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Cricket, cocooned in a pandemic – cricket

Deep Dasgupta did not remember the exact number. “Could be 14 or 15,” he said when asked how many times he had been tested for Covid-19 since reaching UAE on September 11. Just after finishing his coffee on a midweek morning in an Abu Dhabi hotel, the former India wicket-keeper said he would be tested again. “It’s done every four days for us.”

Dasgupta, an IPL 13 commentator, said he was sceptical when he left home in Kolkata for Dubai; Sourav Ganguly, the Indian board president, said he was apprehensive. Prior to their opening game against Chennai Super Kings (CSK) on September 19, Mumbai Indians (MI) coach Mahela Jayawardene spoke about the difficulty in controlling cluster infections among players because “proximity” couldn’t always be avoided. “Hopefully, we will get through this,” he had said.

Get through IPL13 has. By creating different bio-bubbles in 12 hotels, three stadia and a practice centre. By repeatedly testing nearly 2,000 people involved in the conduct of this edition, the first full season outside India since 2009. There was an early wobble when 13 in the CSK contingent, including players Deepak Chahar and Ruturaj Gaikwad, tested positive while isolating in Dubai in August. It meant that after months of no cricket due to lockdowns, CSK’s pre-season training had to be pushed back by a week.

Those were the only positive tests reported by IPL13. Given the logistics involved – creating different bubbles, dividing hotels, stadia and practice facilities into zones where in-person interaction and access could be strictly monitored to prevent cross-infection, getting hospitality staff and even coach drivers to stay in the bubble and making everyone comply with daily health check-up requirements – it was a massive task.

Bio-bubbles created for tennis Grand Slams US Open and French Open had players exiting even though they were in them for a much shorter duration than IPL13. The England-West Indies Test series saw Jofra Archer breach protocol and in the Nations League football competition, England’s young stars Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden were sent home for similar infraction.

Even in a bubble involving five teams for the I-League second division lasting less than a month in Kolkata, players were ejected for compromising bubble integrity. “I congratulate the players for doing this. They have done a remarkable job,” Ganguly told this paper while speaking about the success of the IPL bubbles.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) hired Restrata, a safety and security operating company from England which had worked in the 2012 Olympics, in August to create different bubbles – for teams, BCCI staff, television commentators and crew. Restrata had created bio-secure bubbles in Southampton (Ageas Bowl) and Manchester (Old Trafford) for the Test series between England and West Indies in July.

Ganguly acknowledged Restrata was hired because they had handled the series in England but said: “IPL is a lot tougher, with 8 teams and 3 venues. It’s such a long tournament, there are so many players.”

Among the things Restrata did was give everyone in the bubbles a band with a censor. To be worn on the wrist or neck, these tags helped track the individual’s movements. If the person stepped out of the designated zone, an alert would also go to that bio-bubble manager and the task force. Censors were installed in all 12 hotels, stadia and the practice venue.

“A lot of work went into it. The BCCI office-bearers, the medical team were all in touch with Restrata, with people in Dubai, VPS Healthcare (medical chain in UAE that conducted Covid-19 tests in IPL13) on how it’s going to work. We looked at what the tracking system is like, how to separate players from outside contacts, contact tracing, creating bubble in the hotel where everyone (including) the room service guy is tested. In every hotel, every team has its own floor, lift, rooms where nobody else can enter,” said Ganguly.

Not just their own floor, teams in the IPL bio-bubble had to be in that part of the hotel which had “a separate centralised air conditioning (AC) unit than the rest of the hotel”, according to the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) created by BCCI. Match day protocols in the SOP included players moving only through designated areas in the stadium which was divided into three zones with players, match officials and the Field of Play comprising Zone 1.

Ganguly and Dasgupta were in separate bubbles. “Our bubble was less severe than that of the players, but we were not allowed to be in contact with the players or the teams,” said Ganguly.

Most owners in UAE didn’t stay with their teams. Preity Zinta, co-owner of Kings XI Punjab, did. “Everyone asks me what does it mean being in the IPL team bio- bubble. Well! It’s starts with a 6-day quarantine, covid tests every 3-4 days and no going out – only ur room, designated #KXIP restaurant & gym & of course the stadium in ur car. The drivers, chefs etc are also in the bio bubble & quarantined so No food from outside & no people interaction. It’s tough if ur a free bird like me but then it’s 2020 & one must appreciate that #IPL is actually happening in the middle of a pandemic. I must thank #BCCI, the staff of KXIP & @sofiteldubaipalm for all their efforts in keep us safe & productive,” she said on Instagram.

Those testing positive – BCCI is said to have conducted 20,000 tests – needed to be isolated for at least two weeks during which “the individual must rest and avoid any exercises.” Only after two negative Covid-19 tests 24 hours apart was the person allowed to “re-enter the Bio-secure environment”. Team activities could be resumed only after a cardiac screening, according to the SOP. And if you left the bubble “without a valid reason”, you would be quarantined for six days before being allowed back. For a second offence, a player would be suspended for one match. A third offence would lead to removal with the franchise not being allowed a replacement.

“You do get used to this life. Maybe, being in a lockdown helped us adjust better. I’ll be honest: this turned out to be a lot better than I thought it would be,” said Dasgupta.

It wasn’t easy. “I think there have been a lot of challenges, through this tournament as well, with three-and-a-half weeks training before our first game, being in a bubble, in a lockdown. I think every team at some stage was just a little bit of down because of that,” Delhi Capitals’ coach Ricky Ponting has said.

The silver lining to the confinement was it helped people bond. “You are close to your teammates, you get to know each other, having breakfast, lunch and dinner with them every day you get to know different people. Always having conversations around the game, so you are learning at a rapid rate… I have really enjoyed the opportunity to be a bit more of a leader this year,” according to KXIP’s Glenn Maxwell. “You get to see the compassionate side of people,” said Dasgupta.

That franchises created recreation rooms, allowed families to join, celebrated children’s birthdays inside the bubble made it easier for players. “In our hotel, they have created some amazing space around where we can just relax, chill, spend time with your family and relax,” MI skipper Rohit Sharma told the media before their first match. MI even went for a round of golf on October 29 and uploaded their day in the greens on the team website.

“We have got a pool by our side, a beach by our side. We have got a golf simulator as well. I can say our bio-bubble has been very cool,” Chris Morris of Royal Challengers Bangalore has said.

In an interview to The Independent, Archer explained why the bubble in UAE was better than England. “It’s a little better than being trapped at a cricket ground (Ageas Bowl and Old Trafford). The hotels are grander, with greater rooms to roam, more activities and even a beach close by to whittle an hour or more away in the sun.”

Bubbles and sport look like they will be joined at the hip now. “The question you need to ask yourself is whether you want to work because if you do, you will be part of the bubble,” said Dasgupta.

Working through the year by moving from one bubble to another isn’t feasible, players such as Eoin Morgan, Jason Holder, Steve Smith and Virat Kohli have said. Along with other India players in IPL13, Kohli has had to do just that, moving into the India team bubble for the Australia tour after RCB’s run ended. Including IPL pre-seasons, Kohli would have spent five months in a controlled environment had he not got paternity leave for part of the Australia tour.

Having been part of an England-Australia bubble before travelling to UAE, Smith has pulled out of the Big Bash, Australia’s T20 league, this season. David Warner, who has spoken of how challenging it is to live in a bubble without family, too might, his manager has said.

“It’s just going to be about having open conversations with coaches, general managers, whoever, to ensure that people are keeping their head space in a reasonable place. When guys are starting to find things a bit tough mentally from just living in the bubble, being able to get out – even if it might just be a few days of being normal might be a real help. Those conversations need to be had,” Smith, the Rajasthan Royals captain, told ESPNcricinfo.

Morgan, England’s white-ball captain who took charge of Kolkata Knight Riders midway through the campaign, has also spoken of why players’ commitment should not be questioned if they opted out of tours because life in a bubble was affecting their mental health.

To keep players in a good space, Kohli has called for shorter tours and tournaments. “At the end of the day you want your players to be in the best state physically and mentally,” he told RCB’s YouTube channel.

(With inputs from Sanjjeev K Samyal)

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