IPL’s home test amid rising cases
- As Covid infections continue to mount in Mumbai, BCCI says things will look up once the teams settle into their bio-bubbles.
With all sponsorship slots booked and ₹4,000 crore at stake, BCCI officials have some nervous days ahead as they attempt to conduct cricket’s biggest money-spinner, the Indian Premier League, safely at home while the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hurtles towards its peak over the coming month. Mumbai and Chennai are the first pit stops in IPL’s cluster caravan model, before heading to Ahmedabad-Delhi and then to Bengaluru-Kolkata. Mumbai, where five of the eight teams are currently living and training in bio-bubbles (the other three are in Chennai), recorded 9,879 new cases on Monday.
Since mid-March, the Covid-19 outbreak has expanded dramatically in India. The current wave of infections is the worst yet, and overall, new cases surpassed the peak recorded in September. The situation is particularly grim in Maharashtra, which has been contributing more than 50% of the caseload and reported more than 10 times the number of cases than the state with the next-highest tally on Monday.
On April 4, the Maharashtra government imposed complete lockdowns over weekends and night curfews on all other days, closing down places of worship, theatres, malls, swimming pools and gyms and disallowing gatherings of more than five people in outdoor spaces.
IPL teams are exempt from some of these rules as they are in bio-bubbles, and the Maharashtra government confirmed that the event will go ahead.
Maharashtra chief secretary Sitaram Kunte said, “We have given permission to IPL matches to be played without spectators. We are aware that players and gardeners are testing positive; the organisers will have to follow all norms related to testing, maintaining of social distancing among others.”
So far, three cricketers, 12 ground staff at Wankhede stadium (two tested positive on Monday), six event managers, and a CSK content team member have tested positive in the IPL ecosystem. None of them were inside the bio-bubbles.
Despite the alarming situation in the city, BCCI is confident that IPL will go ahead without incident. This courage stems from the 12 bio-bubbles that are in place for the tournament. “We have seen from our experience in the UAE last year, once everyone settles down and is in the bubble, things come under control,” BCCI president Sourav Ganguly said. BCCI has no immediate plans to move matches out of Mumbai, even though Lucknow has been set aside as a contingency venue. With five teams training at various grounds in Mumbai, and South African players from the Pakistan series soon to arrive and undergo quarantine, last minute changes can lead to multiple complexities.
Of the three players to have tested positive so far, both KKR’s Nitish Rana and Delhi Capitals’ Axar Patel had arrived in Mumbai with a negative report and tested positive after going into the prerequisite isolation period. RCB’s Devdutt Padikkal has remained in home isolation since testing positive.
There are still question marks though over the transparency of the process. “KKR made Rana’s case public only after he had completed his isolation period and tested negative. RCB issued a statement on Padikkal 14 days after his testing positive. That’s only after realising that his recovery was taking longer. Franchises need to realise that members testing positive is in itself not a cause for alarm. Keeping it transparent helps build confidence among participants,” a senior franchise official who did not wish to be named, said.
In the case of the 12 Wankhede ground staff, some returned positive from tests done on March 26, others from tests on April 1. It’s not known if immediate contact tracing was done. Fifteen other ground staff, who tested negative, have now been housed in the stadium. CSK and DC will get their first access to the ground on April 7 as they look ahead to their opener on April 10.
The event SOP calls for the ground staff to be periodically tested and for them to prepare the ground and wickets outside of the team training sessions as a risk mitigation strategy. The same rules are laid down for vendors, which includes the LED operators of stadium branding and boundary rope, coordinators and match entertainment crew.
This year, the onus is on the six staging associations to work together with IPL operations machinery, as no franchise has been allotted a home venue. The Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA), which will be hosting the opener in Chennai on April 9, has taken some pro-active steps. “We have about 70 staff members, including ground staff and we have got all of them vaccinated 15 days ago with the necessary permissions from the corporation,” RS Ramaswamy, secretary, TNCA said. “The staff has been trained to maintain distance from teams. All our members have also been told not to visit the ground anymore, now that the teams have started to practice at the venue. With the experience of having staged the England Tests, we are putting our best foot forward.”
BCCI has also appointed four “bubble integrity managers” for each team. They are already with the teams and will accompany them throughout the tournament. “The managers look after every aspect—for example, we often get requests from families of local players saying that they just want to drop off some home food…the managers are making sure that these things don’t happen,” said a team official from inside the bubble.
The other aid to identify breaches, which was used during last IPL are GPS trackers—these were issued to everyone in the bubble in the UAE with a unique tracking number and supervised through a central database. The trackers are yet to arrive, said a team official.
Each team, along with their management and support staff, has been put up in a section of a hotel that has been sealed off for them. The hotel staff attending to the teams have also gone through testing and isolation, following the same protocols, and are not allowed to go outside the bubble. “One suite inside our section has been turned into a small gym,” said a team official. “We have a dedicated elevator, staircase and entrance in the hotel.” The bubble protocol also demands that team owners also need to quarantine for 7 days if they want to be a part of the team bubble.
The broadcasters who pump in ₹3270 crores in each IPL are also operating from eight separate bio bubbles—two in Mumbai and six other moving bubbles at the respective venues. “We are producing 9 concurrent feeds, including the world feed with 700 crew members and more than 100 commentators and presenters from 13 different nationalities,” said Sanjog Gupta, Sports head, Star and Disney India. “Leveraging from our learnings from last time, we have heightened Covid safety protocols both in terms of testing as well as contact tracing and zoning. Everyone will be travelling in sanitized chartered flights.”