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'Once it hit, it hit so hard' - keeping the BBL going through Covid

Safety first: Haris Rauf maintains a safe distance after taking a wicket Getty Images

When Melbourne Stars and Brisbane Heat played a high-octane clash on December 27, as the BBL entered its traditional peak period of the school holidays, there was reason for optimism and little indication of the mayhem ahead for the tournament.

In front of almost 15,000 fans at the Gabba, one of the biggest crowds of this turbulent regular season engulfed by Covid-19 chaos afflicting every team, Stars and Heat combined for nearly 400 runs to light a fuse under the competition which had started slowly behind the Ashes' giant shadow.

Three weeks into its 11th edition the BBL had already navigated logistical hurdles, most notably Western Australia's ironclad hard border which consigned Perth Scorchers permanently on the road after their season opener against Heat on December 8 at Optus Stadium.

But amid Australia's borders easing elsewhere, after a change of government policy late last year as Covid-19 surged in the country's most populous states of New South Wales and Victoria, BBL officials breathed a sigh of relief that the virus hadn't upended the competition like last year's IPL, which paused in-season for four months and then shifted to the UAE for completion.

"We were almost halfway through the competition and things were going relatively smoothly in regards to Covid," BBL general manager Alistair Dobson told ESPNcricinfo. "Then it changed."

Late on December 27, tempering their mood, Stars officials noticed the first signs of Covid-19 had perhaps penetrated their camp. All their players and staff tested negative to rapid antigen tests before the first positive test of Covid-19 was recorded the next day and soon enough 10 players and eight staff members were confirmed to have contracted the virus.

"We had been very vigilant and clear about the Covid protocols," Stars general manager Blair Crouch said. "It was quite strict like no catching Uber or public transport. You couldn't drink on the plane and had to wear a mask throughout. We were daily rapid antigen testing our players and staff before they came into the change rooms.

"But once it hit, it hit so hard."

It led to Stars' match against Scorchers on December 30 at the MCG being called off - the first of three BBL matches this season postponed due to Covid-19.

Robust discussions then took place between Stars/Cricket Victoria and league officials on how to deal with this unprecedented situation. Complicating matters, it was a showpiece part of the calendar for Stars, who were about to play three matches in five days including the Melbourne derby against Renegades at the MCG - a marquee fixture that is often the highest attended match of the season.

"Nothing predefined [on what is needed to stop the season]…it was about making the best possible decision in the moment with the information at hand," Dobson said. "Any contemplation of a pause was for how long and what it would achieve. It wasn't necessarily clear what that would achieve."

So it was agreed that the show should go on which meant the decimated Stars desperately needed to find replacement players for their match against league leaders Scorchers on January 2 at the Junction Oval.

It was an incredibly onerous task made more difficult with their key decision makers unwell and forced into seven days of isolation. Covid-19 be damned, Crouch and Stars' coaching staff led by head coach David Hussey worked around the clock to assemble the most unusual line-up in BBL history.

"We probably worked 16-18 hour days," said Crouch, who fortunately had relatively minor symptoms from the virus. "There was a lot of admin work. We were running on adrenaline. When Cricket Australia's preference was for those games to go ahead, we didn't think to push back and knew it was the right thing to do for the BBL."

Crouch suddenly found himself fielding calls from agents intent on plugging their clients' cricket credentials but Stars had a pathway program filled with youngsters to mostly fall back on. While an opportunity to trial talent, Stars still needed to win matches and also looked interstate where they picked up batter Justin Avendano who is now currently part of Sydney Sixers' finals team amid the BBL introducing a roster of replacement players.

The upheaval continued until almost the last minute before the Scorchers game. "We had Brayden Stepien locked in but he called on the morning of game day and said he tested positive to a rapid test," Crouch said. "So I called [St Kilda grade cricketer] Patty Rowe at 9am and said 'what are you doing this afternoon? Do you want to play with the Stars?' He couldn't believe it."

All the frantic work behind the scenes came to fruition as Stars fielded fairly competitive teams against Scorchers and Renegades although it led to some belief that the integrity of the competition had been compromised.

Most prominently, Stars bowling talisman Adam Zampa believed CA had "taken the piss" out of the Melbourne derby, while team-mate Joe Burns has also been vocal over social media, although its administrators were more diplomatic.

"We had coaches who had never coached Stars before…that was probably unprecedented in Australian sport," Cricket Victoria chief executive Nick Cummins said. "We weren't unfairly singled out. We were just unlucky we were the first team to go through it. I don't think people should discount how difficult it's been to keep the Big Bash running."

Shorthanded Stars needed all hands on deck even if that meant the big boss had to act as team manager, where his game day duties involved carrying water bottles and collecting mobile phones off players.

"I was wondering how my career had gotten to this," Cummins laughed. "The hardest part was trying to clothe the new players. It was difficult mid-season trying to find uniforms, helmets, the right size shoes and shirts for 10 new players."

Stars managed to get through the games against Scorchers and Renegades but their January 7 away fixture against Adelaide Strikers - as recovered players were exiting isolation - was a bridge too far and postponed.

"After being in a room for seven days, it was unrealistic to think they could hop on a plane and just go from zero to 100kph and to peak performance," Cummins said. "Players' mental health needs to be taken into account too. They are not performing circus animals, they are people."

Covid-19 soon affected every team, most notably Heat who were badly hit at the backend of the tournament similarly to Stars, who ultimately missed finals by one point. It led to all eight teams moving to a hub in Victoria to reduce movement and restrictions tightened with players and staff limited to being in small groups to stem outbreaks. It meant the days of building team camaraderie on the bus or plane had to be shelved for now.

"It does change your coaching style," Hurricanes coach Adam Griffith said. "You don't have the bus or plane to sit next to the player and chat to them. You have to identify when players are getting tired like [Matthew] Wade who has been in bubbles and hubs for a long time [and took personal leave mid-tournament]."

The impact of Covid has been felt right towards the end of the competition with Adelaide Strikers and Sydney Thunder unable to host home finals along with the long locked-out Scorchers. There was also the curious case of Steven Smith not being allowed to sign for Sixers because he was not part of the Local Replacement Player Pool that was introduced mid-tournament to cover for absences.

There is still the question about how much more players can endure when it comes to restrictions to keep competitions afloat (an issue across many sports other than just cricket). But with the BBL having, fingers crossed, navigated the worst of its Covid-19 outbreak to ensure the finals series started on schedule, it's provided perhaps a template for other sporting codes in Australia and cricket leagues worldwide to learn from.

"Reality is you can plan as much as possible but ultimately it comes down to how agile you can be and what types of decisions you can make in a short timeframe and back them in," Dobson said. "It's been a phenomenal achievement to keep playing."