What is Indian Domestic Cricket’s Future in Times of COVID-19?
Will India’s domestic cricket season take a hit due to the COVID-19 restrictions?
Cricket is currently paused in India and as the break causes all round pain, the search to discover a cure gets frantic.
The pain is understandable.
Players are keeping their bodies in shape during house arrest using creative methods - young Ravi Bishnoi lifts gas cylinders in his Jodhpur home to tone his muscles, Virat Kohli is caught on camera doing a (unusually peaceful) dinosaur walk and even managed to have a hit in his plush Mumbai rooftop flat, facing friendly bouncers from his wife.
As scientists search for the elusive vaccine to defeat the virus, administrators are busy creating models of 'bio-secure bubbles' in order to be able to stage cricket. Lab tests of this dream project succeeded recently in the England-West Indies Test series. The next trial will be the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) starting August and then we have the big one - the IPL that starts end September.
Cricket in the bubble will be contactless with physical distancing, fever checks, regular testing, quarantine and no handshakes, no high-fives, no over the top celebrations. Probably without spectators, possibly with canned cheering and virtual fans.
The bubble, at best, will only serve the limited purpose of creating content to satisfy broadcast partners and protect contractual commitments.
For cricket at the elite level the BCCI/ECB can roll out the red carpet (chartered flights, quarantine period in 5 star on-site hotels, secure dressing rooms) and set up elaborate medical protocols. But does this mean 'all is well'? Because what happens, asked an unimpressed Rahul Dravid, if one player tests positive? Do you simply isolate him and carry on? Or quarantine everyone?
For domestic cricket in India, with 2,000 plus matches across age groups for 38 teams, the bio-secure bubble is impractical and unworkable. These matches are fairly basic, far removed from cricket's first world arrangements. To put it plainly, the system lacks the capability, bandwidth or resources to create the bubble.
The problem starts with team selection, the first step itself for cricket to return. How does a state unit form a team and practice when it is difficult to hold a nets session for 50 kids? Will young players be able to travel from outstation to attend a central camp? Is it possible to ensure their safe stay, and for them to maintain social distance in the dressing room and the team bus? Who checks the bio security of the food they are catered?
Even if these are somehow sorted out – the actual how is another question - participation in tournaments is a tougher challenge. Travel across states might attract quarantine laws and hotels will need to be certified safe by appropriate local authorities. Team costs are likely to see a major spike because social distancing norms would dictate single rooms for players - even for Under 16 tournaments. Two or more often bunk in a room.
More than the cost, the bigger worry is responsibility for the safety and health of players exposed to infection over extended periods. Senior team players are on the road for almost 6 months playing different formats in different parts of India. The schedule for Under 19 boys is equally punishing with 50 over games and the longer 'days cricket' matches. Parents might not want kids to be put at risk, more so when state units lack the expertise or capability to create a safe environment.
The players are only one element in India's domestic circuit circus — holding various age group matches involve BCCI-appointed umpires, scorers, video analysts, match referees, anti-corruption officials and dope testing technicians.
Given these challenges, there is uncertainty about the upcoming season with no clue about when or whether it will start or in what format. Only thing clear is it won't happen till December, so the normal August- September start is ruled out. Presently, the BCCI has 'suspended' all cricket, and any change in the status would require a nod from the government.
There are few options before the BCCI. It can't act unilaterally, whatever decision it takes must be aligned with local laws and guidance. Which means uncertainty because a venue, otherwise safe , could suddenly turn into a 'hot spot', disturbing carefully made plans.
As things stand at the moment, even post IPL there will be a great challenge to get domestic cricket rolling. Most likely the upcoming season would be curtailed with some tournaments scrapped or shrunk in size.
The Likely Scenario
Senior Men’s Cricket
- Revert Ranji cricket to the zonal structure which reduces matches and the need to travel. Ranji teams will play a maximum of 5 games, all at the same venue.
- Vijay Hazare, the 50-over domestic tournament, could be scrapped.
- The Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament to go ahead.
- The Duleep and Irani trophy could be dropped from the domestic calendar, which is not such a loss because both have little relevance apart from being glorified trial games.
- Only ‘days’ matches likely, with no limited over tournaments.
- Little chance of the junior U-16 tournament going ahead considering the health and safety risk for young kids.
- Likewise, the women’s tournament calendar will be drastically curtailed.
Normally, this time of the year, teams are busy with pre-season preparations, planning off season camps, focusing on fitness and fielding. The monsoon prevents any play till September but there is cricket with T20 leagues (in Tamil Nadu , Karnataka and Mumbai) and the KSCA /Buchi Babu /Moin ud Dowla and JP Atrey tournaments. Some T20 leagues caught the corruption virus last year and went out of business, and the pre-season tournaments this season have run into COVID-19 .
With no immediate signs of cricket, it will be a long, frustrating wait for cricketers. In isolation, lockdown and quarantine they will have to remain physically fit and mentally strong. Cricket in India will start, perhaps later than sooner, but only when the overall situation in the country improves.
The bio bubble can get top international players back on the field but India's 1,000 first class cricketers must wait before they can get into their whites.
(Amrit Mathur is a senior cricket writer, former GM of the BCCI and Manager of the Indian Cricket Team. He can be reached at @AmritMathur1)
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