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New Covid strain puts Indian cricket team’s South Africa tour in danger

India is scheduled to play three Tests, three ODIs and four T20Is against South Africa, with the first Test match commencing at the Wanderers in Johannesburg from December 17

A cloud of doubt hangs over the Indian cricket team's forthcoming tour of South Africa after Covid-19 infections have increased steeply in the country, coinciding with the detection of SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.529 variant, named as Omicron by the World Health Organisation on Friday.

With the number of cases of new variant increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa, the Netherlands national cricket team, which had arrived on Rainbow Nation's shores late last month for a historic three-match ODI series against the Proteas, is already planning to leave the tour midway.

As the two teams clashed in the rained out first ODI at Centurion's SuperSport Park on Friday, Cricket South Africa (CSA) and Koninklijke Nederlandse Cricket Bond (KNCB) said that they are aware of news reports doing the rounds regarding the tour being cancelled or postponed.

"It is highly unlikely that the visiting team will be able to fly out of South Africa over the weekend. The KNCB is reviewing all of its options, while prioritising the physical and mental well-being of its players," said a CSA statement confirming the developments.

"A decision on the continuation of the series will follow in the next 24 to 48 hours, while all flight options are being considered," it added.

Meanwhile, the Indian cricket team is scheduled to leave for Johannesburg from Mumbai via a charter on December 8 and the cancellation of the tour could deal a major blow to the South African cricket board which was looking forward to kickstart an exciting international summer of cricket for the Proteas.

"It is probably the most congested home summer we have ever had. It is wonderful in these challenging times that there will be such high-quality cricket being played on our shores," CSA Director of Cricket Graeme Smith had commented in September.  

During the December-January tour across all formats, the India touring party is scheduled to play three Tests, three ODIs and four T20Is against the hosts with the first Test match commencing at the Wanderers in Johannesburg from December 17.  

The winner of the Test series between the two countries, known as the Freedom Series, is awarded the Freedom Trophy which is dedicated to global icons Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

"This tour comes at a fitting moment when Cricket South Africa, together with the people of the world celebrate Mahatma Gandhi's 152nd birthday. We are indeed indebted to India for its support to our cricket efforts over the years. We are looking forward to hosting our guests for what promises to be nail-biting on-field encounters," said Pholetsi Moseki, CSA Acting Chief Executive Officer on November 5.

As the BCCI adopts a wait-and-watch policy and would await government's nod before going ahead with the senior team's tour, the India 'A' team is already in Bloemfontein, playing a three-match series against South Africa 'A' team from November 23 to December 9.  

The Ministry of External Affairs, in a briefing held on Friday, said that the new variant is a "developing incident" and India's health and civil aviation authorities continue to monitor the situation in South Africa closely.

"I think there was reference to the cricket team, but look, as of right now, I think we'll defer to them to give us a response on what they're thinking (the health and civil aviation authorities). But this is also a very developing story. So, let's see what happens," said MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi.

Covid South Africa

With the WHO announcing that the Omicron variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning, it is no wonder then that all major international events planned to be held in South Africa in the coming weeks are expected to meet the same fate.

On Friday, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) also announced its decision to put on hold the Women's Junior World Cup scheduled to be held from December 5 to 16 in Potchefstroom, a one hour's drive from Johannesburg.

FIH said that the decision has been taken jointly by the South African Hockey Association and the North-West University of Potchefstroom as the tournament cannot happen under the present circumstances following the outbreak of the new coronavirus variant.

"The safety of everyone involved in the FIH events is an absolute priority. Additionally, many countries, including from some of the participating teams, have now strongly increased their travel restrictions with South Africa, including halting flights," said FIH CEO Thierry Weil.

Also Read: WTO conference postponed as new Omicron variant of Covid-19 raises fears of fresh surge in infections