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Raging pandemic, air travel, SOP loopholes - why IPL 2021 couldn't repeat UAE success

Six months after an incident-free tournament overseas, there was no room for error this time given the ground situation

Nagraj Gollapudi
Wriddhiman Saha of Sunrisers Hyderabad arrives for the match against Delhi Capitals, Chennai, April 25, 2021

Wriddhiman Saha was among the last players to test positive before IPL 2021 was postponed  •  BCCI

A resurgent pandemic with new strains, multiple positive cases within the eight IPL 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. These were some of the key health-related points of difference between IPL 2020, staged in the UAE, and IPL 2021, which was postponed halfway through on Tuesday.
The day before the tournament began, ESPNcricinfo had explained why the IPL 2021 bubble would be far more vulnerable compared to the previous edition. Subsequent events have revealed how those vulnerabilities were exposed.
Host cities
There were only three venues, all a drive away from each other, 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 - were hotspots when the IPL started. Mumbai, one of the first venues in the schedule, itself reported more than 10,000 new cases on April 6 and India's total number of daily new cases in the week leading up to the tournament start was 100,000. The graph just kept going up: by Tuesday, May 4, when the IPL was postponed indefinitely, India was recording more than 350,000 new cases every day and 3500 deaths; the pandemic's epicentre had shifted to Delhi, which alone was recording 20,000 cases every day and more than 400 deaths on a daily basis.
What this meant was that any departure from the team bubbles would incur a hugely magnified risk - as is likely to have happened with the Kolkata Knight Riders' Varun Chakravarthy, who tested positive on May 3. It is believed that Chakravarthy left the biosecure bubble (but followed protocols through the official "green channel") to get a scan on an injured shoulder and that is one possible spot where he might have contracted the virus.
Probably the biggest point of concern for several franchises. In the UAE, the eight teams were based in Dubai or Abu Dhabi and travelled across the three venues by road using their own hired transport. At no instance would they have come in contact with someone outside the bubble.
This year, though, teams travelled across four different cities, and all of it by air. Though the commute was on charter flights, and using private airports where possible including separate entry and exit points, there were still a lot of potential gaps in the bubble. For example, teams needed to undergo security checks at airports before boarding and after landing, which meant coming in contact with security persons outside the bubble - a loophole the franchises were concerned about.
The concerns were first underscored when former India wicketkeeper Kiran More, who is part of the Mumbai Indians' set-up, tested positive just before the tournament's start (but while in the team bubble); it is believed he got exposed to the virus at an airport. More had checked into the team bubble in Mumbai in March, before the entire squad flew to Chennai, where they began the defence of their title. That a positive case emerged in a well-prepared franchise like Mumbai, which created its own bubble as early as in February, 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 a workshop on Covid-19 and understand the guidelines put in place in a biosecure environment, which was new to almost everyone at the time. 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 virus is and how it could transmit, and consequently, why it was important to respect rules in the biosecure bubble.
There was no such session organised in 2021. This despite fears shared by players and coaches across teams, who were anxious about the surging infection rates across India. Around March 19, all stakeholders were handed the standard operating procedures about the medical protocol.
Another difference from the last IPL was the absence of two key digital applications that helped monitor not just the health of the people in the bubble, but also tracked their movements. 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 an oximeter, 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 failure to do so would prompt a hefty monetary fine for the individual. The person would be denied entry at the three venues, including for training, as the accreditation barcode was synced to the GPS tracker and health data app. 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.
Movement tracker
In the UAE, every member in the IPL bubble had to wear a GPS-tracking fob device around their necks 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 s/he 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. This tracker was outsourced to a UK-based agency for the 2020 IPL.
However, in 2021, the BCCI engaged an India-based firm; franchises received the GPS trackers, in the form of a wrist watch, only on April 11, two days after the tournament had started and three matches had been played. The device was meant to track the person's movements as well as log in the body temperature. A person had to download an app, called IPL BioTrack, on his/her personal phone where the data would be collected. But several franchises said that the device started to log in outdated data. One franchise wanted data from their second leg of IPL matches, but the data provided was from the first leg.
Due to its unreliability, by the time the second leg of the IPL had commenced, members from several franchises confirmed they had stopped wearing the device because it had either stopped working abruptly or had hung. It is understood that franchises had to return the devices days before the IPL was postponed after being told the batteries would be changed.
Bubble-integrity managers
In 2021, for the first time, the IPL appointed monitors in the form of bubble-integrity managers, up to four per franchise. Their sole job was to report any bubble breaches by squad members. However, franchises narrated incidents of their inefficient functioning - in one case, a manager was caught on camera leaving his room while in hard quarantine at one of the team hotels. Another incident involved some of these managers leaving the bubble boundaries during a live match to smoke. It is understood that more than one franchise questioned the IPL about the qualification of the officers, who are believed to have originally served as security liaison officers in previous editions of the IPL.
Quarantine protocols
The IPL laid out quarantine rules both for before entering the bubble, and once inside the biosecure environment. The quarantine rules ranged from serving a hard weeklong 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 varied between a week and ten days outside the team bubble. The protocols applied not just for squads, but also for the franchise management as well as owners and family members.
However, the inconsistency of the protocols was highlighted by the case of the Royal Challengers Bangalore batter Devdutt Padikkal, who tested positive on March 22. It is not known when exactly Padikkal tested positive, but the franchise said he had done home isolation of ten days.
Subsequently, Padikkal travelled by road from his home in Bengaluru to Chennai, where his team was based during the first leg of the IPL, and even participated in training. Rival franchises questioned the logic behind allowing Padikkal to join the Royal Challengers' training session without having undergone the mandatory quarantine and the testing process mentioned in the SOP. Franchises asked why the IPL did not allow senior franchise management officials or owners into the IPL bubble, subject to them clearing the required tests.
Both the 2020 and 2021 editions of the IPL were played behind closed doors. In the UAE, all venues were cordoned off with only authorised personnel allowed in. This edition, too, the IPL created different layers within the bubble at the stadia, with no one allowed to enter the area demarcated for the players and match officials. This included the groundsmen and the officials of the local state associations. The risk was highlighted in early April, when a swathe of groundstaff at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium, which hosted ten matches in the first leg of the tournament, tested positive, forcing the Mumbai Cricket Association to quickly find replacements from other venues within the city.
It was shown up again in Delhi, where it is understood that two members of the groundstaff at the Feroz Shah Kotla, who were not at the ground over the May 1-2 weekend, had tested positive and had been placed in quarantine.
Another example relating the vulnerability of the bubble was narrated by an official at one of the four franchises based in Delhi. This official said when his team was training at the Roshanara ground, owned by a private members-only club, in Delhi, the boundaries were porous and trespassers could easily access the zone where the team was training. There was barely any security to stop them, which was not the case during the first leg in Chennai and Mumbai. It is understood that a few of the club's members wandered around the training making the squad members apprehensive. By Wednesday, two of the four franchises based in Delhi - the Chennai Super Kings and the Sunrisers Hyderabad - had reported four positive cases.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo