The longest-running Test series in history will end over the next five days almost a year after it started. England play India in the rearranged fifth Test at a different ground, with different captains and coaches and even a different start time.
The story of how English cricket reached this point involves a London book launch, shopping trips to Selfridges, private jets to Abu Dhabi, a breastfeeding mother, a Foo Fighters gig, panicky through-the-night video calls from London to Mumbai and even rumours of a plastic turd.
At stake is filling a £40m blackhole for English cricket, India’s first series win here for 15 years and England’s record of never losing two home series in the same summer since 1986.
It was in the early hours of Sept 10 that England & Wales Cricket Board officials learned that India were puling out of the fifth Test at Emirates Old Trafford due to a Covid outbreak in their camp.
Players were unnerved when their head coach, Ravi Shastri, bowling coach Bharat Arun and physio Nitin Patel tested positive during the fourth Test at the Oval a week earlier, where they took a 2-1 lead in the series. Fears increased dramatically when assistant physio Yogesh Parmar, who had treated many members of the squad, fell ill in Manchester. India did not turn up for practice on the eve of the match, the first sign of a major problem. They wanted to leave England fast. IPL bosses were offering a quick getaway on private jets, fuelled and ready to take them to the UAE for the IPL which was due to start a few days later.
With many having wives, girlfriends and children in tow, there was pressure to leave. One wife was not vaccinated because she was breastfeeding. Mothers feared children and babies catching Covid in England and being forced to stay in isolation when the players went home.
Virat Kohli sent an email at midnight - signed by all the players - to the Indian board demanding the match be voided. Supporters, unaware of what was happening, turned up at Old Trafford as normal. Coffee stalls at the grounds had been carefully laid out with flapjacks, croissants and muffins to sell. Food was being prepared for the corporate lunches, extra beer had been ordered and hundreds of temporary staff turned up for work. Beer prices were later slashed to £1 a pint to stop it being poured down the drains.
Just minutes before the gates were due to open to a sell-out 22,000 crowd, the game was off. All that food would be donated to a Manchester homeless charity. Less than 48 hours later the India players were either in the UAE or back home.
The ECB put out a statement saying India had forfeited the Test, which would mean a 2-2 draw. It was hastily revised when furious BCCI officials read it. They later released their own version of events saying the boards would look to reschedule the match at a later date.
Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, was like a government minister forced onto the airwaves to defend a prime minister’s gaffe. He had to be diplomatic and insist the cancellation was nothing to do with the IPL because to say otherwise would have jeopardised India’s return.
“Let me be super clear, I don’t think the IPL has anything to do with this. This is not a situation which has been created by the rescheduled IPL. I fundamentally do not believe that for a second,” he said. Nobody fundamentally believed him and some enraged supporters sent letters of complaint to the ECB for perceived weakness in standing up to India. One parcel included a plastic turd, thought to relate to this Test but could have been due to any number of decisions taken last year.
An angry fan told Telegraph Sport at Manchester Piccadilly station: “I’ve come from Cornwall and I booked a hotel for two nights and it’s non-refundable. We’ve sunk a few hundred quid into this and it’s very disappointing. It’s interesting to me that they managed to play the fourth Test when their coach was positive. To me it’s all about the IPL.”
Harrison had already steered the game through the Covid crisis that cost English cricket £100m. Now he was looking at a potential £40m loss from broadcast fees for the Test and refunds of 90,000 tickets plus sponsorship and ad revenue. There was talk of insurance claims at the time but companies had stopped paying out for Covid.
The rescheduling of the match this week averted many of those losses. Lancashire were unable to stage the rescheduled game because Old Trafford was due to host a Foo Fighters gig last week - cancelled when their drummer, Taylor Hawkins, passed away - and another by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. There would not be enough time to prepare a Test pitch so Edgbaston stepped in with Old Trafford hosting a South Africa Test later this summer instead. It is good news for James Anderson who worried the India cancellation had cost him a potential Old Trafford farewell.
While chaos reigned at Old Trafford, across the Pennines, Yorkshire slipped out a statement with the findings of their internal racism review. Hopes that it was a good day to bury bad news did not materialise on that one.
Harrison has left his job, and so too Ian Watmore, then chairman of the ECB. Chris Silverwood and Joe Root are no longer in charge of the England side. Kohli stepped down as Test captain in February and Ravi Shastri retired as India coach last November.
Shastri was at the centre of the crisis. The launch of his book, Stargazing, the Players in my Life, at the Taj London hotel was identified as a crucial moment in the spread of Covid within the Indian team. Around 150 people were estimated to have attended, including Shastri, who tested positive for Covid on Sept 5, five days after the event. Harrison was also there. No masks were worn and the ECB briefed they were unhappy because they knew nothing about the event and it had not been cleared as Covid safe.
England were said to be “furious”. England players had also seen some of their India colleagues shopping at Selfridges in Manchester just days before the Test was cancelled and when the team were supposed to be ensconced in their hotels, fearful of Covid.
Shastri later said that he had “absolutely no regrets” about the event and thought he picked up Covid at the Oval where India shared lifts with the general public.
Shastri’s infection was crucial. He was isolating in London as his spooked players and their families were in Manchester discussing getting out of the tour. It is felt that Shastri would have been the “grown up” in the room who would have banged heads together and told the players to get on with it. In his absence, Kohli took charge, IPL bosses started calling the shots and the players were off.
Now, Ben Stokes has the chance to prove the delay was a blessing for England.