Since even before the tournament began, IPL 2021 felt like a ticking time bomb and in many ways it was unsurprising when the competition met with a fatal accident in the form of a major COVID outbreak. What’s done is done, but what can boards learn from the catastrophe that was IPL 2021?
To be fair to the BCCI, the situation in the country was well under control when it was announced that the 2021 edition of the IPL would be held in India. The first wave had died down, normalcy had resumed and, at one point, there was a genuine possibility of even spectators being hosted at stadiums. However, things progressively got worse from the moment of the announcement, and it came to a point that the tournament would survive only if the measures in place were impregnable. As it turned out, the arrangements made by the BCCI were weak, due to which the tournament came to an inevitable halt. The blame games have already begun, but what really can the BCCI - and other boards - learn from this fiasco to ensure that no tournament in the future suffers a similar fate?
Have proper contingency plans in place for the worst-case scenario
None of us really know if the BCCI knew that the second wave of the pandemic posed a threat big enough to wreak havoc. What we do know, however, is that at no point did they have any sort of back up plans in place, and were adamant that they will only host the tournament as per the original schedule. By early March the second wave started to pick up, and by then it was evident that the situation was going to get exponentially worse by the time the IPL beckoned. Having a contingency plan - say, having the UAE as a backup - would have been prudent, but the BCCI were overconfident about the situation, and eventually ended up biting more than they could chew. Of course, nothing could have been done once the tournament started, but a back-up plan could - and should - have been devised well in advance. What the PSL are currently doing - reading into early COVID trends and exploiting the possibility of shifting the tournament to the UAE - is just about the right way to go about it.
Restrict travel in general - in particular, air travel
When the IPL 2020 took place in the UAE, teams played at three separate venues but travelled via buses (road transport), a significantly safer option than air travel. In IPL 2021, however, six separate venues were chosen by the BCCI, and teams were made to travel via air, the riskiest form of transport in Covid times. According to TOI, “One franchise, in particular, said it suspected a certain member had caught the virus while in transit at Mumbai's private terminal.”
Now it is not possible to make teams travel from Mumbai to Chennai via road, but, instead, all matches should have been scheduled in one particular venue or city, for it would have eliminated all COVID risks that come with air travel. The BCCI were always asking for trouble by making each team fly 4-5 times, and it was unsurprising that the outbreak in Delhi (Saha, Mishra, Balaji etc) happened exactly a week after air travel. The initial proposal to host the entirety of IPL in Mumbai was shot down by the board, and eventually, they were left to rue their decision.
Have stricter protocols in place when a player or staff needs to exit the bubble for scans or treatment
KKR’s Varun Chakravarthy contracted the virus when he went to a hospital for a scan and immediately the franchise was chastised by a large section of people for letting the player re-enter the bubble directly without isolating. However, it was not KKR who were at fault; they merely followed a shoddy rule. The BCCI protocols allow a player to be taken to the hospital in a private vehicle (part of the bubble) in a PPE and take treatment from medical staff who are also in PPE before the player returns in the same vehicle. They called this the ‘green-channel’ but as we saw, it is a flawed protocol that is nowhere close to being fool-proof.
The BCCI were in fact lucky that, even with the shoddy protocol in place, it took 29 games for a player to contract the virus. Ben Stokes and Mayank Agarwal, earlier in the season, exited and re-entered the bubble via the same ‘green-channel’ as Varun and were merely lucky to have not contracted the virus.
What the BCCI should ideally have done is put a protocol in place wherein any player (or staff) that requires a scan will need to isolate for a week and return multiple negative results before they could rejoin the bubble. This is, of course, an extremely harsh and stringent rule, but such protocols can only ensure that outbreaks are kept at bay. This should at least be a must in countries - or cities - that are considered walking hotspots.
Host everyone inside bubbles - not just the players and officials
A tournament cannot be considered ‘safe’ unless everyone who is a part of it - players, umpires, ground staff, cooks, hotel persons, drivers, managers - is inside a bubble. A commoner might think that it’s enough if the players isolate and live life inside bubbles, but really, a 100% safe, fool-proof environment can only be achieved if every person involved is hosted in a bubble. And unfortunately, the BCCI gloriously failed this time around when it came to ensuring the same.
Ground staff, hotel workers and plenty of others involved in daily duties were not hosted in the same strict bubbles as the players, and the BCCI, flabbergastingly, in some cases, did not even bother to check if certain personnel had even completed their quarantine period. As revealed by franchises, there were plenty of positive cases within ground staff which were concealed, and the organizers only bothered to monitor the players, staff and officials.
What ideally should have been done is the aforementioned individuals should have been hosted in separate hotels and asked to form a bubble as strict as the one for players; this would have completely eliminated any risk. The BCCI, instead, only put everyone barring players, officials, support staff and broadcasters in a weak, pretentious ‘bubble’ inside the stadium. For all we know, this could have initiated the outbreak in Delhi, which saw L Balaji and Wriddhiman Saha among others test positive.
Just don't be arrogant or complacent
Let’s face it. As much as the cancellation of IPL 2021 was down to COVID, it also had a lot to do with the BCCI’s sheer arrogance. After successfully hosting IPL 2020 in UAE, and then even bringing fans back for the England tour, the BCCI got complacent and thought that they could breeze through IPL 2021 without enduring any roadblocks. Again, as widely reported, the BCCI’s approach towards the construction of IPL 2021’s bio-secure environment reeked of complacence.
Unlike in 2020, no professional firms were hired to construct the central bio-bubble and hotels were booked in a random manner. As attested above, not all personnel were put in a strict bubble and, despite the tournament being a ‘closed-doors’ competition, VIPs, VVIPs and guests were allowed to occupy the stands, in some cases completely unmasked.
Franchises were burdened with the responsibility of taking care of the players and, overall, there was overarching incompetence that got progressively worse as the tournament progressed. This was something that was also seen in the PSL in February, where the PCB made a mockery of the protocols. The BCCI can pin the blame on Covid, but they would be better off, first, taking a good, hard look in the mirror.