Harbhajan Singh became the second Chennai Super Kings player after Suresh Raina to withdraw from the Indian Premier League, tweeting on Friday that 'personal reasons' compelled him to take the decision. This comes right after Raina explained his withdrawal, stating he wasn't comfortable with the bio-bubble set up for IPL players in the UAE.
"When the bio-bubble is not safe how does one take a chance? I have a family with two little kids and elderly parents. For me returning to the family was more important," Raina told Outlook.
Set to start on September 19, the IPL's build-up has been less than ideal. On arrival, 13 CSK staff, including two players, tested positive, prompting extension of their quarantine. According to reports, Kings XI Punjab's Karun Nair had tested positive in July but was cleared to travel after testing negative twice after his mandatory two-week isolation. A senior BCCI team member too has tested positive after landing in the UAE. An official on IPL duty in UAE said: "There have been no added guidelines after the positive cases. Maybe the BCCI guy was infected during travel. Cases may happen anywhere now."
Notable players like Kane Richardson and Lasith Malinga cited different reasons for withdrawing from the tournament but there is no denying the overwhelming sense of apprehension and anxiousness surrounding the event.
"We are all so used to travel, and playing as a group. So, it's good to be back training," said India seamer Bhuvneshwar Kumar who plays for Sunrisers Hyderabad. "But there were also these thoughts of, whether it will be safe in the present circumstances, how to keep to yourself. So, there were mixed feelings."
Kings XI Punjab co-owner Ness Wadia has been more vocal about strictly implementing bio-bubble norms. "The CSK incident has taught us that it can happen to anyone even when the best of precautions are taken and therefore we must be more compliant and rigid on the bio-bubble protocols. We need to ensure only those who are really required to be with the players are part of the bubble," Wadia told PTI.
The spurt in positive cases inside the IPL bio-bubble, however, may not be an indication of a fragile system. On the contrary, it could be argued that the positive results at this stage is an indication that the system is working: a one-month quarantine buffer and repeated testing protocols were created exactly for a situation like this. Anyone testing positive now can be put in isolation and hopefully be fit to play by the time the league starts.
Other big sporting events around the world have had to reckon with similar situations. A robust structure was put in place before the Premier League's resumption from June 17 but still there were at least three positive cases. Another case in point is the NBA where 16 players had tested positive just five weeks before the July 30 resumption date. Nine more players tested positive in the next week, taking the total to 25 out of a pool of 351 players. Apart from players, 10 of 884 team staff members had also tested positive. But the situation was under control once all of them entered the bio-secure bubble set up at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. According to an ESPN report, the league reported five consecutive rounds of no positive tests till August 19.
What makes the IPL different from some of the other bio-bubbles is how spread out it is. England's cricket bio-bubble, that hosted tours of West Indies, Pakistan and now Australia involves just two venues, and all players, staff and officials living on site. The Caribbean Premier League had all the players and staff put up at one hotel. The NBA too had 22 teams huddled together at one location. The IPL has eight teams camping in different hotels in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and traveling every day for practice.
England's summer of cricket and the NBA are also following a centralized testing process. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) left it to the franchises to enforce protocols before departure. An initial SOP discussed with the franchises had a clause wherein teams needed to assemble at least one week before their departure to the UAE and the members needed to quarantine themselves in India itself. That should have minimised the risk of getting infected.
However, this was not followed by all the franchises. Teams like CSK did assemble in India before departure, but did not quarantine themselves, opting to hold training camps instead. Five Bangalore based KXIP players, including captain KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Nair, K Suchith and K Gowtham trained in the presence of head coach Anil Kumble at the Just Cricket ground in Bangalore on August 14. All the domestic Mumbai Indians players and the support staff, on the other hand, were put under 14-day quarantine. They were in isolation and tests were done every three days. Senior players and coaches like Rohit Sharma and Zaheer Khan were quarantined at home.
While some franchises like Mumbai Indians and Rajasthan Royals wore PPE kits during travel, teams like CSK did not even practice social distancing. Personal infractions have been noted as well. When Usain Bolt confirmed he had tested positive on August 25, Chris Gayle announced he was going into self-quarantine because he had attended Bolt's birthday party in Kingston, Jamaica. He was cleared to fly to the UAE later, but on arrival, Gayle did not enter quarantine straightaway. According to reports, he had allegedly gone for a personal ad shoot and even put up an image on social media. The post was later deleted.
With two weeks left to the IPL the BCCI finds itself on shaky ground. But the only way to enforce the bio-bubble is more frequent testing and isolation till there are no more positive detections. "The BCCI has put internationally established protocols in place," said Wadia who is yet to decide whether he will travel to UAE. "If you look at the football leagues, there were cases in the beginning and the highest of precautions were taken. There are so many variables [in the current situation]. Things will get better and smoother as we go forward."