Keon Harding is in love with the salmon being served at the Hilton Garden Inn, but what really makes him 'forget' that he is in isolation is the table tennis corner of the games room. At another time, the 23-year-old would have been soaking in the sights and sounds of Manchester on his maiden tour with the West Indies senior squad. Instead, he has to remain content with whatever he can lay hands on inside a 'bio-secure bubble.'
Harding is a reserve bowler in the Windies squad that will play a three Test-series against England starting Wednesday, the first international cricket match since March 13. He arrived in England with 24 other players and eight support staff on June 9 and has since been staying in the hotel within the Old Trafford premises. It is a part of the strict measures in a bio-fortress put in place to conduct the series. Old Trafford will hold the second and third Tests after the first is held at Southampton.
"It's a mental game. While on tour, you would want to switch off from cricket for some time. You may want to go for a coffee or to some mall. It's not possible now. It's a bit of a challenge and it's harder for the players. It is tough. But we have to get used to it as the corona is going to stay for some time now," Kemar Roach, senior Windies fast bowler, said from Manchester via a Zoom call. "Usually it's very noisy in England with all the fans and the Barmy Army. Now there will be no one, no fans. Some music will be good, maybe get somebody who can sing!"
'No holiday camp'
Due to the restrictions, going out is not an option even for England players, who are based in Southampton. "Inside, social distancing, wearing of masks, and probably spending a lot of time on your own isn't a lot of fun and it is a bit of a culture shock. It will be weird. Anyone who thinks this is going to be a holiday camp is going to be seriously mistaken," Ashley Giles, the England Cricket Board (ECB) cricket director, said.
Indeed, it is a 'culture shock' and Windies coach Phil Simmons learnt it the hard way. He attended his father-in-law's funeral after obtaining the requisite permissions and on return stayed in self-isolation in his hotel room from June 26 to July 1. Still, there were calls for his sacking by Conde' Riley, a director of Cricket West Indies (CWI), who said Simmons was "inconsiderate and reckless" and "endangered the lives" of others.
If the Test series runs smoothly, it might become the blueprint for future cricket tours and events. So what's going on inside the bubble?
Tests, tests, more tests
The first thing is aggressive testing. The Windies players were tested before they boarded the flight to England and again on arrival. It's not just them. "702 Covid-19 tests were carried out between 3 June and 23 June with several stakeholder groups working at the bio-secure venues of the Ageas Bowl (Southampton) and Emirates Old Trafford. These groups include players, support staff, match officials, ECB staff, venue staff and hotel staff. We can confirm that all 702 tests were negative," ECB said.
From June 25, the players have been tested twice weekly along with daily thermal screenings. The two venues, Ageas Bowl and Old Trafford were chosen because both have hotels inside the premises. Not only the players but journalists reporting on the match will also have to stay in the hotel inside the stadium complex. It is expected around 300 people will be on-site at any point of the Test. The complex has been divided into several zones which only designated members will have access to. No one can cross over to another zone without accreditation. "The number one key zone is the Green Zone. This is where the match officials go - players and umpires," said Steve Davies, Old Trafford Operations Director, on the Lancashire Cricket's website. "Around that, we have the Orange Zone. That's for other operational workers. Myself, for example. But we wouldn't get access to the Green Zone. Then the Red Zone is for things like food deliveries. They would still go through a screening process, but that's for people on-site for a very short period. That's the outer rim of the site."
Even the hotel where the two teams will be staying will have designated zones with space for physical distancing. The only time the two teams will meet will be on the ground. "The hotel is a mixture of Green and Orange. England will have their own floor, the West Indies will, and then some of the broadcasters, ECB staff and the likes of myself and our chief executive Daniel Gidney would be on another floor. All three floors don't interact, and there are one-way systems in place and separate eating areas. We've taken a decision that we want to maintain a two-metre social distancing policy within all zones," Davies added.
Within one zone, there will be several measures to minimise the infection risk. At the 150-bedroom hotel in Old Trafford, there is a digital key check-in so that there is minimum interaction with the staff, safety Perspex (transparent plastic) screening across the touchpoints like desks, bars and a refurbished dining area. "(Our) social distancing measures include one-way systems for moving around the site and each building, and each door has a notice for the maximum capacity of people allowed in each suite. PPE is distributed across all departments and in buildings, with hand sanitisers at most entry and exit points," said Sarah McManus, Events and Project Manager at the Old Trafford. "Another aspect that we need to consider is gate entry and parking. We need there to be the least amount of gates open and make sure that's communicated so everyone on-site understands where they're able to access the site from."
There's a game too!
Clearly, this is an unprecedented environment to play cricket in.
"It is not a perfect scenario but there is a bigger picture and that is the business of cricket around the world and in this country. It is important we get back to playing Test cricket," Giles said.
"There's been some nervousness about the situation. I'm sure that when someone is trying to knock your head off at 85-90mph you'll find a way to get your intensity up pretty quickly."
Yet with all the measures in place, there was a virus scare. England all-rounder Sam Curran was taken off a warm-up match after he complained of illness. His test returned negative. Apart from that there has been no medical emergency. The intra-squad warm-up matches seemed normal with players huddling after dismissals. But the real test begins on Wednesday when cricket resumes.