Both the South African and Australian Test squads will quarantine ahead of their yet-to-be-confirmed three-Test series in March, in what will be the strictest biosecure bubble yet in South Africa. Unlike for the England and Sri Lanka series, where training could begin after the squads had taken their first Covid-19 tests - though social interaction was not allowed until after the third test - for the Australia series, players on both sides will be confined to their rooms for a longer period of time.
For that reason, South Africa's Test squad will leave Pakistan on February 9 to begin their quarantine period at home. A separate squad will play the three T20Is in Pakistan on February 11, 13, and 14 in what CSA director of cricket Graeme Smith sees as an inevitable consequence of the times and something member boards will have to work together to ensure the cricket calendar is as unaffected as possible.
"When you work on biosecure environment protocols for Covid-19, you work with other member nations and if member nations don't support each other and play cricket, cricket's going to find itself in a very challenging space," Smith said. "Your objective is to find the protocols that work for both. In working with Cricket Australia (CA), we've come to a lot of those medical conclusions and how that's going to look. There will be an initial quarantine period before that series. Unfortunately, we would have to play two different squads at the time."
While the dates for the Australia series are expected within the next week, ESPNcricinfo understands they are at an advanced stage and will see Australia playing Tests at SuperSport Park and the Wanderers in March. Although Smith told Australian media late last year that he would like to have fans at the grounds for the matches, with South Africa battling through a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, that is highly unlikely. Currently, the country is on Level 3 Lockdown (of five levels, with five being the strictest) and no spectators are allowed into stadiums, while all sports events have to finish by 8pm. The lockdown status will be reviewed before February 15 but even if it changes, it is unlikely to make provision for crowds. Insiders have confirmed that CA has already asked for more extreme measures than either the ECB or SLC required, and CSA is doing all it can to make it happen.
The series is the marquee event of this South African summer which has already seen a T20 series against England (but the ODIs that were to follow were postponed following concerns about the bubble in Cape Town) and festive season Tests against Sri Lanka. The men's team are currently on their first tour to Pakistan since 2007 while the women's team are hosting Pakistan, with more fixtures in the pipeline. But for CSA, the Australia series is a money-making opportunity through television rights, and a key series because of the historic needle between the two sides.
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"We would love to get our home summer completed, and Australia are a big part of that home summer. Not only do we want to get it played, we want to compete in that series," Smith said. "We saw from the Australia-India series the hype around Test cricket. I think it's going to be a great test of where we are as a squad. We are motivated. The last time a Test series with Australia happened in South Africa it was very heated and we all know what went on. We are very excited to be able to host Australia, but that comes with certain restrictions and medical protocols."
The same is likely to apply to another other cricket played in South Africa this summer, and possibly beyond. The domestic franchise one-day cup is currently being played in a biobubble in Potchefstroom, which was organised late last year after it became clear that having teams travel to various venues around the country would not work. That was the case for the franchise first-class competition, in which two games were affected by Covid-19 in the penultimate round of 2020, and the final round was postponed.
All indications are that any other domestic cricket that takes place, including the remaining first-class fixtures, a franchise T20 cup and semi-professional cricket, which has been dormant since before the pandemic hit, will have to take place in biosecure environments as well. "I'm quite positive that with all the Covid-19 issues we've been able to get cricket played. There's going to be a focus on trying to get semi-pro underway," Smith said.
With South African domestic cricket's impending restructure to 15 provincial teams and no franchises, this season's semi-professional matches are important for players who are pushing to be contracted next season. At least 75 cricketers across the current franchise and provincial structures will find themselves out of a job, so competing for places is their work this summer.
Just as it is for the national men's team. After slipping as low as eighth on the Test rankings last summer, and winning just one of the five trophies on offer, they are in a period of rebuilding and although Smith would like to see results, he believes this season is one of patience instead. "We want our team to win as much as possible but I wouldn't say that's the defining thing for me this season. I would like to answer a few questions in my own head. I think the selectors and the coaching staff would want to do the same," he said. "(Because of the pandemic) there are going to be more opportunities for players than in the past. I'm really excited to see who puts their hand up and who are the people we can back into the future."