This IPL, safety comes first

International sport made a stuttering comeback in May-June after three months of total lockdown because of covid-19. Not all disciplines have resumed, of course.

For example, swimming, wrestling and boxing are among those that remain in limbo. Given the nature of these sports, there is no clear prescription to reduce the covid threat to its players.

Interestingly, football, basketball and cricket—initially considered very high risk—have been able to resume, essentially because of the ‘bio-secure bubble’ which allows players, support staff, organizers and commentators to function with minimum risk.

‘Bio-secure bubble’ may sound like something out of futuristic science odyssey but is actually a behaviour protocol. Fundamentally, it lists standard operating procedures (SOPs) with player safety at its core.

This involves all stakeholders getting into the bubble after going through a series of covid tests. It also involves the use of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), logistics of hotel stay and travel, not using saliva (in cricket) or doing high fives, and all conforming to SOPs for the particular tournament.

The need for a bio-secure environment got reinforced after Novak Djokovic’s ill-fated Adria Tour in mid-June. The world No.1 tennis player organized this tour for charity, but the cavalier manner in which it was done, hit his noble intent for a six.

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Graphic: Mint

Players were allowed to mix freely with spectators, and there were after-match parties, with much backslapping and hugging between people, including players.

Trouble erupted in the first leg of the tour itself. Four players tested positive for covid, including Djokovic (and his wife, too), and the tournament had to be suspended. What came through was that even supremely fit elite-level athletes are vulnerable.

Since the Djokovic misadventure, sports bodies have become doubly conscious about ensuring conformity to SOPs. Any breach invites punishment or heartless rejection.

England fast bowler Joffra Archer had to miss the second Test against the West Indies and pay a £15,000 fine after he broke protocol and went to see his family after the first Test.

In the Caribbean Premier League, Jamaican Fabian Alan was omitted from the tournament after failing to join the bubble on account of a missed flight to Port of Spain.

The big setback—to players, organizers, fans, sponsors and broadcasters—in a bio-secure bubble is the absence of spectators at the ground as social distancing would be impossible to enforce in a stadium filled with excited fans.

There were several compunctions on whether sport would be palatable without ground spectators and whether players would be motivated without fans egging them on. But, till now at least, there has been no adverse effect—players have performed with intensity, and contests have been keen.

SOPs for bio-secure bubbles may differ from country to country even for the same sport, depending on government regulations and the level of threat from covid. For cricket in England, the West Indies and Pakistan teams had to be quarantined for three weeks before the start of matches. For CPL, this period was two weeks, for IPL, to be played in the UAE, it is one week.

There are other variations, too. The CPL is being played in only one city, Port of Spain. All six teams are staying in the same hotel, in the same bubble.

For the IPL, however, each team will stay in a different hotel at the three venues—Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. Ergo, each franchise has its own bubble. The IPL’s bio-secure bubble will be managed by UK-based Restrata, a company that looks after security operations and logistics.

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