A resurgent pandemic with new strains, multiple positive cases within teams - including a few inside their bubbles, and the variables thrown up by the logistics: venues spread across India and the need for air travel. On the eve of IPL 2021, the air of excitement has been tempered by health concerns.
Crucially, there are several points of difference between IPL 2020 and this one. When the teams gathered in the UAE last August, the virus was a known quantity, the first wave was ebbing globally and in any case the UAE was not a hotspot of infection. Six months on, India is in the grip of a vicious surge - the past week has seen its two highest numbers for new daily cases ranging over 100,000 per day - and there is every likelihood this wave will peak next month.
Here's why the IPL 2021 bubble is far more vulnerable compared to the previous edition.
There were only three venues in IPL 2020: Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. The day the tournament began, the UAE had 674 new cases; it crossed 1000 a week into the tournament and stayed at that level right through (1096 new cases on the day of the final).
By contrast all six venues in this IPL - Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata and Ahmedabad - are currently hotspots. Mumbai itself reported more than 10,000 new cases on April 6; Delhi had more than 5,000 and Bengaluru more than 4,200. India's total number of new cases in the past two days is 200,000. All three cities currently have, or will soon have, a night curfew to try and curb the spread of the virus, though the IPL will be exempt from those restrictions.
Probably the biggest point of concern for several franchises. In the UAE, all 8 teams were based between Dubai and Abu Dhabi and travelled across the three venues by road using their own hired transport. At no instance would they come in contact with someone outside the bubble.
This year, though, teams will travel across different cities - and all that travel will be by air. Though the commute will be on charter flights, and using private airports where possible including separate entry and exit points, franchises still remain concerned. Team will still need to undergo security checks at airports before boarding and after landing, which could entail coming in contact with a people outside the bubble.
The concerns are underscored by the belief that former India wicketkeeper Kiran More, who is part of the Mumbai Indians' set-up, is likely to have got exposed to the virus at an airport before he tested positive recently. More had checked into the team bubble in Mumbai in March, before the entire squad flew to Chennai, where they begin the defence of their title. That a positive case has been found in a well-prepared franchise like Mumbai, which created its own bubble as early as February, has put other franchises on high alert.
Covid-19 education and management
About a couple of weeks ahead of IPL 2020, every member of every franchise in the UAE dialled into a virtual call to attend an education workshop on Covid-19 and the guidelines put in place in a biosecure environment, which was new to almost everyone in the IPL. This session was conducted by the BCCI's medical experts, including Dr Abhijit Salvi, the board's chief medical officer and anti-doping expert, as well as Nitin Patel, the Indian men's team physiotherapist.
The audience didn't just hear the dos-and-don'ts, but also heard what the coronavirus is and how it could transmit, and consequently, why it was important to respect rules in the biosecure bubble.
It is understood there has been no such session organised yet by the IPL. This despite evident fears being shared by players and coaches across teams who, it is believed, have been anxious about the surging infection rate outside the bubble across India.
Another difference from the last IPL is the absence of two key digital applications that helped monitor not just the health of the person in the bubble, but also track their movement. As soon as a person checked into the IPL bubble in the UAE, they had to download a Covid-monitoring app on a digital device. A thermometer, and oxymeter in some team hotels, had been provided to gather the individual's health parameters, primarily meant to monitor any symptoms for Covid-19. This self-declaration was mandatory, and had to be submitted daily. Repeated failures to do so would prompt a hefty monetary fine on the individual. Such a check-and-balance exercise, franchises have pointed out, was beneficial because if someone had symptoms, it was picked up quickly and the potential spread was curbed.
In the UAE, every member in the IPL bubble had to wear a GPS-tracking fob device around their neck like a pendant. This device tracked the person's movements within the bubble and triggered a beep if there was any breach where the individual had crossed over into a zone where he/she was not permitted access. This was done by creating a geo fence within the bubble with pre-defined boundaries. Every individual had a distinct fob, with specified in-built boundaries based on the individual's occupation.
It is understood franchises have not been given any such tracking device so far this IPL.
Bubble integrity managers
It might not have yet introduced digital trackers, but the IPL has appointed human trackers in the form of a bubble integrity manager for the first time. Each franchise will be supervised by upto four integrity managers, whose sole job is to report any breaches within the bubble by any team members. However the purpose of these managers has come under the scanner now, as it is understood one of them was caught on camera leaving his room while in hard quarantine at one of the team hotels.
The IPL has laid out quarantine rules both for before entering the bubble, and once inside the bio-secure environment. The quarantine rules range from serving a hard week-long period inside the team hotel and clearing mandatory tests before starting to train. In the case of any positive or asymptomatic case, the isolation period varies between a week and 10 days outside the team bubble. The protocols apply not just for squads, but also for the franchise management as well as owners and family members.
However, franchises remain unconvinced by the protocols, which they believe they are being forced to comply with despite their arbitrariness. The inconsistency of the protocols is highlighted by the case of Royal Challengers Bangalore batsman Devdutt Padikkal, who tested positive recently. It is not known when exactly Padikkal tested positive, but the franchise said he had done home isolation of 10 days.
On Wednesday, Padikkal travelled by road from his home in Bengaluru to Chennai, where his team is based, and even participated in training. Rival franchises have questioned the logic behind allowing Padikkal to join the Royal Challengers' training session without having to undergo the mandatory week-long quarantine and the testing process. They also want to know if the Royal Challengers have given a written undertaking to the IPL that they take responsibility for the home quarantine for Padikkal. By the same token, franchises have asked why the IPL is not allowing senior franchise management or owners to be allowed, subject to them clearing the required tests.
The IPL has created different layers within the bubble at the stadiums, with no one allowed to enter the area demarcated for the players and match officials. This includes the groundsmen and the officials of the local state associations. Teams that have been practising in Mumbai and Chennai, where the first set of the IPL's league phase is being held, confirmed that no outsiders have been present during training sessions. That does not mean they are confident. Only recently a swathe of grounds personnel at the Wankhede stadium, which will host 10 matches in the coming two weeks, tested positive forcing the Mumbai Cricket Association to scamper and find replacements from other venues within the city.
It is understood that the governing bodies that manage the venues in Chennai and Delhi have vaccinated their groundsmen, who are allowed to commute back to their home after their work day, thus triggering the risk element. The state associations say that all those present at the venue have to undergo testing every few days, and that these people are not around the dressing rooms.
Franchises are not so sure, as Mumbai are understood to not have trained even once at the MA Chidambaram Stadium before they play the tournament opener against the Royal Challengers on Friday.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo