The first Irish team back in action gets ready for life in bio-secure bubble

Ireland's cricketers will spend 18 days in the Ageas Bowl for ODI series
The first Irish team back in action gets ready for life in bio-secure bubble
Coronavirus sport: Lorcan Tucker during a training session at the Cricket Ireland High Performance Training Centre on the Sport Ireland Campus in Dublin. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Coronavirus sport: Lorcan Tucker during a training session at the Cricket Ireland High Performance Training Centre on the Sport Ireland Campus in Dublin. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Death by Powerpoint. It's a phrase that should induce shudders in anyone unfortunate enough to have been locked up in a darkened room as the minutes and the words and the pie charts congeal into one dense fog.

There are YouTube videos flooding the internet that explain how to avoid inflicting this fate worse than dearth. Memes too. One of them features a screaming woman in the cartoonish style of a 1950s Hollywood horror poster, the word Powerpoint emblazoned across the top in ghoulish lettering.

Thing is, it's brevity that has to be sacrificed sometimes.

Some things are too important to be squeezed into a few bullet points and so it was that Ireland's men's cricketers, coaches and support staff sat down to a 54-slide marathon from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) last week to go through the protocols required when they face England in Southampton in the coming weeks.

“They have left no stone unturned,” says Richard Holdsworth, Cricket Ireland's performance director.

Holdsworth likes the analogy of 50 phone books stacked to the ceiling when pondering just how much correspondence and protocols have been put together so the squad have actually got off lightly. Either way, no-one is complaining. If that's what it takes to play three ODIs at the 'bio-secure bubble' that is the Ageas Bowl then so be it.

England and the West Indies are already road-testing the system and the venue as they play out their first test on the south coast but Graham Ford's side will be the first Irish national team back on the international stage since the shutdown when they take to the same field on July 30.

Yes, the workload behind the scenes has been frankly ridiculous but both sides were desperate enough in different ways to think nothing of it.

England have a broadcast deal running into the multi-millions of pounds that needed tending and this was the last chance for the Irish side to get some game time this summer after series against Pakistan, Bangladesh and New Zealand fell by the wayside.

Cricket Ireland have roughly 30 staff members as they try to resurrect their international and domestic games. It's a tight ship and some are double-jobbing as Covid safety officers at the three high-performance centres where the national teams have been training.

The ECB has been sweating over different numbers. The sheer value of that TV deal ultimately means that they had no choice but to splash the cash and get live cricket back on our screens. It cost them £400,000 to fly the Windies over on a special charter and every single Covid test costs between £80 and £100. The bill for sanitisier gel alone came to £110,000.

“That's a big chunk of my budget,” Holdsworth laughs.

The Irish team will be tested here this coming weekend and fly to England by special charter flight from an isolated terminal on July 18th. A 'clean' coach will take them directly from the runway to a medical centre on site at the ground before they retire to their rooms for a period of self-isolation until their tests are returned.

The party will stay in this 'bubble' until they leave 18 days later. Not ideal then but hardly a penance either. Look for the Ageas Bowl on Google Earth and you'll see a complex replete with a golf course and a training pitch adjacent to the main stadium. It's not shabby.

Attached to the ground is a Hilton Hotel which has been kitted out with a cinema and the premises has been adapted in other ways with the pandemic in mind. Sanitising stations proliferate and team rooms, the gym and dressing-rooms have all been adapted to ensure extra space.

“A lot of the players have played there before and they speak very highly of the hotel,” says Holdsworth. “Everyone will have their own balcony looking out onto a magnificent ground. There will be no wandering out for a meal or a coffee and change of scenery but it's not going to be anything like as bad as people might have feared.”

Ireland usually travel with 15 players but an extra five will board the plane in Dublin and the ECB have loaned them five bowlers from Hampshire to help with preparations before the first test. A support crew of coaches and staff normally limited to seven has been expanded with the presence of a doctor, a psychologist and Stuart Barnes, a specialist bowling coach with Somerset.

Add everything up and it amounts to an enormous operation put together with military precision. The biggest issue so far has been the furore over the attendance of Phil Simmons, the West Indies coach who once held the same role with Ireland, at his father-in-law's funeral which led to calls for him to be sacked despite receiving permission from his board.

Other lessons have been learned, not least the fact that attempting anything like this on Irish soil is a non-starter.

“There are a lot of other countries in cricket that just wouldn't have been able to do this to the same extent as England,” Holdsworth explains. “We looked at whether we could host any international cricket here during the summer if things got better.

“Could we play in a bio-secure environment? The reality is that we just don't have the infrastructure to do that, even apart from the cost. We will look back on this in years to come and think, 'Christ, did we really do that because that was quite incredible?'“

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