A long, long winter awaits for the England team currently twiddling their thumbs, adjusting their masks and waiting for their flight from South Africa at the Vineyard hotel about a mile from Newlands in Cape Town, where they were supposed to be playing an ODI in front of empty stands and a muddy building site.
The abandonment of the tour in these circumstances is unprecedented but then we are living in strange times. Essentially it seems that the decision was taken because of increasing “player anxiety”, which is a reminder of how much has changed. In the past the telling arguments might have come from the British High Commission, the medical experts or Reg Dickason, the ECB’s long-standing adviser on security. But this time the input of the players was obviously critical.
However it was the ECB, represented by Ashley Giles, which made the final decision to end the tour. In so doing Giles has stayed true to his word. “It came down to a wellbeing thing in the end,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the last three weeks, it could be the last eight or nine months. These guys have been living in bubbles for long periods of time and their mental health and wellbeing is the absolute priority for us.”
Such a sympathetic approach has not always been the case. I experienced a precedent of sorts in Delhi in 1984 at the start of England’s tour of India. Indira Gandhi had been assassinated hours after our arrival and soon we were confined to our hotel and feeling marooned in a chaotic city many miles from home. As the death toll from riots mounted there was “player anxiety” in abundance.
There was a stormy meeting between the players and the tour manager, Tony Brown, which saw Brown brandishing the passport of Allan Lamb in his hand and challenging him to take it and go home in colourful language. It was quite a moment. In the end we stayed in India, after taking refuge in Sri Lanka for 10 days, won the Test series against the odds and now we all look back on that expedition as the best of tours.
At the time most of us were very keen to head for home. However, this does not mean that an old hack, sitting comfortably in the West Country, is moved to castigate the current England team for wanting to come home. It is easy to pontificate from afar. One other precedent springs to mind. In 2001 when England toured India soon after 9/11 Robert Croft and Andy Caddick exercised their right to withdraw from the tour. They were pilloried for their decision by heavyweights in the press corps, Ian Wooldridge of the Mail and Christopher Martin-Jenkins in the Telegraph. It then transpired that neither of these correspondents were planning to go to India. Some hasty rescheduling was necessary; Wooldridge came out for two days of the first Test in Mohali, CMJ, to be fair, stayed for the entire match.
It is tricky to gauge the mood in South Africa from such a distance. The one oddity is that the tour party have been left with two days of kicking their heels before the majority board their charter flight home on Thursday (some of the squad are heading off to the Big Bash). Would not the time have passed more swiftly and just as safely if they had agreed to playing one or two days of cricket in that period, especially now that it seems that none of the England party has been infected?
Giles was obviously right to focus on the impact of the last eight or nine months of players entering bubbles and playing cricket in alien circumstances. After a while a siege mentality can take over and the mental health of players can deteriorate. This is highlighted now by the decision of two young cricketers who have been in South Africa, Tom Banton and Tom Curran, not to fulfil their Big Bash contracts. From afar they seem to be mature enough to recognise that they need a break even if they will be financially poorer as a result.
This “bubble fatigue” has to be a major concern now. If England players are so ill at ease in Cape Town in December, how might they be feeling in Colombo in January or Kolkata in February? The proposed schedule remains daunting, especially for the all-format players. It still includes a two-Test tour of Sri Lanka which is followed by four more Tests and a series of white-ball fixtures against India. Then for the chosen few there is another IPL series in April and there is always a reluctance to miss out on that gig. Hence there is every prospect of England’s best players embarking on a full summer of cricket on home soil in a state of glazed exhaustion.