Inside cricket’s new bubble!

The cricket boards of different countries are pinning their hopes on the ‘bio-bubble’ model to resume cricket after almost three months’ hiatus.

Old Trafford

The Old Trafford in Manchester has a five-star property on site.   -  Getty Images

A new bubble is floating in the cricket world these days, centred around plans to restart the game amid the coronavirus upheaval.  

The cricket boards of different countries are pinning their hopes on the ‘bio-bubble’ model to resume cricket after almost three months’ hiatus.

Even so, the cricketing fraternity is divided over the feasibility of the ‘bio-bubble’, which aims at conducting the game in a controlled and secure environment, where health and discipline are priorities.

If the plans work, England will host West Indies and Pakistan over the next couple of months. Some top cricket administrators are confident the model will work. “One needs to get used to the new normal,” says one administrator.

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What’s the bubble?

Dictionaries define bio-security as the “precautions taken to protect against the spread of lethal or harmful organisms and diseases.”

This is the mantra for the cricket boards around the world trying to create an environment that will ensure the protection of players and the other stakeholders in the times of Covid-19. The idea is to shortlist a few venues which will have all the facilities on site -- the ground, the practice arena, the gym, and a hotel. At a time when travel restrictions are in place and a 14-day quarantine is must, cricket administrators believe such facilities will be perfect for the teams.

This is why England has shortlisted Southampton and Old Trafford as the two venues for its proposed series against the West Indies and Pakistan.The Ageas Bowl in the port town of Southampton has a hotel on the premises that is normally used to host the players and the officials every time there is a game. Similarly, the Old Trafford in Manchester, too, has a five-star property on site. The Edgbaston Stadium in Birmingham is the likely third option. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) officials believe these facilities will help them be in control of the situation.

The players and the officials would stay in these on-site facilities throughout and be tested regularly for the virus. The latest International Cricket Council (ICC) guidelines state that the players need to be screened daily for symptoms and there would be proper sanitisation.

“We have done extensive planning now for behind-closed-doors cricket and we are hopeful we will get the green light soon and we will have cricket going again in July,” Lancashire’s acting chairman, Les Platts, says.

Meanwhile in the German football league, players can be seen practising social distancing while sitting in the stands. Will this be the new normal?   -  REUTERS

 

READ| Rahul Dravid on bio-secure venues: It's a bit unrealistic

Different zones

While there are debates on what would be ideal for a ‘bio-secure’ sporting environment, the ECB has suggested that it be divided into designated zones which would separate the teams, match officials, ground staff, and the media. And people from each sector will have to confine themselves to their respective ‘bubbles’.

Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB)’s chief executive, Wasim Khan says, “In terms of bio-secure venues, what it means is that there are different sections that will be created within the ground. For example, there are a certain areas where the players and officials will be allowed. No one else can go in there.”

A few weeks ago, Khan and his team at the PCB had a discussion with the ECB on the subject and agreed to go ahead with the series, starting from August.

“Then, you have sort of more parameters with the broadcasters, medical centres. It will be based around all that. There will be no-go areas for non-players and officials. Broadcasters and commentators will be in a certain scenario. It’s just looking at a layout of the actual stadium and creating things around it,” Khan explains.

The plans are focused on the safety of players. “The principles of bio-securing are simple, it is about security, on-site medical facilities, footprints of social distancing. We are working on that,” Khan adds.  

On match days, the ECB plans to cut down staff from 1,500 to 300. With no crowd to manage, the ECB will look to function with a low headcount.

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Sustainable model?

While England is confident that this will work, Khan, too, believes that the model could be sustained in the Asian sub-continent. “All we have to do is adapt whatever good practice model there is and look at what works in our environment,” he says. “By the time we reach the summer, ECB would have installed its bio-secure systems. There will be lot of learnings from that.” 

Of course, it’s easier said than done. To make sure that Pakistan plays the Test and T20I series, ECB has agreed to arrange chartered flights for the visiting team -- something that even the ICC has suggested in its latest set of guidelines. While this may look good as a temporary plan, questions do crop up on how practical and cost-effective will this model be?

While the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) doesn’t want to commit to anything at the moment, some of its officials believe that it needs to wait and watch before taking a decision. “At this point of time, it is too early to comment on anything,” says a top official.

The board’s treasurer Arun Dhumal points out that they need to follow government protocols before deciding on any such plans. However, he hasn’t ruled out any possibilities.

If India does travel to Australia later this year, it could also receive similar treatment, where the players would be quarantined in a hotel and all the ‘bubble’ zones would be in place.

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South Africa, Sri Lanka optimistic

South Africa too is batting for the ‘bio-bubble’. The team’s chief medical officer, Dr. Shuaib Manjra has already liaised with England and Australia.

According to Manjra, the ‘bio-bubble’ would be “a sanitised cricket biosphere with strict entry standards and limited movement out of this cordon.” Players and the stakeholders within the bubble will require regular testing.

“We want to create a sanitised cricket eco-system that will ensure we account for the entire chain of operations that are sanitised and grant protection to all role-players,” says Manjra.

And if all goes according to plan, South Africa could start this new system prior to its proposed three-match T20I series against India in August -- which is still uncertain, with BCCI refusing to commit its participation just yet.

Sri Lanka too has its guard up as it stays the course to start its outdoor practice sessions from June 1, with a group of bowlers. The players will stay in a Colombo hotel and train at the Sinhalese Cricket Ground close by. “We will have about 10-11 people, plus the coaching staff,” says Sri Lanka’s chief national selector, Asantha de Mel.

While there will be proper check-ups every day, there won’t be any batting sessions. “It will be more about bowling and fitness for now,” de Mel adds. If this camp goes on smoothly, the full-fledged training with more players could be held in the third week of June. 

Last season, the BCCI conducted a record 2,035 games across age groups in men’s and women’s category in around six months. If the new bubble comes into play, the entire calendar could go haywire.    -  Special Arrangement

 

Difficult for domestic cricket

Seeing such a model at work in the Indian domestic structure, where most of the grounds operate with limited facilities, looks a stretch.

Former Indian cricketer Ajay Ratra, who coaches domestic sides now, says, “It looks difficult. In junior or domestic levels, it could get a bit challenging to follow so many protocols. You require a lot of equipment, staff strength, so it’s a challenge.”

Last season, the BCCI conducted a record 2,035 games across age groups in men’s and women’s category in around six months. If the new bubble comes into play, the entire calendar could go haywire. 

“For each match, there is a budget. Also, in domestic cricket, players usually share rooms and there is a lot of travelling,” Ratra says, hoping that the travel could reduce this time given the conditions.

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‘Need to be full-proof’

Dr. Ali Irani, who has worked with the Indian cricket team, believes that for such models to work, everything has to be foolproof. “If a player is infected, there is a possibility of him passing it on to others. So, it is important to sanitise the ball. But then, how can you stop them from rubbing the ball on their trousers? There should be a swab test of all the players who will be on the ground. This includes the people working in the enclosures,” Irani, a former physiotherapist of the national side, says.

“Once you test the players, it takes some time for the reports to come out. So, there could be chances of a player getting infected within that timeline. So, you need to be careful,” Irani cautions.

“Now, players will be worried every time. They will look at each other with doubt. There are so many factors -- who did I touch, who did I come in contact with? If one player is infected, then everyone else is at risk, so there will be a lot of stress.”

Building immunity is also an important aspect, he says. “The players should avoid outside food, and by that I also mean the food served in the dressing room. Catering again is another (worry). Even the team buses, hotel rooms -- everything remain a concern. So, it is important to be careful.”

READ| How cricket can restart amid COVID-19? ICC spells out

‘Unrealistic’

Even former India captain Rahul Dravid feels the ‘bubble’ plan is a bit unrealistic. “Obviously, the ECB is very keen to conduct these series because they have had no other cricket and it is right in the middle of the season. Even if they are potentially able to create a bubble and manage it in that way, I think it will be impossible for everyone to do it with the kind of calendar that we have, with the travelling that you do on tours and the number of people involved," Dravid said in a webinar recently.

The head of cricket at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru also believes that it’s not a water-tight model. “In case of the bio-bubble, you do all the testing, the quarantine and then on Day two of the Test match, what if one player tests positive? What happens then? The rules, as they stand now, will see the public health department coming in and putting everyone in quarantine.”

New challenge

Cricket coverage will be a challenge for journalists and broadcasters as well. Ali Martin, who covers the game for The Guardian, feels the new work environment will be quite an experience. “We are not expecting to have access to training - there will be no contact with players or coaching staff in person due to the zoning - and press conferences, either before games or after play, are most likely to be conducted by video conference call. Daily temperature checks or symptom monitoring and social distancing will be a feature of the new working environment,” says Martin.

In case of major tournaments, the press boxes across venues are usually filled with journalists, but this time, the scenes could be different. “Reporting, covering England this summer is going to be very different. Our attendance is not yet confirmed and, if so, it is likely that numbers will be limited - possibly to just one per publication with no changes of personnel mid-match, and away from our usual press facilities,” says Martin.

There would be more restrictions, more challenges and perhaps some confusion. Much like for most in the world these days, it’s a walk into the unknown for the cricket boards. They aren’t shying away from trying out different strategies, aware that some might work, some might not. But they are willing to get ball rolling.

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