Coronavirus: How will Indian domestic season negotiate corridor of uncertainty

There hasn’t been any cricketing activity since March and clouds of gloom hover around the otherwise elaborate domestic season, which usually begins in August.

“You fear stepping out of the house. Where is the questions of asking the players to come to the ground and train,” remarked Tarak Sinha, coach at the Sonnet Club in New Delhi.   -  Shivkumar Pushpakar

It’s that time of the year when the state cricket associations are usually busy planning for the season ahead. They chalk out the budget, appoint coaching staff, prepare the ground and make sure that the long domestic season runs smoothly.

However, it’s a different scenario this time around. Stumped by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s all quiet on the cricketing front, disturbingly silent. Instead of planning for the future, the state units are waiting for the guidelines from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to know about the fate of the season. Uncertainty rules.

There hasn’t been any cricketing activity since March and clouds of gloom hover around the otherwise elaborate domestic season, which usually begins in August, as none of the stakeholders — the players, coaches, administrators — have any clue on how to deal with the situation.

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“You fear stepping out of the house. Where is the questions of asking the players to come to the ground and train,” remarked Tarak Sinha, coach at the Sonnet Club in Delhi. The annual summer camp that Sonnet conducted was known to unearth some hidden talent and Rishabh Pant was the last such gem to be discovered at these summer camps.

While the BCCI has stated that its contracted players will only start training when the situation is absolutely under control, some of the players are slowly resuming their training, albeit in their own capacity. “We want to start the activities but the situation just refuses to improve. Social distancing norms and the fact that there is no cure for this virus in sight makes the children and their parents very apprehensive,” said an administrator from Karnataka.

As most of the top-tier cities grapple with the pandemic, the state associations are cautious about their future course of action. Some of the units like the Mumbai Cricket Association, Cricket Association of Bengal and Saurashtra Cricket Association are already in touch with the authorities, seeking clarity on the road ahead.

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“We have written to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra requesting him for guidelines on resumption of cricket. We need to understand that there are thousands of players who are anxiously waiting to get back to cricketing activities and pursue their careers,” MCA secretary, Sanjay Naik, told Sportstar.

Under normal circumstances, by now the probables for various age-group teams of Mumbai — including the Ranji Trophy — would have started preparing at MCA’s facilities. And most of the players would also gear up for the monsoon tournament, the Kanga League. But all that has come to a halt now. “As of now, there is no clarity as to what will happen. These are unprecedented times and we need to accept the reality. It is important to be safe and not rush things,” Akhil Herwadkar, a regular in Mumbai’s cricket circuit, said.

“The way things are going, it doesn’t look bright for the Kanga League and the other tournaments. It is challenging for players, for sure, but there is not much we can do about it,” Akhil Herwadkar, a regular in Mumbai’s cricket circuit, said.   -  Vivek Bendre

 

With Mumbai witnessing an extended lockdown till July 31, it looks extremely difficult to get the season going. “The way things are going, it doesn’t look bright for the Kanga League and the other tournaments. It is challenging for players, for sure, but there is not much we can do about it,” Herwadkar said.

While the cricketers in Mumbai are still hoping against hope for the Kanga League, the club season in Kolkata was wisely called off due to the pandemic. Even the Karnataka State Cricket Association has put its plans on hold, quite on the lines of Tamil Nadu Cricket Association.

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“We have not cancelled the cricketing activities. We are keeping a close watch on the situation on a day to day basis,” Vinay Mruthyunjaya, the treasurer of KSCA, said, making it clear that once the situation improves, the association will take all the efforts to restart the season.

With no SOP or guidelines available, various coaching camps and clubs across the country are also shut. Prashant Shetty, one of the noted coaches at the MIG Cricket Club in Bandra, admits that even after the situation improves, the coaching methods will change. “Even if we start in October, we have to be careful. We cannot have a group of 25-30 players training together. We need to have alternate day sessions with smaller groups. We cannot take chances,” Shetty, who coached Prithvi Shaw and Jemimah Rodrigues, said.

Having groomed youngsters for years, Shetty feels that the first challenge will be to educate the players about the importance of social distancing. “We need to explain it to them,” he said. He has even advised the players below 10 years to stay indoors till ‘at least October’.

“They are not matured enough and we cannot monitor at all times. So, we are telling the parents not to think about any sessions (for 10-year-olds) till October. They can just do drills at home and can send us videos and we will guide them,” Shetty said.

“I have been giving them lessons through videos. It has worked well thus far. They shoot their videos on the mobile phone and in return I give them instructions. It is fine for the time being but you can’t be coaching online the entire season. Children have to have a platform for them to burn their energy,” noted Tarak Sinha.

However, for the cricketers who feature in age-group tournaments, challenges are different. Former national selector, Gagan Khoda, believes that it is important to have a shorter domestic season this year. “We can’t have a Ranji Trophy season like last year. They (the BCCI) need to come up with a shorter duration to complete the tournament, otherwise it would be difficult. Unlike other times, now every team can’t have 10 matches. There has to be a plan,” Khoda, a former India international said.

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Anil Kumble, chairman of the ICC Cricket Committee, had a pragmatic suggestion. “We can resume cricket activities on a smaller scale. Test them at the local level before thinking big. Matches can be conducted within the zones where the teams can undertake journey by road and stay in one hotel designated for them. Modalities can be worked out, but I would suggest that we must give it a try first at the local level.”

With no cricketing activities, finances have also taken a hit. There have been pay cuts at the lower level, while some of the groundsmen and coaches at various clubs and academies have found it difficult to make ends meet. But even then, in a season of uncertainties, it’s hope that keeps the cricketing fraternity going.

The Indian Cricketers Association (ICA) ran a wonderful campaign to collect funds in order to help colleagues who are facing hard times. “The response (from fellow cricketers) was very encouraging and I am glad we could reach out to the needy cricketers,” observed Ashok Malhotra, who heads the ICA.

“But how long can one sustain on these lines,” asked former Test spinner Maninder Singh. “Cricketers are being helped but what of the ground staff at various centres. Who will think about them.” In fact, an association like Delhi and District Cricket Association, known for its corrupt ways, has looked so poor, having abandoned its ground staff and ignored financial assistance to the support staff.

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Even as the world battles the pandemic, the chances of cricket resuming at the local and domestic stage are remote. “I am not going to allow my son to go and play cricket,” said a parent, who was not convinced that the authorities would provide safe measures to conduct any competition at the junior level. Most parents fear the staging associations have poor reputation of handling such challenges.

“Without a proper outing at the local level, can you think of competing at the next level without any match fitness,” asked former Delhi coach Amit Bhandari, who also has an academy to look after. “Boys under-16 would find it difficult. Can’t handle them when it comes to social distancing. You may think of starting at the senior level with 10 players in one batch. The training can be in a staggered manner. They have to be physically fit and mentally fit too because they would not have done any physical exercise. They will have to adapt to the new rule of no saliva.”

“We have not cancelled the cricketing activities. We are keeping a close watch on the situation on a day to day basis,” Vinay Mruthyunjaya, the treasurer of Karnataka State Cricket Association, said, making it clear that once the situation improves, the association will take all the efforts to restart the season.   -  G. P. Sampath Kumar

 

What about parents? “I will always have a doubt. How will my kid travel? Public transport is ruled out. How would the trainees travel the distance within the city? Many parent have lost jobs. Would they want their children to play or find some work? I would rather want my child to take a break and wait for good times. If you don’t play cricket for a year the sky won’t fall. Life is important than cricket,’ said Bhandari.

For Suresh Batra, a regular player-cum-coach working at Bank of Baroda, these are tough times. “It is my profession and if there is a gap you can imagine what will happen. Forget organising academies. You can only do running (early morning and late night) and cycling. Dangerous to go to the ground. At home, how many can have a gym of your own? May be you can lift weights but where would you play cricket? Batting lessons on terrace and similarly bowling sessions, but that is nowhere close to reality. This is the first time in 40 years that I have not played a cricket match this summer.”

Not a cricket match! Most players have accepted the situation. So have the support staff and the ground staff. The onus now is on the administrators. When to start activities? As one veteran coach observed, “It will be prudent to keep cricket on hold. Let us forget this season and concentrate on fighting the virus. Runs and wickets are not the priority, I am sure.”