If it already hasn’t, this statement, by a player to TOI, should set the alarm bells ringing in Indian cricket: “A few players in the Indian team told me that they just wanted the series against Australia to end. The restrictions that a bio-bubble imposes on them had begun to take their toll. For almost five months, they were living in a bio-bubble. For three months in the IPL, and then for a couple of months in Australia. And now for the home series against England, they have walked into another bio-bubble within a week after arrival. Don’t be surprised if they start excusing themselves from cricket at some stage in the home series against England.”
Considering how passionate Indian cricketers are when they play for India, living continuously in a bio-bubble may not affect their performance on the field, but it could leave them mentally jaded. It is a point which has already been emphasised by former South African captain Faf du Plessis, Australia’s limited overs skipper Aaron Finch and former India mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton.
“I think there would definitely come a point where players would struggle with this (bubble),” du Plessis had said.
“If you look at a calendar of the last eight months, you’re looking at about four or five months in a bubble, which is a lot. For some of us (being) without family, it can get challenging. Right now, I’m still in a good place. I’m still feeling really motivated and driven, but I can only speak for myself. I don’t think it’s possible to continue from bubble to bubble to bubble, I’ve seen and heard a lot of players talk about it. I don’t think it’s sustainable,” du Plessis had said.
With a sports psychologist travelling with the Australian team, Finch warned that players’ mental health could be scarred because of continuous periods spent in bio-bubbles.
“That’s going to be something that’s going to be a real issue. It’s going to be something to monitor heavily. It could be a few months that you’re in these bio-bubbles. And being stuck in these hotel rooms for weeks or months on end can be really tough,” said the Aussie opener.
The Indian players agree.
“It’s difficult, especially if you have a family, I mean you are married or have kids, and they aren’t with you. You tend to miss your family a lot. In the IPL, I was initially excited because I was playing cricket after six-seven months. However, things had begun to get to me till my wife arrived in the final stage of the tournament. Going to just the hotel and the ground, staying alone in a room, and not going out even for a cup of coffee or dinner doesn’t help you switch off from the game, which is essential, even if you have a bad day,” says a player.
“It can be especially tough if you aren’t performing well, or you are dropped or ignored,” points out another cricketer.
A domestic cricketer, who played in the IPL last year, and recently featured in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy, talked about how things can get complicated for the players.
“In the IPL, there was at least a balcony in the hotel room. In Mushtaq Ali (series), we were quarantining in a typical hotel room with closed windows. Imagine being in that kind of a room for seven days, and not even being able to go into the other players’ rooms,” he says.
The players though seemed to have found the silver lining.
“One of the positive aspects is that you become closer to your teammates than before, and tend to spend a lot of time with them. It helps you to know them better, and beyond the field. You can organize and participate in group activities, which help you forge a good bond with other players,” says a player.
It is to avoid a situation of mental fatigue due to being in the bio-bubble that England have, albeit debatably, begun rotating their players from series to series, as highlighted by their wicketkeeper-batsman Jos Buttler, who will leave after the first Test vs India. Former England captains Nasser Hussain and Kevin Pietersen have criticized England’s decision to rest Jonny Bairstow and Sam Curran for the first two Tests in India in what is likely to be a tough series. At the same time, pacer Jofra Archer and ace all-rounder Ben Stokes were rested from the two-Test Sri Lanka series.
“Hussain and Pietersen would do well to take a closer look at this unique situation before passing judgements. Even India is likely to implement this system (rotation) sooner rather than later,” says an India player.
Like Australia, all international teams might soon have a sports psychologist in their touring party, to tackle bubble fatigue, a clear and present danger to sport in the times of Covid.
“It was almost scary in our hotel in Brisbane initially. Stuffy rooms, just the two teams at the hotel, no room service, and making your own beds, which in any case we now do while quarantining before every series/tournament, and not being able to enter in the lifts when the Aussie players were in it. However, what kept us going was the thought that cricket is our bread and butter, and this is our passion,” reveals an India cricketer.