Covid-19: Bio-secure bubbles new route to resuming cricket

The bio-bubble is the mantra for cricket boards around the world, trying to create an environment that will ensure the protection of players and other stakeholders in the times of COVID-19.

The Emirates Old Trafford in Manchester has a hotel on the premises that is normally used to host players and officials every time there is a game.   -  Reuters

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 four 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.

 the plans work, there will be some quality cricket over the next couple of months, with England hosting the West Indies and Pakistan.

The trial run thus far has been a success.

READ| Wood on training inside bio-secure bubble: It’s weird, a bit like a sci-fi movie

The West Indies team, which will play England in a three-match Test series starting July 8, has already spent a couple of weeks in a controlled bio-bubble environment at Old Trafford in Manchester. There have been thorough tests regularly and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has ensured there are no loopholes in its planning.

But there are challenges, too.

With the United Kingdom grappling with the coronavirus, the players can’t venture out. They are at the on-site team hotel. And West Indies head coach Phil Simmons agrees that it’s not easy to be indoors all day. “The biggest challenge is boredom,” Simmons says.

Once training is over, the West Indies players keep themselves busy with indoor games such as dominoes and cards. The team also has a golf simulation centre. “We have cards, a few things the guys are enjoying,” Simmons says.

READ| How is West Indies adapting to the bio-bubble?

Even pace ace Kemar Roach admits that “being in your room a lot more than usual is probably a little more taxing on the brain.” But then, he also knows that they are “in England for cricket, and that’s the priority.”

While it needs to be seen how things pan out when the first Test begins at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton, some of the top cricket administrators are confident the model will work. “One needs to get used to the new normal,” says one administrator.

The West Indies’ Kraigg Brathwaite, Shai Hope and Rahkeem Cornwall arrive at Manchester airport on June 9.   -  Getty Images

 

What’s the bubble?

The dictionary defines 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 other stakeholders in the times of COVID-19.

The idea is to shortlist a few venues that will have all the facilities on site — ground, practice arena, gym and hotel. At a time when travel restrictions are in place and a 14-day quarantine is a must, cricket administrators believe such facilities will be perfect for teams.

This is why England has chosen Southampton and Old Trafford as the two venues for its series against the West Indies and Pakistan.

READ| Bio-secure bubble can operate under extreme situations: ECB

The Ageas Bowl in the port town of Southampton has a hotel on the premises that is normally used to host players and officials every time there is a game. Similarly, Old Trafford in Manchester, too, has a five-star property on site. ECB officials believe these facilities will help them be in control of the situation.

The players and officials will stay at these on-site facilities throughout and be tested regularly for the virus.

The latest International Cricket Council (ICC) guidelines state that players need to be screened daily for symptoms and there should be proper sanitisation.

Steve Davies, operations director at Lancashire, says: “The health and safety of everyone on site is our No. 1 priority, so we have isolation rooms in place, alongside strict cleaning measures. This is also the case for our own staff and team because we want to make sure we’re delivering these matches to the highest possible standard.”

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 that would separate the teams, match officials, ground staff and media. And people from each sector will have to confine themselves to their respective “bubbles.”

“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,” says Wasim Khan, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chief executive.

In May, 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 in August.

READ| England bubble will have 'bridge to outside'

“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 board will look to function with a low headcount.

Social-distancing signage at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton.   -  Getty Images

 

On match days

Venues will be divided into two zones — inner and outer. Each will have four sub-zones.

Inner zone: Will include on-field arena, change rooms and indoor facilities. There will be medical staff and doctors with each team and also in respective zones, conducting regular body temperature checks.

Outer zone: Will be restricted to broadcasters, media, hospitality staff and other associates.

On match days, movement will be restricted between zones and no one can move in or out of the restricted arena.

On non-match days

Both teams will be staying at the on-site hotel. There will be stringent health checks, including COVID-19 testing, temperature checks and health questionnaires, which will be completed by medical professionals.

Delivery of food will be done with minimal staff. No outsider will be allowed access to team hotels and the players won’t be allowed to step out.

Sustainable model?

While England is confident that this will work, Khan, too, believes the model could be sustained in the Asian subcontinent. “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, the 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 Twenty20 International (T20I) series, the ECB has agreed to arrange for 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 about how practical and cost-effective this model will be.

West Indies pace ace Roach doesn’t believe this model is here to stay. “For me, we just need to continue following the protocol, as long as it remains, to ensure that we are keeping ourselves and the people around us safe. Right now, it’s undeniably the best way to go, but hopefully we will go back to something close to normal in the future,” he says.

READ| Inside cricket’s new bubble!

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 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.

Arun Dhumal, the board’s treasurer, points out that they need to follow government protocols before deciding on any such plans. While he hasn’t ruled out any possibilities, the BCCI has clarified that there won’t be any cricketing activities at least till August. And that makes it clear that the Indian board doesn’t want to rush things.

A hand-sanitising station at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton.   -  Getty Images

 

South Africa, Sri Lanka optimistic

However, teams like Sri Lanka and Afghanistan have already started training in bio-secured environment. While Sri Lanka started its “return-to-play” programme in Colombo, initially with 13 players, Afghanistan has been training in a controlled environment in Kabul. “We have done a lot of conditioning and every day we have upped their bowling,” Sri Lanka head coach Mickey Arthur says, adding: “So they are almost ready. In the next month, they will be ready to play cricket.”

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 will 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 ecosystem that will ensure we account for the entire chain of operations that are sanitised and grant protection to all role players,” says Manjra.

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

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 the men’s and women’s categories in 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.

‘Need to be foolproof’

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 team, 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.

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

“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, Irani 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 remains a concern. So, it is important to be careful.”

Even former India captain Rahul Dravid feels the “bubble” plan is a bit unrealistic.   -  B. Jothi Ramalingam

 

‘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 we have, with the travelling you do on tours and the number of people involved,” Dravid said in a webinar at the end of May.

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.

So far, the scribes did not 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 mostly being 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. It has been learnt that for the Test series against the West Indies, only one reporter will be allowed from each publication, and the final figure could be around 13 or 14.

READ| No confirmation on India's South Africa tour yet

“Reporting, covering England this summer is going to be very different,” says Martin. Even the journalists covering the Test series against the West Indies could prefer staying in the hotel on site to ensure “maximum safety and protection.”

There will 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 the ball rolling.