SPIT AND POLISH

Cricketers will have minimum contact because of Coronavirus

By Craig Ray 10 March 2020

Anderson hands the ball to Broad during the third cricket test match against South Africa at Newlands. Photo: Reuters Photo by Reuters.

England’s cricketers won’t shake hands with opposing players, fans and administrators on their up-coming Sri Lanka tour. South Africa appear to be treading the same path when they meet India in a three-match One-Day International (ODI) series in India over the next nine days because of Covid-19. But is it enough?

Cricket is a game where sweat and saliva are used liberally. The ball is rubbed under a bowler or fielder’s sweaty armpit or with globules of saliva to assist with the shining, and therefore swing, of the ball. 

If one side of the ball is smoother and lighter than the other (a cricket ball is divided by a seam across its equator), the theory is that the rougher side drags more in the air. The smoother side endures less friction, allowing the ball to move through the air in the direction of the rough side. 

For years teams have used all methods, both legal and illegal, to assist, speed up, or slow the natural degradation of the leather orb. But in a coronavirus (Covid-19) world, could it add to the problem of transmission? 

Recent studies have shown that Covid-19 can persist for up to nine days on inanimate surfaces if not washed away with most commercial disinfectants. Licking and spitting on a cricket ball does pose a threat, but it is minimal. 

“Taking general measures, like washing hands, is a good idea because it stops influenza and other viruses spreading around,” Dr Tom Boyles, an infectious disease consultant at Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg, told Daily Maverick

“Could Covid-19 be passed from one person to another via saliva on a cricket ball? Yes, in theory, it could. The virus exists in saliva, the saliva gets on the cricket ball, the ball gets on someone’s hands, they touch their nose or mouth and theoretically, they could be infected.

“But, is that scenario a big deal? Absolutely not, because none of the players has got Covid-19. It’s a theoretical risk in the same way it’s a theoretical risk of contracting HIV while attending to someone at an accident scene. It’s possible in theory, but it has never been reported.” 

England’s cricket team toured South Africa from December 2019 into February 2020. In the early part of the tour up to half the squad was incapacitated by a bad virus that swept through it. It was not Covid-19, but, in retrospect, it was a reminder of how susceptible close-living sports teams are to communicable diseases. 

“After the illnesses that swept through the squad in South Africa, we are well aware of the importance of keeping contact to a minimum,” England captain Joe Root told the media on the eve of the team’s departure for Sri Lanka. 

“We’ve been given some really sound and sensible advice from our medical team to help prevent spreading germs and bacteria. 

“We are not shaking hands with each other – using instead the well-established fist bump – and we are washing hands regularly and wiping down surfaces using the antibacterial wipes and gels we’ve been given in our immunity packs.” 

This advice is in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines to combat the spread of Covid-19, but how realistic is it on a field of play? 

“In a sports context, as a demonstration of solidarity in the efforts against Covid-19 and of public hygiene practices, not shaking hands is useful,” Professor Peter Raubenheimer, head of General Medicine at Groote Schuur hospital, told Daily Maverick. 

“If you want to avoid high risk of contracting Covid-19 you shouldn’t be travelling and playing games in risk areas. The players’ behaviour and travel schedules off the field are much more relevant than what they do on the field. Generally, at professional level, you’ll have healthy people on the field anyway.

“What is more important is crowd control. Not having large gatherings of people, especially in areas where the virus is known to exist is essential. At this stage different countries are at different stages of dealing with Covid-19.” 

India and Sri Lanka have not yet reported cases of Covid-19 and both areas are currently considered “safe” in the context of this virus. The Proteas flew to India via Dubai, one of the world’s busiest airports and in the same region as Abu Dhabi where the recent cycling Tour of the UAE was suspended mid-race because of Covid-19. Seven people working on various professional cycling teams tested positive. 

“We have the medical staff and like in the past, where there was a security concern, we give that to them and they come up with recommendations,” Proteas coach Mark Boucher told the media before they departed for India. 

“If they feel it is too dangerous, they pull us out and this is no different. We had a briefing at the weekend about the virus that has been going on and obviously it’s a major concern around the world. 

“But we don’t know medicine like they do, we have a medical staff to look after that. We have taken their recommendations and we trust that they will put stuff in place that will work for us. 

“With regards to handshakes and stuff like that, it is a concern and we will do the same if it comes to that. It is just a way of trying to stop anything from happening to our guys and it is out of respect for the players around you not to pass something that you might have.” DM

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