to ring.

Dr Shuaib Manjra, Cricket South Africa’s chief medical officer, told the Guardian on Tuesday: “We did have an outdoor braai [barbecue] on the evening of the 18th when people came in [to the bubble] for the first time. It was outdoors. I guess there was some degree of mixing. But they had been tested before they came in. I will take that criticism that there was a degree of laxity.”

This set the tone for a tour during which three T20 internationals were played but the one-day series was called off, with a buildup of collective anxiety among the tourists tipped over the edge when a third South African tested positive last Friday, followed by two hotel staff and two cases in their own camp.

England’s two positives were overturned by additional tests and analysis on Tuesday and they will fly home with the team on Thursday. This, plus five players heading to Australia for the Big Bash League, has only added to a feeling among locals they were too hasty in their decision to call off the tour.

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England insist they did not get the all‑clear on the two players until midday on Tuesday and by this point Ashley Giles, the team director, had already acted on his players’ concerns. Their faith in the setup had evaporated and there was an acceptance that bubble fatigue had also descended.

There have been suggestions that the third South African positive case – whose emergence led to the first ODI at Newlands being called off last Friday – was seen walking around the hotel in the lead-up to this, despite sitting out the final T20 match four days earlier because of illness.

Manjra insists this player was isolated as soon as he became a suspected case of Covid-19. It had previously been viewed as a stomach bug, not least with the player having cleared three rounds of testing up to this point, and the origin of this infection remains unknown. He said: “The [third] player is a mystery that I have not solved. I don’t know where that came from. We went back five or seven days with him, to think what did he do? Did he get a package from outside?

“There were lots of packages, such as bats and kit. But then he also went to Boland Park and Newlands [the two grounds being used], so it is possible something happened there. But it is pure speculation.”

Manjra has all but ruled out this case being linked to the second positive case 14 days earlier, stating his test results showed a likely five- to seven‑day infection window. The hotel staff – one of whom worked with the England players – were also regularly tested and the zonal system was not broken.

England’s players wonder if the virus was inside the bubble ever since the barbecue. And one theory about how it moved around is possible false negatives in the testing system, with Manjra, who praised England’s medical staff on tour, insisting no bio-secure system is 100% effective.

He said: “The English players have possibly been a victim of their own success after zero cases in the [UK] summer. Players found themselves touring South Africa and had the same expectations of what they did in their bubble. That expectation is probably a bit unfair and has to be tempered.”

England’s system in the summer clearly differed, with players living on site at the grounds, wearing Bluetooth chips to monitor contact with others, eating at separate tables and even facing away from each other in lifts. Hand sanitiser stations were also dotted around the Rose Bowl and Old Trafford.

Manjra, who pointed to the recent Indian Premier League having added to the burden for players in both teams, said: “We opted not to go draconian. We tempered what we did for the mental health of players. We decided to do initial testing and then be a bit more liberal in terms of applications of protocols. We have learned the lessons and we will implement them much more strictly for Sri Lanka, Australia and when England come back.

“Finger-pointing does not help in any cause. In the end, the cricket community is small and we have to play each other many times over the next few years.”

Ben Stokes’s father Ged has died from brain cancer at the age of 65, his former rugby league club, Workington Town, have announced. Stokes, who left the South Africa tour after the T20 series, missed the back end of the English season to spend time with him in New Zealand.