Life in a bio-bubble

Amid the ongoing pandemic, BCCI needs to  tread carefully — as the well-being of players is involved

Officially describing life in a bio-bubble from the BCCI point of view, is just like “when a player has to spend days in solitary confinement of his hotel room.” Yes, that’s tough and all over the world sportsmen have been complaining about “mental fatigue” that they have been going through during the time of Covid-19 pandemic. But there is another angle to this whole situation.

At a time when the BCCI was scheduling Team India’s trip to the United Kingdom, for the World Test Championship final against New Zealand and subsequently for a five-Test match series against England, there was absolutely no confusion regarding the time gap of more than three weeks between the two.

So, a team of 20 players was announced, along with four stand-by players, for any kind of emergency situations arising on foreign soil during the present times of Covid.

The 24 players were picked for the first time in the history of Indian cricket just to ensure that there is no dearth of availability of players during any given situation, because a mandatory quarantine period between 10 to 14 days was required as per UK govt.

But has no one in the BCCI’s scheduling team bothered to care about those three weeks in between the WTC and England series, really? Or at least the guidelines for players? All this, while their extra enthusiastic chief coach, Ravi Shastri, was posting his selfies like any 16-year-old teenager — as if visiting Wimbledon for the first time.

And when news came in from England that dynamic wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant has contracted Covid-19 while staying at his relative’s place, BCCI also released a news article citing secretary Jay Shah’s email, advising all players to keep away from public gatherings like Euro Soccer Championship and Wimbledon.

Job, well done!

If the BCCI had actually sent this mail well in advance, then where is the action taken against Shastri for visiting the tennis arena or against Pant for watching a Euro Soccer game amongst more than 14000 spectators?

Carelessness or professionalism?

According to BCCI insiders, the situation may even go out of control in the coming days if proper curative actions are not taken by visiting team management. In today’s professional world where there is much more competition for each place in a team these days, how come a player can afford to miss a single game due to the negligence of his association (BCCI) or bad planning?

Since there is much money to earn through sport now, particularly in Indian cricket, that is another reason for the BCCI to tread carefully when the well-being of players is involved.  Pant was lucky to have only contracted a mild version and was asymptomatic. Imagine a situation where a player gets infected badly and may have to sacrifice his career for such silly negligence of the Board?

Even players like Novak Djokovic, top tennis player of the world, admits to a “huge pressure” while travelling all over the world in complete privacy isolation.

But who is to blame in the BCCI?

Clearly, no one as no one has a specific person to blame in the era of a secretary who is not accessible to the media or to his own associations.  For public consumption, Chief coach Shastri stresses that “the bubble made the players understand each other better and discussed their personal issues.”

“I think the best thing that has happened is talking cricket amongst the team members and they had no choice, so they were forced to do it and that’s been a big help. They (players) have gotten to understand each other’s background, mental state, where they come from, where they are in life, settled, unsettled. It allowed them to open themselves to their colleagues a lot more, discuss personal issues, you know more freely, win more trust from the team members, a lot of positives like you mentioned because of this bubble.” This is how Shastri described the plus points of being in a bio-bubble during one of the virtual press conferences.

Ravi Shastri in Wimbledon

Reality bites

But in reality, the situation is much different from what was being portrayed amongst the public.

Players were seen getting visitors inside their hotel room after the WTC match was over. Even the skipper Kohli and his family were seen roaming around London streets in crowded places.

Going by an insider’s take, the Indian skipper had no time to take a call from one of the selectors to discuss as serious a matter as that of a player’s replacement. An impression was given in the media during the time when “team management asked for an opener from the Indian team currently in Sri Lanka in place of injured Shubman Gill,” that there is communication gap between the two sides.

But what happened then could well embarrass our cricket board. If an insider is to be believed then Kohli declined the call from a selection panel personal on the pretext of ‘baby-sitting’.  In fact, he was ready to discuss all that on social media chat. Well, the matter was dumped then and there and any such request was not entertained on the context that “Abhimanyu Easwaran is already travelling as substitute opener with the 24-member squad.”

Going by all these instances, there seems to be something seriously wrong with either BCCI or Team India management that communication or egos of individuals are taking prior seat than team interest.

Mental aspect is next big issue

At a time when players have been complaining of bio-bubble fatigue, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and Cricket Australia (CA) have sort of taken the lead in realising and managing the mental health of their players.

This is because there are strong players’ bodies in both countries, but there is none of this sort in India. The Indian Cricketers’ Association (ICA) is only for retired cricketers, and not the current lot because the BCCI never wanted any such association to crop in India.

But skipper Kohli has taken the lead and spoken about the mental health issue. Though it is not known if he has held any formal dialogue with the BCCI or not, he has certainly raised this issue with the BCCI administrators privately. The response, as could be expected from the BCCI, was to tell the Indian skipper to maintain silence regarding this issue.

Kohli had earlier also spoken of mental health issues when Australia’s Glenn Maxwell complained about his own mental issues.The ECB rotated the players last year when the England team toured Sri Lanka and India, considering the Covid-19 enforced quarantine. ECB was sensitive enough to realise the need of players to be with their families to unwind and relax at regular intervals while moving from one bio-bubble to another.

Several foreign players, like England wicket-keeper David Bairstow, Australians Mitchell Johnson, England’s Jonathan Trott and Marcus Trescothick, have complained of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues in the past.

Like Kohli, India’s women’s T20 team captain Harmanpreet Kaur is also concerned about players’ mental health issues. She has requested the BCCI for a sports psychologist, while the team travels abroad.

BCCI can well afford to have few sports psychologists with the team, given the amount of money it can spend on players or teams. But the big issue right now is planning and being sensitive to players’ demands.

Different formats, different teams

Should India also be rotating players just like England?

The answer should be a certain ‘yes’, given the situation where sportsmen are likely to face the ongoing isolation for quite some time. Instead of releasing players, like how BCCI did for three weeks in England, India may experiment with different players for different formats.

Going by how the Covid pandemic halt came as a massive blow for cricketing boards finances across the world, there is need to play more games in the future to recover the incurred losses during ongoing times. And more games will definitely mean more players. And that’s where India has already taken a sort of lead by sending a completely different team to Sri Lanka for shorter formats series.

This was also possible because a kind of almost second-string team won Team India a Test series in Australia recently after so many decades. The cricket boards around the world will also now have to create a pool of about 50 to 60 players who can take on any side.

The experiment has already started, but how it will affect the cricket is yet to be seen!

(Cover image: Rishabh Pant (middle) in Euro soccer match)

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Chander Shekhar Luthra
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