Inside international cricket’s bubble

The Agaes Bowl, Southampton. Picture: e-architect.com

How great is it to have sport on now around the globe?

In a world littered with uncertainty and in a time where we have been taken to the brink of our physical and mental capacities, there has always been the knowledge that you can turn on the TV and somewhere, in some corner of the world, there is a sports game on to relieve some of the everyday stress one may be feeling in normal life.

In the COVID-19 stricken world, cricket has found its way back. 

Biosecure venues and bubbles across the world have seen the return of international cricket and high profile domestic Twenty20 competitions resume. 

Pakistan and the West Indies have travelled to England. 

Zimbabwe has travelled to Pakistan. 

The White Ferns have travelled to Australia, the world’s best women have come down under for the Women’s Big Bash and the who’s who of the men’s game have been in the UAE for one of the most interesting editions of the IPL in history.

While it has been great having the cricket back on TV for all the fans to enjoy, the toll the constant bubble life will take on players is and will remain a talking point. 

While touring international cricketers are accustomed to being in a bubble type environment, these biosecure quarantine bubbles present added layers of complexity and caution.

Unlike an Ashes tour where you are in England for months on end and bussing around the country in close quarters to the team hotel or a tour to India where the fans and the general public are on top of you the second you step out home base and into the public life. 

While elements of the biosecure hub life are like this, in the current climate, it can present a far greater strain on players and broadcasters who are almost cut off from the outside world.

Australian broadcaster Neroli Meadows has just returned from the UAE after leading the broadcast of the tournament for Star Sports. 

Like the players, Meadows was confined to a biosecure bubble for the duration of the tournament with little to no connection with the world beyond her hotel and the ground she was broadcasting from that day. 

She spoke to The Inner Sanctum about her experiences in the hub environment and added her voice to the chorus of calls from voices around the cricketing world on the sustainability of biosecure hubs long term.

This year’s edition of the IPL was displaced for everyone. 

No one was in their home country. 

Meadows, who found the hub life thoroughly enjoyable after months of being cooped up in locked down Melbourne, commented on this being a factor as why she enjoyed the experience.

“I think the difference here with the IPL was that no one was in their home country,” she said.

“Everyone was in the same boat. You had people come from all over the world in the one bubble and no one’s family was within reach. 

“I think that evened the playing field for everyone and made everyone make the best of it.”

While the hub life, like any cricket tour is a chance for teams to build and strengthen friendships and relationships, the constant requirement cricketers are now faced with from moving to quarantine bubble to quarantine bubble with very little respite and break in between is no doubt concerning the mental health of all players. 

England limited overs captain Eoin Morgan and West Indies captain Jason Holder have both stated in previous interviews that there will come a time where some International players opt out of tours due the burnout of being in a biosecure bubble.

Morgan and Holder, both of whom were at the IPL following their time during the English summer, were a part of cricket’s first biosecure bubble, where the ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board) managed to complete a full schedule of games in both Manchester and Southampton as their chosen biosecure venues. 

Both venues had no fans in attendance.  

“We managed to fulfil all of our international fixtures for the summer which was an unbelievable achievement for the teams that came across, the commitment from the ECB showed. We were extremely fortunate to be back playing,” Morgan said to ESPNCricinfo while in the UAE.

“But to keep that level of bubble for a 12-month period, or 10 of the 12 months a year that we normally travel, I think that’s untenable. I actually think it’s one of the more challenging times for anyone involved in the cricket industry.”

UK-based cricketers have been in bubbles since the middle of May and have just arrived in South Africa for a limited overs series.

Australian international cricketers have been in bubbles since the middle of August when they went to the UK for the limited overs tour. 

From there, half the squad went to the UAE to play the IPL while the others, along with the rest of the domestic players gathered in Adelaide in the Sheffield Shield hub. 

The international players, now home from the UAE, are in hotel quarantine before joining up with the Australian white ball and test squads. 

Then after the Australian summer with all the international fixtures and Big Bash commitments, there are tours to South Africa and New Zealand scheduled in February and March simultaneously.

Whilst being in a hub environment has been almost second nature to professional cricketers, what international cricketers are facing now is next level when it comes to the moving in and out, the quarantine, the constant health screening and the disconnect from family and the outside world. 

So many factors that need to be taken care of, before they even get out onto the cricket field before the conversation of how much form and performance can have.

“When you’re in a form slump and it ebbs and flows like in any tour or tournament, the thing you want to do is go outside your hotel, walk around by yourself and catch up with other people,” Meadows said.  

“Here in this environment, it’s like the walls are closing in on you. You’ll hear cricketer’s say that when they’re on tours in India for example.

“If a player gets dropped for example, it can feel like the walls of their hotel room are closing in on them. 

“I think this has been a long term problem with cricket and I think this has only exasperated the situation to a degree.” she added. 

It would have to be a major concern for the cricketing boards around the globe and the ICC as well as they face a calendar crunch trying to fit in all the cricket that has been missed as a result of the pandemic. 

“I think mental health has been a great concern [of the boards] even pre COVID, and they were still trying to work out how best to handle it when cricketers were on tour,” she said.

“You add in, now another massive layer of complexity, so I think mental health should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds right now.

“Not just in cricket, but in every workspace, as it should.”

From her vantage point as a broadcaster, Meadows said she was amazed by not only the standard of cricket that was on show over the tournament and how skill levels of all the players continued to rise as the tournament was reaching its crescendo. 

Just how drilled and switched on all the players were throughout the tournament despite the difficulties of being disconnected and playing in front of no fans. 

“I was surprised at the sheer level of cricket that was being played, especially considering all the Indian players hadn’t played in six months,” she said.

“There were so many questions like how would these elite athletes perform with no crowds. The standard across the tournament was amazing.”

The fluidity of different situations and the knowledge of how quickly plans can change, the players and boards are well aware of all the hurdles that may come their way this Summer. 

Like the other sporting codes that have gone before them in 2020, there is no doubt Cricket Australia will take the learnings to ensure that they complete the summer schedule while having the physical and mental health of all their players and staff at the forefront of their minds.

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