A COVID-19 outbreak that triggered "anxiety" among Indian players forced the cancellation of their fifth and final Test against England in a chaotic and unprecedented turn of events on Friday, leaving the status of the series unclear after the host board claimed a forfeiture by the tourists only to withdraw the statement.
The England and Wales Cricket Board's statement on the match went from India "unable to field a team and will instead forfeit the match" to India "regrettably unable to field a team" after skipper Virat Kohli led a steadfast refusal by the visiting players to take the field.
Friday's development came after the tourists were left on tenterhooks following physio Yogesh Parmar's positive COVID-19 test that led to concerns that the infection could spread during the match.
As for the series, its status was not clear.
India are 2-1 ahead and have not been officially declared winners. The BCCI has claimed that both boards will work towards rescheduling it but ECB CEO Tom Harrison said the said game would be a one-off instead of being a decider for the series.
"In lieu of the strong relationship between BCCI and ECB, the BCCI has offered to ECB a rescheduling of the cancelled Test match. Both the Boards will work towards finding a window to reschedule this Test match," BCCI secretary Jay Shah said.
"No, I think it's a stand-alone situation. We have been offered a few other options, probably need to take a look (at those)," Harrison responded when specifically asked on Sky Sports whether the rescheduled match would be a stand-alone game or the series-decider.
The only plausible window for such an arrangement seems to be July next year when the India team visits England for a six-match white-ball series.
Earlier, after hectic consultations, the match was cancelled a couple of hours before toss.
The initial statement issued by the ECB categorically mentioned the word "forfeit" but that was later omitted from a revised media release.
"Due to fears of a further increase in the number of COVID cases inside the camp, India are regrettably unable to field a team," read the revised communication.
Harrison later said that every effort was made to convince the players, who refused to budge.
"It's a really sad day, my heart goes out to fans. We are absolutely gutted. Internationally, this game gets astronomical audience. It became clear yesterday around lunch time that there was a problem in terms of the anxiety level in the Indian team," he said.
"It wasn't an outbreak of COVID, it was a perception of what might happen post the physio testing positive. Over the course of the day, we tried to give as many different assurances that we could to give comfort to the players," he revealed.
It is learnt that, Kohli, who voiced his apprehension most strongly, and the players, late on Thursday, got into a huddle and couldn't be convinced by either the BCCI or the ECB brass to play the game.
They also feared that a COVID-related quarantine at this stage would have meant missing out on IPL matches, starting September 19. The BCCI too did not want the league's schedule to be disrupted.
Ever since the Indian players refused to play despite testing negative on Thursday, there were continuous back-channel talks between the two boards.
"The BCCI and ECB held several rounds of discussion to find a way to play the Test Match, however, the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Indian team contingent forced the decision of calling off the Old Trafford Test Match," Shah said.
Ultimately the apprehension expressed by Kohli and Co. took precedence.
"The BCCI has always maintained that the safety and well-being of the players is of paramount importance and there will be no compromise on that aspect," Shah said.
He thanked the English board for its understanding of the trying circumstances.
"The BCCI would like to thank the ECB for their co-operation and understanding in these trying times. We would like to apologise to the fans for not being able to complete an enthralling series."
It is understood that the COVID-19 rules for the World Test Championship matches do not include forfeiture and that's where Kohli and his men were able to get their way.
Under the competition terms of the WTC, COVID-19 is identified as "acceptable non-compliance should there be a significant impact of it on the team being able to play."
This is because the match can remain cancelled from the competition and with ICC using percentage points system based on points won in matches played, a cancelled match is of no value to any team.
According to BCCI sources, the Indian players feared that with the 96-hour incubation period factored in for the virus, they were at risk to test positive during the match and end up in 10-day quarantine.
There were many questions that cropped up for BCCI president Sourav Ganguly and Shah with a number of factors being taken into account.
The chances of the IPL's schedule, starting September 19, going haywire were also taken into account as broadcasters and franchises wouldn't have taken the delay lightly.
Also, deferring the Test by a day or two would have caused logistical issues as the Indian and English players were supposed to fly together to the UAE in a charter flight.
"There is no guarantee that post Ravi Shastri's book release function which the team attended, there won't be more cases. So players were wary and more so about being in isolation for 10 days," a source said.
That book release function has caused uneasiness within the Board with an official saying that no permissions were sought despite clear message from Shah to avoid gatherings.
"No permission was sought either from president (Sourav Ganguly) or from the secretary (Jay Shah). Perhaps they might have thought that since health safety rules have been relaxed in the UK, they didn't need permission," the senior official, privy to the developments, told PTI on conditions of anonymity.
However, it is unlikely that either the coach or the captain will face any action for the event and the former's tenure ends in six weeks and the latter would not be called into question just before a T20 World Cup next month.
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