The postponement of Season 13 of the Indian Premier League (IPL) by five-and-a-half months gave India’s cricketers their first extended, if enforced, break from the game last year. As if in retaliation by some dark force, it’s been an unending routine of quarantine, travel, train and play since the last week of August. Worryingly, there is little indication this sequence will not play out on a loop going forward, either.
Only the completely uninitiated or the supremely cynical can gripe at complaints of burgeoning player workloads even in the most normal of times. The ‘I work six days a week, 52 days a year while these guys only go to work (play) 100 days a year for far better returns, so what are they complaining about?’ argument is flawed beyond imagination, reflecting a lack of understanding and empathy exacerbated by the challenges of this unprecedented phase in history when an invisible virus has sent the world into a tizzy.
Just taking Indian cricket in isolation, let’s sample this. The players left for the United Arab Emirates in batches sometime post August 20, 2020, to undergo a mandatory quarantine period, followed by a return to organised training for the first time in six months. The IPL started on September 19; less than 24 hours after its denouement on November 10, an extended squad flew out to Sydney for a full tour that included three ODIs and three T20Is, and culminated in a memorable, if draining, four-Test series.
Within days of returning from Australia, the squad gathered in Chennai to enter another bio-secure bubble ahead of the multi-format home leg against England. And as soon as the last ODI ended in Pune on March 28, the players were sucked into another bubble, with their respective franchises in preparation for IPL 2021.
Admittedly, there has been a reasonable churn of personnel — some of it by design, most others by accident — at the international level. Even so, it’s all but impossible to comprehend what these players have had to endure over the last eight months. Actually, not entirely impossible; after all, the lockdown last year did provide us a glimpse of what staying indoors weeks on end entails, even if there is no comparison between being cooped up in your home with family for support and being stuck in a cold, lifeless if expensive hotel room with only the internet and barren walls for company.
Less than a week before its grand return, IPL 2021 has already lost two big names in all-rounder Mitchell Marsh (Sunrisers Hyderabad) and paceman Josh Hazelwood (Chennai Super Kings). Both Australians have cited the constricting contours of the bio-bubble as the primary reason for their withdrawal, which is perfectly understandable. However, by waiting for as long as they did to announce their decision when they have known for a long time that they would have to operate in bubbles, is an unkind cut to their employers, who have been forced to rejig their plans at the last minute. Perhaps, a penalty clause for late pull-outs will finally see the light of day?
It speaks to the character and inner steel of India’s players that they have managed to keep their wits, and equilibrium, around them in the most extenuating circumstances. To be able to just turn up day after day and seek to give it your best shot is a daunting ask; to sweep to victory in five of six series against two of the toughest opponents going is a special accomplishment, make no mistake about that.
But if this frenzy continues, it won’t be long before Indian players, too, start to drop off, citing the stifling, foreboding choke of the bio-secure bubble designed to keep you physically healthy, but which can adversely impact other faculties. Virat Kohli sounded the first cautionary note in the immediacy of the ODI series win in Pune last week. “Playing in bubbles for so long is going to be very, very difficult going forward,” the Indian captain said. “You can’t expect everyone to be at the same level of mental strength. Sometimes you do get cooked and you do feel like a bit of change.”
In the same breath, Kohli spoke of the need to look at scheduling, without verbally suggesting that players/the team management must at least be consulted before chalking out assignments for the foreseeable future. It is unclear if the skipper was specifically referencing the aforementioned ODI series, but if that was the catalyst for his words, then it was perfectly justified.
This year is about the final of the inaugural World Test Championship, in Southampton in June, and the T20 World Cup in India in October and November. Contextually, 2021 has little to look forward to so far as the 50-over game is concerned. The next ODI World Cup isn’t until 2023, so what was the need to pencil in a three-match ODI face-off between India and England, beyond meeting broadcast commitments? What was the meaning and purpose of that meaningless showdown that has already faded into the distant recesses of memory?
If the series had to be played at all – ‘If you find the bubble constricting, make yourself unavailable’ is a convenient stick – then why could it not have been scheduled between the Tests and the T20Is? That way at least, the players could have gradually segued across formats, and the T20s would have re-acclimatised cricketers to the ultra-abridged version leading into the IPL. Surely, that’s not asking for too much?
England’s much-maligned rotation policy that voluntarily deprived them of their best XI for every game of their tour of India but was instituted to manage mental burnout is a wonderful example of walking the talk. The BCCI prides itself on taking the lead in most issues; it would do well to cast eyes westward and borrow some of the best practices from its English counterpart so that it doesn’t end up endangering the geese that lay the golden eggs.