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Opinion

Coronavirus precautions must be prioritised over sporting events

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Expert
15th March, 2020
50

Australia’s preparations for this year’s T20 World Cup may have been dented by the cancellation of five white-ball matches against New Zealand this month but the right call was made.

Cancelling these matches was necessary as part of efforts to contain the coronavirus, which is running wild in Europe, which yesterday reported more than 8,000 new infections and almost 700 new deaths.

As World Health Organisation Executive Director Dr Mike Ryan warned yesterday, when tackling virus outbreaks the greatest error is to react slowly, to avoid making controversial decisions for fear of being criticised.

In hindsight, major sporting events in Australia should have been called off before now, including the women’s T20 World Cup Final attended by 86,000 fans, one of whom had the coronavirus.

Australia has been fortunate not to have been inundated with coronavirus infections. Yesterday it had a rate of 11.7 confirmed cases per million population, well behind countries in crisis like Italy (409 cases per million), Iran (166), Spain (167) and China (56).

Now we’ve seen how swiftly coronavirus tore through Europe, which had barely been impacted just three weeks ago, it’s clear Australia cannot afford for large crowds to gather at any major indoor or outdoor events.

Continuing to hold sporting matches without spectators, as the AFL plans to do and the NBL already has done, may well be safe enough. I cannot claim to know. But those organisations need to make such decisions based on the advice of health experts, not bean counters.

There was no choice but to cancel the final two ODIs between Australia and New Zealand, and the subsequent three T20Is between those two sides to be held in NZ. That decision was forced by the New Zealand Government’s new policy of mandatory 14-day self-isolation for all people who arrive in the country.

New Zealand’s cricketers immediately headed home after the first ODI and this New Zealand Government policy meant it was not possible for that country to host the three-match T20 series.

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This is a blow for both teams just seven months out from the T20 World Cup. With Australia and New Zealand both considered a strong chance of winning that tournament, this T20 series would have not only offered crucial match practice but also an invaluable proving ground for players competing for spots.

Between now and the T20 World Cup, Australia have only three confirmed T20Is on their schedule. While they will surely organise some extra matches in the coming months, their three-match T20 series in England in July is the only games they have confirmed.

That underlines just how valuable it would have been to play these three T20Is in New Zealand against a high-quality opponent. Many of Australia’s T20 squad members may now have no white-ball cricket for almost four months.

Even those with IPL contracts like Glenn Maxwell, Steve Smith, David Warner, Aaron Finch, Kane Richardson and Alex Carey will have less cricket than expected. The IPL has been suspended until April 15, more than two weeks after it was scheduled to start, as a precaution due to the coronavirus outbreak.

India yesterday had 111 confirmed coronavirus cases, which given their enormous population is equivalent to Australia having just two infections. But in a nation as densely populated as India the virus could spread at an incredible rate if it took hold. The BCCI was wise to suspend the IPL in spite of the enormous financial cost.

If it does go ahead on April 15 the entire IPL could be played in empty stadiums, and it looks likely to be a truncated season.

These are uncertain days for the entire world. Viewed in this context, the limited preparation the Australian side will get for the World Cup is a trivial matter. But this is a sports site, after all, and I’m a cricket writer.

Of course, Australia’s opponents at this year’s T20 World Cup are all being similarly affected by the coronavirus situation. A huge number of international matches could be cancelled in the next few months if the outbreak is not contained.

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It’s not unfeasible the World Cup itself could be postponed should the health crisis deepen significantly. For many different reasons, let’s hope it never gets to that.