From 86,000 to zero - the week Covid-19 changed cricket

A record number of people attended the Australia v India final at the MCG Getty Images

Covid-19 had already had a major impact around the world by early March, but the seismic events that would impact every walk of life had not yet hit at the heart of cricket. That would change across the globe during a crazy week, the starkest experience coming from two matches six days apart in Melbourne and Sydney.

Sunday, March 8

The Melbourne Cricket Ground. One of the most iconic stadiums in the world and there are more than 86,000 inside for an historic occasion. Alyssa Healy flays the India attack, Meg Lanning lifts the trophy and Katy Perry belts out her greatest hits cricket is as vibrant as you could wish.

Monday, March 9

When the Australians gather for a celebration with fans at Federation Square in the centre of Melbourne, on a balmy early-autumn day, amid the interviews and the afterglow of a magnificent night, there are conversations about when the squad for the South Africa tour will be named with the team due to fly out at the end of the week.

That night, a small group of us who have worked together on the tournament meet on a rooftop bar to farewell each other and a memorable few weeks of cricket. To colleagues passing through and those who had flown from overseas to help put on the competition, we send each other off with: "Look forward to doing it again in October."

"As if to emphasise how rapidly things are changing (and how fortunate it was that the World Cup final went ahead) it emerges a person in the crowd at the MCG has tested positive for Covid-19. The mood is starting to shift significantly"

Tuesday, March 10

The cricket cycle is still non-stop and the next day it's back on a plane to Sydney ahead of the end-of-season men's ODIs between Australia and New Zealand. An after-the-Lord-Mayor's-show event if ever there was one, but still international cricket. Australia are looking to bounce back from series defeats in India and South Africa, while New Zealand want to atone for the Test-series drubbing a couple of months earlier. Covid-19 is certainly a talking point, but it's still game on.

Thursday, March 12

It's the day before the opening ODI. As if to emphasise how rapidly things are changing (and how fortunate it was that the World Cup final went ahead) it emerges a person in the crowd at the MCG has tested positive for Covid-19. The mood is starting to shift significantly.

As pre-match press conferences with Aaron Finch and Kane Williamson are done outside, they both speak about the increasing number of sports events being impacted. The NBA has just been suspended, the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne is on the brink of being cancelled, the IPL has been thrown into doubt as the Indian government introduces visa restrictions and the PSL announces it is going behind closed doors. There is a growing feeling of the situation moving quickly. "It would be weird to play in an empty stadium," Finch says.

Cricket Australia has been monitoring the global situation for some weeks and are gathering information on almost an hourly basis. Prime Minister Scott Morrison gives a televised national address about the evolving crisis.

Friday, March 13, 9am

CA announces that the series - two games in Sydney and one in Hobart - will be played to empty grounds. The women's tour to South Africa is called off. "A lot of things have changed since last Sunday," Kevin Roberts, the Cricket Australia CEO, says when asked about the World Cup final. The board has acted in advance of the official government measures on gatherings; those would develop during the day.

12pm Walking across Moore Park a few hours before the match. Normally a bustling thoroughfare on game day, it is close to deserted. A forlorn family from New Zealand, who have flown over for the two matches in three days at the SCG, still make the journey to the ground knowing they will get no further than the gates.

Inside, there are already signs of the hasty precautions being taken, including individually wrapped food and the players kept at a distance from other groups of people in the ground. However, the moment which reinforces that things are escalating quickly is when Kane Richardson is tested for Covid-19 after reporting a slightly sore throat. It is highly precautionary, given that the team has just returned on a long-haul flight from South Africa, and will later come back negative. But there is nothing normal about this day.

2.00pm When Williamson and Finch go out for the toss the interviews are conducted via Spidercam to reduce the number of people huddled around the pitch. Then the teams walk out to near silence. At least Yabba, sitting in his spot in the Victor Trumper stand which replaced The Hill where he made his name, ensures there is one seat taken.

"The doors remain locked for now, but 117 days after Australia and New Zealand walked off the SCG, international cricket will return."

2.30pm As the game starts, it feels like the ground rattles with its emptiness. The encouragement from the two dugouts echoes. It takes New Zealand a while to claim their first wicket, but first-bumps and ankle taps are the order of the day, although such is the newness of all this that a few stray high-fives are around. At one stage, there is the sight of international cricketers hauling themselves over the advertising boards to go and search for a ball that has been struck for six.

9.30pm Pat Cummins pouches a top edge off Trent Boult to secure a 71-run victory. As the players walk off there are no handshakes. But despite the weirdness of the day there has still been chat about the cricket coming up, including the T20Is set to take place in New Zealand at the end of the month.

10.00pm Both teams cancel their practice sessions for the next day, but at the post-match press conferences - done with reporters standing at a distance from the players - there is discussion about what can be learnt for the second game that is to be played two days later. Ish Sodhi talks about bowling on a wearing pitch and Mitchell Marsh reflects on his Man of the Match display. Tom Latham does an embargoed press conference as Sunday's game will be his 100th ODI.

As everyone heads home news from around the cricket world is coming in: India-South Africa is going behind closed doors and England's tour of Sri Lanka has been called off.

Saturday, March 14

In Sydney, it is events taking place across the Tasman that quickly force the hand of everyone. In the afternoon New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces that anyone coming into the country - including New Zealanders - will need to self isolate for 14 days. The players make a hasty retreat to the airport to get themselves home. Lockie Ferguson has to wait an extra day after needing a Covid test for a mild sore throat.

Tuesday, March 17

More tour cancellations have rolled in while domestic seasons have also been curtailed. The PSL, which was trying to complete its finals, is the last domino to fall as top-level cricket comes to a juddering halt.

Monday, July 6

Around the globe, sport has come back to life over the last couple of months. The England-West Indies Test series is not the first competitive cricket back but it is by far the biggest leap for the game and all eyes will be on it. The doors remain locked for now, but 117 days after Australia and New Zealand walked off the SCG, international cricket will return.