Saliva ban: COVID-19 can still infect cricketers, say doctors

Wicketkeepers standing up to a medium pacer or spinner and close-in fielders will be at risk; doctors say the virus can remain on the ball for days.

India stumper Wriddhiman Saha standing close to the stumps with Rohit Sharma at leg-slip as Bangladesh batsman Liton Das plays on during the Indore Test in 2019.   -  R.V. MOORTHY


While the cricket world focusses on the dangers of using saliva on the ball, medical experts warned that there are several other ways that the dreaded coronavirus can be transmitted.

Sharing a dressing room, inconclusive testing, and even the mere touch of the ball could spread the virus. The use of saliva - banned by the International Cricket Council - does carry maximum risk, but these secondary factors cannot be ignored.

Ram Gopalakrishnan, a senior infectious diseases physician at Apollo Hospitals (Chennai), stated, “Saliva poses the maximum risk of transmission, and is rightly banned. Sweat (allowed by the ICC) is less risky. But contact of any kind is dangerous. Studies show that the virus can stay on a surface - in this case, a cricket ball - for days.”

A wicketkeeper standing up to the stumps and close-in fielders pose a transmission threat. “Six-feet distancing must be maintained.

Otherwise, an infected person can transmit the virus by coughing, shouting or breathing heavily. In cricket, shouting takes the form of appeals,” Gopalakrishnan said.

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The dressing room is another cause for concern. If a player touches an infected surface, and then inadvertently touches his/her face, it significantly increases the risk of contracting the infection.

Vivek Nangia, an interventional pulmonologist at Fortis in New Delhi, stated, “Even shoes act as a coronavirus carrier. We have seen this in hospitals recently. This could happen in a cricket dressing room setting.”

Australia wicketkeeper Alex Carey stumps Hashmatullah Shahidi during the Cricket World Cup 2019 match in Bristol.   -  FILE PHOTO/ AP


The idea of testing all players and match officials before every match poses logistical and medical difficulties. “There are many cases where a person tests negative on one day, but is actually found to be positive five days later. Initial tests merely raises suspicion of being infected. A definite positive case is identified only after several tests and scans,” Nangia said. The asymptomatic nature of coronavirus only increases the chances of an infected cricketer being given the clearance to take the field.

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Nangia is not entirely convinced about the efficacy of playing cricket in bio-secure venues - to be used for the England-West Indies Test series next month. No innovative plan is fool-proof, they believe.

Both Nangia and Gopalakrishnan stated that resumption of competitive cricket or any team sport should be put off until a cure is found.

“Our international cricketers are our national property. It is not worth the risk,” Gopalakrishnan said.

“Cricket, or any sport, is not a life-sustaining activity, and thus should be avoided for now,” Nangia said.

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