The second edition of the Lanka Premier League (LPL) will go ahead as planned from July 30 to August 22, Sri Lanka Cricket has confirmed, dispelling fears that the tournament may have to be postponed in the light of rising coronavirus cases in the country.
"SLC wishes to reiterate that the second edition of the Lanka Premier League (LPL) will be held during July and August 2021, as earlier announced," the board said in a statement.
Sri Lanka has so far recorded more than 200,000 coronavirus cases - half of those having come in the past two months - and some 2000 fatalities. Since mid-May, strict travel restrictions have been imposed across the country, as efforts have been ramped up to curb the rising daily average of cases and deaths.
Concerns over the LPL being hosted in July-August first arose following the postponement of the Indian Premier League earlier this year. Despite SLC's successful hosting of the inaugural LPL, there were growing doubts over SLCs ability to guarantee a secure bio-bubble for players and staff amidst the growing number of cases.
"It's definitely going to be a challenge, there's no question," head of SLC's Medical Committee Prof. Arjuna de Silva conceded to ESPNcricinfo. "Last time we were in the middle of the second wave, but this time it's a totally different ball game with close to 100 deaths a day."
SLC, for their part, have remained firm in their stance, assuring player safety citing the success of several inbound international series in the past year. De Silva also added that SLCs intention to hold all matches at a single stadium, the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Stadium in Hambantota, and the fact that it was close to a scarcely used airport in Mattala, meant the LPL was less likely to suffer the same pitfalls as the IPL.
"Our advantage is that we're fairly well versed in how to maintain a bubble now. I think in terms of international matches, next to England, I think we have hosted the most amount of foreign teams.
"If you try to have it at more than one location that might start to cause problems, that's where the IPL also struggled I think. Of course in the IPL they had to also fly players to different cities, which complicated matters quite a bit, but even ground transport between different stadiums poses a certain amount of risk.
"Hambantota is the ideal setup, it's isolated and the airport is also there."
Further to this, SLC will also be able to enlist the assistance of the Sri Lankan Army - like they had done during the first edition of the tournament - which will provide an additional layer of security.
"The Army is our biggest strength. They provide the security for the players and the bubble, something that would be very costly to do if we had to do it privately."
De Silva also revealed that players, officials and staff will be subjected to additional testing this time around, though he does expect most, if not all, of the players taking part to be vaccinated by the time the tournament rolls around.
"Everyone will be doing rapid antigen tests before they get on buses. We're also going to encourage all the players to be vaccinated prior to coming to play in the tournament. The entire Sri Lankan squad has already received the first dose of the Sputnik vaccine.
"I don't foresee any major issues other than the the possible leakage of different variants into the country, because of so many individuals arriving from different countries. But we will be doing antigen and PCR tests on arrival, to identify potentially infective people early.
"Other countries like England also allow sportsmen to come in, despite them being from red listed countries - it's a sports exemption - so that shouldn't be a problem."
The inaugural edition of the LPL was won by the Jaffna Stallions last year, one of five teams that took part in the tournament. According to SLC, 135 million viewers across television and digital platforms tuned in to watch the final between the Stallions and the Galle Gladiators, with fan engagement through out the tournament generally quite high.
SLC will be hoping for similar numbers this time around, though Sri Lankan fans hoping for live action will have to wait a little longer, with the tournament likely to once again be held behind closed doors.