On Sunday (January 10), India’s 2020-21 domestic season will begin at last with the T20 tournament – the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. It will be the first domestic or international cricket event to take place in the country in 10 months since the COVID19 pandemic brought the sport to a screeching halt.
Why did BCCI decide to organise Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy?
The Indian cricket board had asked its state affiliate units for their tournament of preference. After getting the responses, which were largely in favour of the T20 tournament due to its shorter duration and immediate relevance – for the IPL auctions – the BCCI decided to organise it from January 10 to 21. The safe conduct of the event will also be critical for the board to not only consider hosting more domestic competitions but also pave way for the scheduled England’s tour to India.
Where will the matches be played?
The focus for BCCI was to select venues that have three grounds and the potential to create bio-secure environments. The elite teams have been divided into five groups of six teams each and their matches will be played in Kolkata, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Vadodara and Indore. Eight Plate teams will play their matches in Chennai.
What is the relevance of the tournament for the players?
Barring the India and the IPL players, this will be the first taste of competitive cricket for India’s massive domestic pool of players. With the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy often being held right before the IPL auction, it is usually used as a stage for either IPL trials or as warm-up preparation for the league. This season won’t be any different.
But this tournament is also being viewed as a pathway for rise in the long format. One of the players on the fringes of the Test side says, “We don’t know when the next Ranji Trophy will be played or [when] an India A series will happen. If we don’t get to play first-class cricket for 20 months, how will we make it to the Test side? Already, we can see players doing well in the IPL and getting a place in the Test squad. So performing here is important for our Test ambitions as well.”
This season will also mark the return of S. Sreesanth after a seven-year ban while the just-retired (international cricket) Suresh Raina will be back in action for Uttar Pradesh.
What are the logistical hurdles?
Only a few weeks ago, the secretary of Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association had defended the decision to host tournaments without checkups and quarantine with a view that “players are used to physical training and won’t fall ill” and “if someone falls ill, we can replace him. Just like it happens with injuries”. He will be one of the key organisers of Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy this season.
The difference, however, is that the organising associations have been equipped with a Standard Operating Procedure, a team of medical experts from a premier hospital and a staff of their operations team to overlook the organisation of the tournament. Yet, one of the on-ground organisers is convinced that “vulnerability still exists”.
The issue largely comes with the paucity of time, with the SOPs being handed to the organising associations less than two weeks before the start of the tournament. Till then, many were in the dark on whether the onus of creating and maintaining the bio-bubbles lay with the state associations or with an independent professional team appointed by the BCCI.
However, even before the tournament has started, health scares came out in the open in a Chennai hotel where several teams have been in quarantine and in other centres where players are seen intermingling with each other during quarantine. Multiple host associations aren’t sure if the bio-secure environment that they have created is safe enough. While the short notice isn’t a hindrance for some of the older associations hosting the tournament, some have realised, “the more we work, the more we find out there are vulnerable spots for the bio-bubble to be breached.”
Within each stadium, a specific bio-secure space will be created that will have all the players, officials, organisers and even the scouts. “But what if one of the cameras stops working?” asks an organiser. “The video analyst will have to step out of that bio-secure environment, fix the camera and come back to the bio-bubble. How else do you fix this problem?”
For another organiser, that doesn’t sound like a health threat.
It’s unlike the kind of bio-secure environment that were set up for international games or for the IPL. In IPL, despite using technologies to track real-time temperature and enable contact tracing, at least five people were tested positive after the tournament started. None of that high-end technology will be used during Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
In multiple centres, the hospitality staff and groundsmen won’t be a part of the bio-bubble and heading back home every day. However, they will be interacting with those inside the bubble on a regular basis. They will be tested once every five days (or if they show any symptoms). As a result, those who are asymptomatic cases will continue to be in contact with the rest in the bubble.
A good reason for such issues to crop up rises from the fact that the SOPs drafted by the board aren’t comprehensive enough. “It’s practically difficult to make it as detailed. So, the understanding could vary from person to person.” While some will be ordering food from restaurants, some others have viewed that idea as a possible threat and made provisions for food to be prepared inside the stadium.
If the health concerns weren’t enough to leave the organisers fretting, the unseasonal rains have added to their headache. In what is possibly the most complex organisational task in Indian domestic cricket, the absence of experience in BCCI’s senior management hasn’t made it easier – with Saba Karim and KVP Rao leaving the setup.
“Handling domestic cricket is a completely different ball game. Unlike IPL, where all the processes are structured, in domestic cricket, everything happens in a haphazard manner,” says an organiser from a host association. “Had there been someone who understood domestic cricket better, the communication and transfer of knowledge would have been far better, and it was needed at such a time. Nonetheless, it’s a good learning experience.”
The issue, however, is that this is no time to learn.
To the cricket then: Who are the defending champions?
Karnataka. They’ve, in fact, won the last two titles. They won last season by beating Tamil Nadu in the final at Surat by a solitary run.
What are the groups?
Elite Group A(venue: Bengaluru): J&K, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Karnataka, Railways, Tripura
Elite Group B (venue: Kolkata): Odisha, Bengal, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Hyderabad, Assam
Elite Group C (venue: Vadodara): Gujarat, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Baroda, Uttarakhand
Elite Group D (venue: Indore): Services, Saurashtra, Vidarbha, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Goa
Elite Group E (venue: Mumbai): Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Mumbai, Kerala, Puducherry
Plate Group (venue: Chennai): Meghalaya, Chandigarh, Bihar, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh
Click here for full squads and tournament schedule