Tim Paine sips coffee during a Zoom press conference from his home in Hobart

Tim Paine gets on the first of a million Zoom press calls, in March 2020

Ryan Pierse / © Getty Images


A year and a half of bio-bubbles: what has it been like for cricket?

Playing during the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on cricketers. What does the future hold?

Nagraj Gollapudi  |  

Wake up at 5am. Exercise for a couple of hours. Read, listen to audiobooks. Meditate. Afternoon exercise. Meals in between. Yoga and stretching in the evening. Lights out by 9pm.

That was Pakistan opener Shan Masood's routine for 14 days at a Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) facility in Christchurch last November, ahead of the Test series in New Zealand. "You were living the same day again and again," Masood says from Karachi this July. "There's this movie, Edge of Tomorrow. If you see that, then you know what quarantine feels like." In the film, Tom Cruise finds himself stuck in a time loop, in which he repeatedly relives a brutal fight, which ends with his death, over and over.

In the first days after Pakistan's arrival, six members of their touring contingent tested positive for Covid-19, and there was more than one breach of protocol by the players in the MIQ, which was captured on camera and reported by the New Zealand government to the PCB. The breaches, Masood says, weren't "huge", and involved players forgetting to put a mask on while collecting meal trays from outside their doors.

One more breach, PCB chief executive officer Wasim Khan said to the squad and they would be sent back home, which would be "hugely embarrassing". It was, he said, a matter of the "nation's respect and credibility".

One in ten: Shan Masood takes a run in the England-Pakistan Test series last year, one of the first to be played in a bubble

One in ten: Shan Masood takes a run in the England-Pakistan Test series last year, one of the first to be played in a bubble Lee Smith / © AFP/Getty Images

Initially the Pakistan contingent were allowed to step out of their rooms and get fresh air for an hour each day within the facility. But, Masood says, "all those luxuries" were taken away after the breaches, when they were put in two weeks of strict quarantine, with no fresh air, no outdoor exercise and no practice. Players were only permitted to open their room doors to pick up and put out their food trays.

The New Zealand trip was Masood's third biosecure bubble of 2020. Pakistan's tour of England in August and September was the first, followed by the PSL at home. Both of those were "lighter bubbles", Masood says, especially in England, where Pakistan were able to train even during their quarantine period. Masood admits he has now revised his view of the quarantine experience in New Zealand from last year, when he said he preferred the New Zealand bubble.

He says he was "mentally unprepared" for the Tests by the time he walked out of quarantine. He played a total of 83 balls across four innings, logged three ducks and a 10. "I had a set routine during the quarantine, but it got so intense that it had an effect once I was out of the bubble.

"All the best players, if you ask for advice, they tell you that the greatest players know when to switch on and when to switch off. But if you constantly live in an environment where you are going to be at the hotel and the ground, then I think there is going to be a dip in performances, because you really don't get any time to switch off."

Mark Boucher, South Africa's coach, echoed this recently, saying that bubble life had contributed to his team's loss early in the limited-overs series against Ireland. The players lacked intensity and match awareness, Boucher said, and felt "flat", as a result of back-to-back bubbles in the Caribbean and Ireland.

The new new normal: spectators pass a Covid checkpoint at an England-Sri Lanka game in July 2021

The new new normal: spectators pass a Covid checkpoint at an England-Sri Lanka game in July 2021 Bradley Collyer / © PA Photos/Getty Images

Late this July, Ben Stokes became the first top-drawer cricketer to pull out of a marquee series when he announced, ahead of the five-Test series against India, that he was taking a break from all cricket to focus on his mental well-being (as well as to recover from a finger injury). Stokes had spent most of the last 12 months away from home, living in biosecure environments with England's Test and limited-overs squads and with Rajasthan Royals in the IPL - save for a trip to New Zealand in the second half of the year to be with his father, Ged, who died of cancer last December.

That players would reach this kind of tipping point should have come as no surprise. Cricket was the first international sport to resume globally after the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic in March 2020. Over the 18-odd months that bubbles have been the norm, the impact of life within their constraints has swiftly become the single biggest well-being concern for players.

It didn't take long for the warning signs to become clear. Immediately after the ECB successfully organised the first high-profile bilateral series in both men's and women's cricket, hosting teams from West Indies, Pakistan and Australia during the last English summer, Eoin Morgan and the West Indies Test captain at the time, Jason Holder, said the prolonged use of bubbles was "untenable".

Morgan's team-mate Jofra Archer became the first cricketer to breach a bubble when he made his way home to Hove during the home Test series against West Indies in 2020 to see his dog. He ended up sitting out the next Test match in isolation in his room in the on-site team hotel at Old Trafford. Not long after, during the 2020 IPL in the UAE, where he turned out for Rajasthan Royals, Archer had got to a point where bubble life sounded like imprisonment: he was "just counting the days down until [I was] free again".

By the end of this November, a number of India's players might well be doing the same. Last year many of them went from bubble to bubble for about seven months at a stretch, from the IPL in the UAE to the tour of Australia to the home series against England. This year, they got to England on June 3, to play the World Test Championship final. After the five Tests in England, they head to the UAE to play the second half of the IPL, which starts the same week the England series ends. Two days after the IPL ends on October 15, the men's T20 World Cup starts in the UAE, where India are the hosts. All these series have been and will be played within bubbles of varying degrees of severity.

"I think this is a huge factor, which should not be neglected," Virat Kohli said at a media briefing in June this year. "You don't want players falling out because of mental pressures and not having the capacity or space to express themselves."

Jofra Archer made headlines for breaching a team bubble during the West Indies series last year

Jofra Archer made headlines for breaching a team bubble during the West Indies series last year Kieran Cleeves / © PA Photos/Getty Images

It's an issue boards are cognisant of. "By limiting the physical threat [of infection], by limiting people's movements and keeping them isolated, it has actually created a mental health burden and a well-being burden," Alex Kountouris, the former Australia men's team physiotherapist who is now the head of sports science at Cricket Australia says. "We are really conscious of that."

Stokes might be the most high-profile case of a player pulling out of a series, but plenty of others have made the same decisions - whether or not they have explicitly said it is for reasons of mental health. England fast bowler Mark Wood withdrew from the IPL auction in February so as to be able to spend time with his young family. Close to the start of the tournament, Josh Hazelwood and Mitchell Marsh made themselves unavailable, saying they needed rest after a long season of playing cricket in bubbles.

Pakistan's players have a laugh after taking a squad photo, Manchester, August 3, 2020 Gareth Copley / © Getty Images The other side of bubble life

It hasn't been all twiddling thumbs and staring at the walls when not in the nets or playing a match. There have been a fair number of hotel-room workouts. And avid gamers used their free time to get some practice and some friendly competition with their team-mates on Call of Duty and FIFA.

Teams set up recreation rooms, and group activities have been more important than ever to keep morale up.

While some bubbles have provided little freedom, the IPL in the UAE in 2020 gave players plenty of pool time, and private beaches to relax on.

Bubble life has seen an increase in the number of coffee aficionados in cricket, and while Adam Zampa and Marcus Stoinis' Love Café pre-dates the pandemic, others have taken to packing their own beans to take along, since cafés were mostly off limits.

It was difficult getting a real haircut in the summer of 2020. While many in the England team rocked the headband look, some took on barber duties.

Bubble life meant England's Nat Sciver and Katherine Brunt had to delay their wedding, but their team-mates held a fake ceremony to celebrate their love.

The pandemic has meant a lot of time away from loved ones, but not always. At last year's WBBL, Grace, the ten-month-old daughter of New Zealand's Amy Satterthwaite and Lea Tahuhu, warmed the hearts of everyone who crossed her path.

And of course, absence makes hearts grow fonder, leading to touching reunions

Paul Muchmore.

The withdrawals have not really been due to the fear of contracting Covid by travelling to countries severely hit by the pandemic; they have had more to do with the enervating phenomenon of bubble fatigue. Tom Banton and Tom Curran said as much when they pulled out of the last BBL, again just days before the start. More recently several big names, Kieron Pollard, David Warner and Andre Russell among them, withdrew from the first season of the Hundred, the ECB tournament that was itself postponed from last year to 2021 due to the pandemic.

Shane Watson, now president of the Australian Cricketers' Association, warned last year that bubble fatigue could shorten careers. In a blog for t20stars.net, he wrote that bubble life has "complicated every aspect" of a professional cricketer's life. Watson, 39, was reflecting on his experience in the 2020 IPL, his last tournament before retirement. The point of greatest concern for him was the "zero life balance" due to extended periods away from loved ones. "If we don't do something about this as time goes on, we might lose a number of our best cricketers who just tap out and say, 'Yes, I love cricket and I feel so fortunate to get paid for what I love, but I can't deal with these other challenges anymore. I need some sanity back and [to] have some normality back, so I am out."

Tabraiz Shamsi, the South Africa spinner, speaks of how not everyone understands the impact bubbles have on players, their families, and their lives outside of cricket says.

South Africa travelled to Ireland for their limited-overs series straight from the Caribbean, where they had been since early June. From Ireland, Shamsi flew to London to join Oval Invincibles in the Hundred. Living two months on his own, away from his family, including a 16-month-old child, has been difficult, Shamsi says.

"It doesn't matter how nice your hotel is - because you are literally just leaving your room to go for practice or when you are playing a match.

"You could be in the team bus and you see people outside just walking and you realise, you know, I haven't even done that for two months.

As the pandemic has gone through its waves at different rates across the world, this last lament has become increasingly pertinent. Some countries are in the process of relaxing restrictions, mapping a path back to normalcy in day-to-day life, while others remain in various degrees of lockdown. Early this July, after seven members of England's contingent for the limited-overs series against Pakistan tested positive for Covid, Ashley Giles, England's team director suggested the ECB was in "an almost impossible situation" as it tried to keep the squad protected. "We always hoped we would open up as society opened up," Giles said. "That was always the plan until the [Delta] variant arrived. But actually what we had planned - in terms of much more access to families, eating outside, the normal freedoms other people are taking for granted right now - just didn't happen."

"We went on a city tour in Belfast," Shamsi says, "but we weren't allowed to get out of the bus to take a few pictures, even though there was nobody around. When we were in Ireland we could literally see the ocean from our window - the beach was right there, by the hotel, but we were not allowed to go there.

Tourists in Queenstown, New Zealand, in April 2021. The antipodean countries have largely relied on keeping their borders closed as their primary safeguard against Covid, which has mostly allowed them to not place too many curbs on citizens' day-to-day lives

Tourists in Queenstown, New Zealand, in April 2021. The antipodean countries have largely relied on keeping their borders closed as their primary safeguard against Covid, which has mostly allowed them to not place too many curbs on citizens' day-to-day lives Andrew Leeson / © AFP/Getty Images

"I know it's our job to entertain, win games and perform for our country. But at the end of the day it is important to realise we are human beings."

This year's IPL started in India on April 9. The BCCI was criticised for pushing ahead with it even as India collectively choked under the second wave of the pandemic, with several hundred thousand new cases daily. Teams maintained that the IPL bubble was the safest place to be - until, inevitably, the bubble burst and several positive cases emerged across five franchises, forcing the BCCI to postpone the rest of the tournament.

For players, coaching staff and others involved, playing on while the pandemic raged around them took a toll, particularly for Indian players with family and friends affected by the disease. One of the first to feel its impact was R Ashwin, after as many as ten members of his extended family tested positive. It forced him to take a break from the league and focus on helping his family in their fight against Covid-19. "I couldn't sleep for almost eight-nine days," he said. "Since I couldn't sleep, it was really stressful for me. And since I found it really taxing, I had to quit IPL and go home midway."

Others had it worse. India and Rajasthan Royals fast bowler Chetan Sakariya and Mumbai Indians legspinner Piyush Chawla lost their fathers, both of whom tested positive for Covid-19 during the IPL. (Outside of the IPL, India women batter Veda Krishnamurthy lost her mother and sister within two weeks of each other to the disease.)

A worker carts chairs away in the wake of the cancellation of the 2021 IPL halfway through the tournament

A worker carts chairs away in the wake of the cancellation of the 2021 IPL halfway through the tournament Ishant Chauhan / © Associated Press

While the players, both Indian and those from overseas, put up brave faces and were reassured by the BCCI about their safety, privately they were worried, to varying degrees. For those from down under, there was the added complication of not having a clear path home. The Australian government had shut its borders at that point, including, controversially, to its own citizens, and direct flights from India had been suspended altogether. It was hard to leave the bubble, Glenn Maxwell told the Last Word podcast, because there was "nowhere you can really go". Michael Slater, working in India as an IPL commentator did not hold back, saying the Australian prime minister had blood on his hands.

Maxwell and his fiancée, Vinni Raman, were worried about the situation in India, particularly given Raman has family in the country. "We knew it was getting bad when we came over here," Maxwell said. "[But] when you turn the TV on and just see the news channels just 24x7 about it, it's so confronting to know that that's happening everywhere around you. It's quite hard to swallow sometimes."

In the two weeks leading up to the suspension of the IPL, England batter Liam Livingstone, and the Australians Adam Zampa, Kane Richardson and Andrew Tye had dropped out and rushed back home to avoid spending weeks in quarantine as their countries' governments began to shut their doors. After the tournament was called off, Maxwell and Raman went home the long way, using a circuitous route that took many days. The BCCI arranged charter flights for overseas players to various destinations. The groups travelling to the UK and Australia were routed via the Maldives, where they first spent about ten days. That helped the UK players avoid quarantine when they got back to England; the UK had placed India on its "red list" for arrivals, which meant those travelling from India had to quarantine in a government-picked hotel for ten days. The Australian contingent still needed to spend another 14 days in quarantine in government-appointed facilities in Australia before they got home.

"I know a lot of players have had crazy nightmares and were not sleeping," says Dr Chaitanya Sridhar, a holistic psychologist, who has worked with a number of Indian athletes and was with Royal Challengers Bangalore during the 2020 IPL in the UAE. "You are not with your family. If something happens to someone, can I go back [to be with them]? Are my parents fine? You get recognition, money, but at the end of the day, you go back to your family.

"The ones who are coping well are those who are in touch with themselves," she says.

Hotel, bus, ground, repeat: Rishabh Pant during India's long multi-format Australia tour last year, which immediately followed the IPL in the UAE and preceded India's four-Test home series against England

Hotel, bus, ground, repeat: Rishabh Pant during India's long multi-format Australia tour last year, which immediately followed the IPL in the UAE and preceded India's four-Test home series against England Ryan Pierse / © Getty Images

The emphasis placed on team bonding as a coping mechanism needs to change, Dr Sridhar thinks. "You are training together, you are playing together, you are having team dinners. Sport is part of your life. It should not become your whole life."

In Australia, where several players, including Maxwell, have taken breaks in recent times over mental-health issues, the board has invested in systems to monitor and safeguard mental well-being. Players are asked to answer simple questions on a well-being app on their phones: about how stressed they are, how well or not they sleep, how tired they are, and so on. The information goes to CA's medical team, which flags problems and contacts players to try and address them. Answering the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10) questionnaire is an additional, optional monthly exercise, but Kountouris says players have shown a "high degree of compliance" in taking it.

While US gymnast Simone Biles, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, and in cricket the likes of Maxwell and Stokes, have periodically brought the issue of athletes' mental health into the spotlight in recent months, the topic is still a long way off getting the kind of attention it needs in cricket as a whole, and that is largely to do with how it is regarded in the subcontinent.

"[In India] male athletes are thought to be strong," Dr Sridhar says. "Here it's a lot about the I-can-do-it mentality. Everything is fine. The energy that goes into denial - you will find it will start eating you, if not today then down the line. [Bio bubbles have] just brought things to the fore. That's where the problem in our culture is: because we only want to see the positives. We are really denying that we are human than robots."

Shaun Marsh gets some time with his kids at Perth airport. Quarantine requirements have added to the amount of time players have to spend away from home

Shaun Marsh gets some time with his kids at Perth airport. Quarantine requirements have added to the amount of time players have to spend away from home Paul Kane / © Getty Images

When asked if he thinks IPL teams should appoint psychologists to help players with coping mechanisms in bubbles, Piyush Chawla says that while he has nothing against players receiving counselling and other mental health aids, he personally has become "mentally tough" having played for years in Indian domestic cricket, where there are no psychological support structures to speak of.

"There is a taboo to it," Masood says. "Covid has taught us how big mental health is. You lock someone in for a long period of time and it does play a part in how that person responds or reacts to life. We should all respect how real mental health is and pay attention to the players receiving mental health support."

The general feeling in cricket administration circles is that bubbles of some sort or the other are here to stay for the foreseeable future, but that boards need to be flexible about how they are set up and run.

Dr Akshay Mansingh, a director at Cricket West Indies and dean of the faculty of sport at the University of West Indies, says boards will need to find a balance. "From the safest sort of bubble, we have to move towards a more comfortable and congenial bubble - that will mean allowing some interactions with family and friends within very, very strict guidelines. The IPL [2020, in the UAE] set a good example, but once again, it is resource-driven. They could spend the money, which I can't, but I have a beach to offer," he says with a chuckle.

Tom Harrison, the ECB's chief executive, said last month that cricket needs to learn to live with Covid, while defending his board's relaxation of strictures to allow for more day-to-day freedom for players within bubbles.

Another day, another Zoom presser: Ollie Pope fronts up

Another day, another Zoom presser: Ollie Pope fronts up Jordan Mansfield / © Getty Images

Significant numbers of players and staff have tested positive this English summer. In addition to the seven members of the England set-up who tested positive during the Pakistan series, Rishabh Pant and members of support staff from India's Test touring party, and some of those involved in the Hundred, among them team coaches Andy Flower and Shane Warne, have been infected.

Harrison said teams and managements would need to learn to walk a fine line. "We have to learn to offer players that ability to be mentally fresh," he said, "and that means operating within the protocols. In a way, that means accepting some risk but, in return, getting the full support of players.

"You want players turning up in these 'most important series' feeling fantastic about the opportunity of playing for their country," he added. "They are not going to be able to achieve that if they have forgotten the reasons why they play."

Kountouris agrees. You need to dial up or dial down the protocols according to the level of threat at the location, he says. "We know that indoor environments are a lot more [of a] threat than outdoors. You can dine outside, for example, but not inside a restaurant. You can pick up takeaway coffee quite safely but you don't want to sit inside the café for two hours. We are going to fine-tune the protocols to give the players and the staff as much freedom as possible while still eliminating the main risks."

Tabraiz Shamsi:

Tabraiz Shamsi: "It is important to realise we are human beings" Randy Brooks / © AFP/Getty Images

Travelling with family, Shamsi says, is hugely beneficial in mitigating the negative impact of bubble life. CSA has acknowledged as much by lodging teams at resorts with wide open spaces for home series, where players and families can walk out in the open with freedom. The Indian team has been travelling with partners and families for the England tour. And late in July there was talk that England players were in discussions with their board to make sure their families could accompany them to Australia for the Ashes at the end of the year.

The responsibility for a better bubble life lies with the players and administrators, Mansingh concludes. "The message going forward is: we recognise your sacrifices as professional cricketers but also appreciate that the only way we are going to play cricket is if we have certain restrictions.

"And appreciate that it is a moving target: some places are going to be easy and some places are going to be hard."

Shamsi got to London for the Hundred on July 25. He says he agreed to play in the tournament only because the ECB had decided to not have the teams "locked up". Immediately upon reaching his hotel he dropped his bags off in his room and went out for a walk by the Thames. It was liberating.

"It actually felt weird being around people or just to be able to walk when I wanted to just go outside," he says. "It took, like, ten minutes to enjoy that - just to be able to walk from Point A to Point B and I'm allowed to do that. It re-energised me. Any player who is happy will always perform better."

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo. Paul Muchmore is a social-media manager for the site