Royal Challengers Bangalore skipper Virat Kohli shares a laugh in training in Dubai
Royal Challengers Bangalore skipper Virat Kohli shares a laugh in training in Dubai. Image Credit: Twitter

Same people, same place and same room. That’s life in a bio-bubble. These are the words of Jason Holder, the West Indies cricket captain. And Holder would know, having spent 51 days in a bio-secure environment for the series against England that ended in July.

Bleak scenario, isn’t it? It sure is stressful, and the absence of socialising can impact the mental health and the performance of players. But what’s the alternative?

see more

We live in times ravaged by the coronavirus. COVID-19 has been the Spanish flu or plague of our times. At a time when everyday life is affected so severely, bio-bubbles are the only recourse to bring sport to life.

Two bio-bubbles — one in Southampton and the other in Manchester — allowed the resumption of international cricket after a break of 116 days. An isolation zone at Walt Disney World in Florida, called the NBA Bubble or Disney Bubble, helped the US National Basketball Association to wrap up the season.

A 25-km safe zone on Yas Island enabled the successful conduct of the UFC Fight Island, the mixed martial art competition, in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Grand slam returned to tennis in the New York Bubble, where the US Open action takes place when much of America is grappling with the virus.

Champions League football returned to action in the bio-bubble of Lisbon, Portugal, where Bayern Munich walked away with the trophy. The Europa Cup and Bundesliga in Germany, the English Premier League, all of them were played in bio-secure environments.

So long as the coronavirus spreads fear and infections around the world, international sport can exist only in a bio-bubble. That’s why the Indian Premier League opted to go overseas at a time when COVID-19 cases are rising in India at a record rate.

The bio-secure environments in the UAE offer a chance to bring alive India’s T20 showpiece. The thumping success of UFC Fight Island is ample proof of UAE’s ability to organise international sport in a COVIDian world.

All the eight teams are in the UAE. Players have come out of their quarantines and have started the training sessions. Around 80 days in a bubble will test the mental strength of players. So the 13th edition of IPL offers an added challenge. The matches begin on September 19.

What’s a bio-bubble?

It’s a tightly controlled environment sealed off from the outside world, and can only be accessed by a limited number of people. Mostly used for sporting events, players, management officials, support staff and match officials will be confined to this specific space and will have limited physical interaction with people outside. And that reduces the chances of contracting an infection.

Shuaib Manjra, team doctor of Cricket South Africa team doctor terms the bubble is a sanitised cricket biosphere with strict entry standards and limited movement outside of its cordon.

The people in the bio-secure environment in the UAE will be continuously monitored for COVID-19 infection.

How does bio-bubble work?

Players, officials and support staff are tested for coronavirus before entering the bio-secure environment. After a quarantine period, they will be allowed to access the grounds and their hotels. They will be barred from interacting with anyone outside the bio-bubble. Each person’s movement is monitored with electronic devices so that they don’t stray from the safety of the bio-bubble.

Each event has its Standard Operating Procedures which are tailored to the requirements of the sport, the place and the risk of contracting an infection. The aim is to prevent infections.

What happens when a bio-bubble is breached

When a player fails to follow the safety protocols, they are isolated and have to undergo a quarantine period. Some countries slap fines too.

Bio-bubbles worked flawlessly in the West Indies series in England. No cases of the virus were reported from among the players. English fast bowler Jofra Archer was penalised for breaching the bubble when he paid a short visit home while travelling from one venue to another. The English Cricket Board came down severely on him: Archer was dropped from the second Test and quarantined.

Pakistan’s Mohammed Hafeez too had broken the rules during the series in England when he interacted with a family. He was quarantined for five days and had to return two negative tests before rejoining the team.

In other sports, the US Open tennis suffered a setback when French player Benoit Paire tested positive in the bio-bubble. He was withdrawn from the tournament. Some protocols were changed to allow players who may have been in contact with Paire to continue playing, but with strict monitoring.

Three players of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), runners up in the Champions League, have tested positive for coronavirus after they returned to France. Since the trio that included Neymar were in a bio-bubble in Lisbon, the infections are believed to have occurred after the tournament.

In the IPL camp in the UAE, two players and 11 support staff of the Chennai Super Kings tested positive. They have since recovered and are in quarantine. An assistant physiotherapist of the Delhi Capitals too has contracted the virus and has been quarantined.

All these instances go to show that the bio-bubbles are not virus-proof. Chances are some people could be asymptomatic when enter the bubble. Which is why the frequency of testing in the first week is very high.

Finally, it is the responsibility of the people in the bio-bubble to keep the environment secure. The safety of players and staff are in their hands.

Bio-bubbles can be a lonely place

Bio-secure environments keep individuals safe from the virus. But it can grate the nerves even the most composed of people, especially the quarantine spell. Delhi Capitals’ off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin called the quarantine one of the worst times of his life.

Suresh Raina, the Chennai Super Kings’ superstar, flew out of Dubai even before the six-day quarantine ended. He’s still undecided whether the bio-bubble is secure or not. He told a sports portal that the bio-bubble doesn’t work, but sang a different tune on an Indian television channel saying that the bubble is very safe.

CSK’s Harbajan Singh and Mumbai Indians’ Lasith Malinga didn’t even try the bio-bubble, having opted to stay back for personal reasons.

They are not alone. Rafael Nadal didn’t travel to the New York Bubble to defend his US Open title. Simona Halep and Ashleigh Barty too refused to travel, citing safety issues. Even the tennis players in the competition were critical of the stifling atmosphere in the New York bubble.

And no wonder, as Sunrisers' Siddharth Kaul looks in fine shape.
And no wonder, as Sunrisers' Siddharth Kaul looks in fine shape. Image Credit: Twitter

But there’s no escape. Bubbles are the best place to play sport when a pandemic is raging.

IPL bio-bubble: A player can’t enter teammate’s room

Gautam Bhattacharyya, Senior Associate Editor

What do you reckon is the most common practice for professional sports teams — not just cricketers — to bond after a hard day’s workout? Especially on long overseas tours when most players are without their families.

It is the small huddles in the captain’s or a teammate’s room, where even journalists too would be welcome. It doesn’t happen any longer. And in these days of COVID-19 and the ‘new normal’, it’s a no-no for the top 200-odd cricketers of the world staying in eight luxury hotels of Dubai and Abu Dhabi as they get ready for the IPL.

Believe it or not, the dos and don’ts of the bio-bubble — prescribed by the Indian cricket board under advice from the UK-headquartered company Restrata, prohibits the players from entering each other’s room not just during the quarantine period but throughout the tournament. At best, they can meet each other at the doors of their rooms or in the designated meeting areas but have to adhere to the two-metre social distancing requirement.

The Bluetooth band keeps tabs on players

The centrepiece of the biosecure environment is a Bluetooth band which has to be worn at all times. It will sound an alarm if the two-metre social distance rule is breached. Even the family members of the players staying with them will have to wear the band, and the whereabouts is transmitted to the control rooms set up by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in the ten hotels.

The IPL had conducted a webinar in August to brief the players of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) of the board. The players were not exactly happy with a few of the clauses — but it’s non-negotiable now with COVID-19 cases being reported from two franchises.

“I think that restriction about not going into each other’s rooms will be the most difficult part for us. We have never faced it in the past,” Jaydev Unadkat, a senior cricketer of Rajasthan Royals, said in an interview. “You need someone to talk to when you are away from home for such a long time. It’s easier to say than to actually do it, but there is no choice.”

Even on the team bus, players have to sit in a zigzag fashion so that they don’t come into contact with each other. Some wanted access to the hotel lobby, but that was denied.

“The BCCI has put in place a robust system which sees not just the players, but also the support staff, officials and family members travelling with them wearing these BEEKs badges which will give the board a detailed report on who all we are coming in contact with by using data on movement and interaction,” a franchise official said on condition of anonymity.

The board has also asked everyone to install a health app on their phones for keeping track of their daily temperatures and entering it on a digital platform. “The health app is brilliant, and it can pre-empt if your body is vulnerable to some foreign body or if you are at a health risk. That way, you can keep a tab on how you manage your activities. All you need to do is check your temperature and log it on the application. The rest is taken care of by the app,” another franchise official explained.

Restrata the mastermind

Restrata, a UK-based company which provided the bio-security cover for the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) for the Test series against the West Indies, Pakistan and the white ball series against Australia, won the contract for replicating the environment during the IPL. They had pipped the Tata Group’s medical and diagnostics wing to win the contract after a few rounds of virtual presentations before the top brass of the BCCI, including president Sourav Ganguly.

According to informed sources, Restrata’s bid was considerably lower than Tata’s, but their prior experience of facilitating the resumption of cricket gave them the edge in the ultimate analysis. ‘‘It was a tough call for the BCCI. The Test series in England were each of three weeks’ duration and involved a maximum of 500 people, including match officials, TV crew and ground staff. The other big plus in England was that matches were being held only in two venues: Ageas Bowl and the Old Trafford as both had the team hotels integrated inside the stadium complex.

‘‘The challenge is much tougher in the UAE as you are looking at much more people, ferrying teams to practice facilities and venues across three emirates. The total number of days involved is nearly three months,’’ sources said.

How the IPL bio-bubble works
The operation can be broadly broken down as follows:
■ The Indian cricket board will ensure bio-secure bubbles in the UAE in four broadly categorised environments. Risk-mitigation procedures for bio-secure bubbles have been identified, and they will be followed before entry, while being in the bubble and exiting the bubble.
■ Inside the bio-secure environment, there would be specific processes to screen entry, minimise the spread of infection and strategies to manage COVID-19 cases.
■ Players and support staff have been giving three tests on arrival in the UAE –– Day 1, Day 3 and Day 6. After the three successful tests, players were allowed to enter the bio-secure bubble. Players and support staff will not be allowed to leave the bubble throughout IPL 2020.
■ VPS Healthcare, a UAE-based diagnostics company, has been entrusted with the job conducting the tests and provide the medical back-up. Senior officials of the company say they are expected to perform at least 20,000 tests during the tournament to keep the bio-secure bubble intact.
■ Separate zones will be created for each of the franchises. Team members, match officials, cricket operations team, ground staff, broadcast teams, hotel staff and security personnel, will remain in their allotted zones at all times.
■ Breach of any bio-secure environment protocols by players and team support staff will be punishable under the IPL Code of Conduct Rules.