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Thursday, December 02, 2021

IPL 2020: How Bubble Game is impacting the superstars

The IPL, Indian cricket’s biggest blockbuster is off to a start, shorn of high jinks due to Covid-19. The Indian Express goes behind the scenes to find out how 75 days of staying locked up, monitored by CCTVs and Bluetooth wristbands, is impacting the game’s superstars.

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi |
Updated: September 20, 2020 3:41:53 pm
Rohit Sharma with his family; Shreyas Iyer spends mornings in the balcony counting floors of water-front towers; Virat Kohli posted a picture of himself in a Minion T-shirt. (Source: Twitter/Instagram)

Of late, across two different geographies, the Arabian Sea has been getting extraordinary attention from several brooding international cricketers waiting for the start of the pandemic-time Indian Premier League (IPL) in the United Arab Emirates. Anxious players in Dubai and retired cricketers-turned-TV pundits in Mumbai have sat in their high-rise hotel rooms, staring at the glinting blue ocean in the bay below.

In Mumbai, IPL commentator Irfan Pathan, following the Covid-19 protocol, is quarantined in his room at Hotel Trident on Marine Drive. Helping him keep away the gloomy spells of loneliness is Mumbai’s famous late-evening screensaver-like reddening sunset that delicately spills over the amber waters. “I lean on my chair, play a slow Arijit Singh or Atif Aslam song in the background and see the clouds and sea change colour. It’s magical. You wonder why in our normal lives we don’t find time to soak in these small pleasures,” he says.

Trident will be Irfan’s home for the next two months. IPL’s official broadcasters Star have booked the entire hotel for its commentators and crew. Half of Star’s 800-plus-strong team will be stationed here. The rest will be in the UAE.

Star informs that the India-based unit of 400 will be stacked over six self-contained floors — the room plan drawn to segregate the Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bangla and the English world feed teams. What used to be the much-in-demand luxury suite has now been turned into a Covid-19 testing space for the cricket guests.

More than a thousand nautical miles from Mumbai, at the other end of the Arabian Sea, Delhi Capital’s 25-year-old captain Shreyas Iyer is at ground zero in the UAE. Boxed in at another posh sea-side property, IPL’s latest poster boy has found a novel way to beat the quarantine tedium. Most mornings he sits in the balcony counting floors of the water-front towers doting Dubai’s dramatically jagged skyline.

“The shortest building is about 22 floors, and the tallest, and the most breathtaking of them all, a modern-day wonder, the Burj Khalifa, is 209 floors,” he mentions in the first of a series of online letters that he will be sharing on the Delhi Capital website from Dubai.

Shreyas’s writing betrays his introspective mood. “Given that we’re confined to our hotel and the training venue, I haven’t had a chance to be in front of it. I’m pretty sure I’d feel like Lilliput! But between the unreal beauty of the Burj during the day (when the reflective glass stares at you) and night (when the shiny lights come on) is where I find MY reality.”

This is an unusual IPL. It is making a very busy retired cricketer with an upcoming silver screen debut pensive. More worryingly, it’s turning stars with boy-band hair-dos and tattoos philosophical.

Kolkata Knight Riders team in UAE. (Twitter/Instagram)

This 53-day, eight-team September 19 to November 10 contest isn’t just another long tour. Add the training plus quarantine time, and the cricketers will be under partial house arrest for close to 75 days. Factor in the omnipresent surveillance cameras and the Bluetooth wristbands with tracking devices that players have to constantly wear. Keep in mind the on-field upheavals, dressing room intrigue of this roller-coaster tournament and, by the end of it all, you’ll have a bunch of players fit for a Bigg Boss audition.

BCCI and Star’s Covid-19 protocols don’t allow players to leave the hotel, change rooms or even invite someone over. Even the room-service staff has been instructed to ring the bell and slide in the food trolley. On this overseas assignment, the long experience of living out of suitcases wouldn’t come in handy for these itinerant cricketers.

Mental conditioning coach of India’s World Cup winning team, South Africa’s Paddy Upton, says cricketers have a tough road ahead.

“Generally it’s the extroverts who get drawn to team sports at a younger age. Cricketers tend to be gregarious and team-oriented. Isolation will deny them the experience of going out, shopping, watching movies or meeting people. I think players are really going to struggle towards the end,” he tells The Sunday Express.

Upton also expects withdrawals and mental breakdowns. “It has already happened and you will see more players going home saying, ‘I can’t handle this, it is getting too uncomfortable and it is affecting my mental health’,” he says.

The one-time Rajasthan Royals coach says players with financial reserves will dare to walk away but others will push the pain down. “I feel most sorry for those players who are not financially well off. They have to dig deep and realise that they are here to make money. It will take a toll on their mental health and it remains to be seen how hard it is going to get.”

The Indian players, he points out, have just experienced a lengthy domestic lockdown, while the Australians, English and West Indians have been in bio bubbles for months because of the series they were playing. “The Indians already have ‘isolation fatigue’ and that is only going to get worse. Plus, everyone is in a foreign country. No one is at home. Even the television channels are unfamiliar. It is going to be very difficult,” says Upton.

This IPL is different; it’s not that good old annual cricket carnival. Besides being the big unlockdown test, it is also a study about the possible impact of long-term stay in bio-bubbles on the human psyche and the durability of social-distancing protocols at santised workplaces.

Good old CSK beat MI in IPL opener: Rayudu’s revival and Chawla’s slow charms floor Mumbai Ambati Rayudu and Faf du Plessis resurrected the CSK run chase from 6/2 after 2 overs. (Source: Twitter/@IPL)

It’s this aspect that gets the mental guru in Upton excited. “I would really like to know from the players what was the most difficult thing to deal with and what was it that alleviated the difficulty and made the experience easier,” he said.

‘Normalcy’ has won the toss, decided to bat and walked out of the hut. But conditions aren’t conducive.

However, these are early days of Covid-19 confinement. The novelty of those scenic surroundings hasn’t yet started to fade. Young men with fancy camera-phones, time to kill and very active Instagram accounts have been cluttering social media with naturally beautified sun-sea frames.

Those staying at hotels with a private beach are the only ones getting their feet wet and sandy. Virat Kohli in his new deep-blue Minion T-shirt stands in front of an endless aqua blue backdrop. His wife Anushka gets close to 5 million likes for her baby-bump portrait by the sea. Rohit Sharma’s family frame at the beach makes for a perfect cover for a sunset-selling tourism brochure.

The tyros, meanwhile, give their social media followers a peep into the coast behind them as they do weights, twirl moustaches or rap away their quarantine blues as Suresh Raina tried doing before he started missing family and suddenly returned home.

To be fair, not everyone is on a selfie-spree. There are a few, mostly circuit veterans, who aren’t horizon-gazing.

VVS Laxman, in Dubai by virtue of being Sun Risers Hyderabad’s mentor, can be expected to wake up at dawn. He has his reasons. He is travelling with his children, who need to be online at 7 am UAE time to catch their 9 am IST school classes. “They are busy till noon. Since I like to read, I spend time with books. Right now, I am reading the one written by NBA coach Phil Jackson… Sacred Hoops. This lockdown gave me quality time to spend with my family,” he says. When his children are free from school work, Laxman reads with them a book he has brought here — A Symphony of Drabbles by Three Generations.

Back at the Mumbai Hotel, New Zealand’s popular TV pundit Scott Styris doesn’t have company. He says he makes it a point to talk to his 17-year-old daughter every day. As for the rest of the day, the Kiwi banks on his AC/DC collection and the “60-year-old Aussie next door” aka Dean Jones, “who makes funny voices” to beat the monotony. A few flights up is a TV pundit, a 1980s India cricketer, who saw it coming. He is carrying Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom to understand what it took to be in a room for 27 years.

Certainly not of the Robben Island scale, but this year’s IPL ecosystem is a collection of several bio-bubble villages that have mushroomed on both sides of the Arabian Sea. In the UAE, the eight franchise teams are in different hotels, each following strict house rules.

Leaving the bubble is not an option. Only those with a compelling personal emergency or illness can exit. Re-entry comes at a cost — another seven-day-long quarantine. As for breaking rules, it means instant isolation, which ends the minute tickets for the first flight home get arranged.

Not just the players, the commentators too have high walls around them. “We studied models for sports broadcasts from around the world but felt that we needed to be more stringent and detail-oriented. So we worked with a panel of medical experts to develop protocols, SOPs and mitigation measures that can provide the safest work environment for the crew,” says a spokesperson from Star India.

Trident too is on high alert. Their bio-bubble comes with disinfecting the hotel entrance, door handles, elevator buttons, counter tops, table tops and railings. “The hotel has appointed a hygiene manager to supervise and monitor the meticulous standards of safety and hygiene. The hotel team is also in a ‘bio-secure bubble’,” informs their spokesperson.

Star’s medical consultant Dr Vijay Kelkar says the challenge is to keep the bio-bubble absolutely breach-free. “Apart from the laboratory tests, internal parameter checks such as SPO2, temperature, pulse and heart rate are carried out.”

At Star’s production facility at Lower Parel Mumbai, the crew members have been instructed to use the elevators earmarked for them.

Understanding the well-documented dangers of the virus on the loose, players are more or less at peace with the protocol. But there is one rule, according to a franchise coach, that the cricketers despise. “Not being allowed to enter a teammate’s room is what irks the players the most. You learn, you share, you laugh, you relax and keep the pressure away,” he says.

Being “so near and yet so far” from the Dubai night life is sickeningly frustrating for those who vouch for the ‘play hard, party harder’ play book. But even the less adventurous, the ones who prefer a quiet evening drink with friends, a riotous round of PlayStation with teammates or a gossip session with pals, sitting cross-legged on the floor while enjoying Indian take-away, are glum. Finding ways to unwind will be a new challenge this IPL. The franchises have plans in place to take the minds of players off the game, but will these be sufficient?

The concept of letting your hair down has changed and how. IPL’s 13th edition with no spectators or cheerleaders will be a far cry from the days when Lalit Modi hopped across venues in his private jet and most teenagers dreamt of getting picked by Vijay Mallya at the auction. Back in the day, evenings came with many options. In 2011, a cheerleader, writing under a pseudonym, had said about her IPL experience that cricketers were “the most loose and mischievous sportsmen I have come across”. She would get sacked and in true BCCI tradition, the circus would continue.

Cut to 2020, the sanitised season. Darts, chess, ludo, monopoly, carrom, table tennis, pool, foosball are part of Mumbai Indians’ play zone. Others are also adequately equipped. For the musically inclined, there is a room with a stage, guitar, mic and speakers. A dance floor and karaoke are also at hand, should they fancy a jig and jingle. Chennai Super Kings have booked their hotel’s roof tops for squad members to shoot the breeze.

Delhi arranged a Zoom magic show with the jadugar sitting in Mumbai. Like bored children on long train trips, players too are coming up with impromptu games. Going by its early success, the Room Service Menu Card Quiz, slowly gaining popularity in teams, might become this IPL’s sleeper hit. Sources say the final question that decided the winner last week was: How much does a Chicken Tikka Masala cost? The right answer was a shocker: Rs 2,900.

Explained | How will this year’s tournament be different?

Upton suggests a few long-term remedies to deal with boredom. He wants players to engage in “productive and proactive activities that are away from cricket”. He advises them to join online courses. “Even watch videos and learn dancing,” he says.

The mental guru also observes that teams housed in resorts with private beaches will manage to cope with isolation protocol better and longer as compared to those housed in high-rise towers. “There are some teams that have got city centre high-rises that don’t really have good public and open spaces… It is certainly going to work against their players and teams at the back end of the tournament.”

It’s a slippery slope, this tournament of fine margins over a marathon distance. Those high-rises might have the best view right now, but with time, even beauty can get monotonous and the sinking sun may douse the adrenaline rush. The multi-millionaire cricket stars missing the ambient applause of the noisy IPL are about to find out, like old king Midas, that in the city jingling gold, what it is really that they play cricket for.

Inputs by Devendra Pandey

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