Hockey India and SAI at odds over bio-bubble breach

Indian captain Rani Rampal, who opened the scoring against Japan in the final, was adjudged the best player of the tournament at the 2019 FIH Series Finals in Hiroshima. Hockey India

The sudden spate of positive cases in the Indian women's hockey team has put Hockey India at odds with the SAI administration.

According to sources, HI is not exactly pleased with the bio-bubble being reportedly compromised at the campus. It is understood that three kitchen staff, who have been delivering food to the players' rooms, tested positive last week. Further, members of SAI staff have been commuting to and from the campus.

Seven players -- captain Rani Rampal, goalkeeper Savita Punia, Sharmila Devi, Navjot Kaur, Navneet Kaur, Sushila Chanu and Rajani Etimarpu tested positive for Covid-19 at SAI Bengaluru on Monday. So did two support staff members - video analyst Amrutaprakash and scientific advisor Wayne Lombard.

SAI on its part, it is learnt, wasn't in favour of the national players leaving camp and visiting home at this point and had stipulated that everyone produce test reports on arrival. It is understood that a couple of team support staff members reportedly ordering takeaway food from outlets outside is being seen as a breach of campus protocols. The 25-member group of core probables for the Tokyo Olympics had returned to the facility on April 18 following a 10-day break. Three of them, two players and an assistant coach with their reports still pending. One of them, Salima Tete, tested positive once the results came in two days later.

Punia was on her way to the training ground for the team's evening session on Monday, when she got word of practice being cancelled. A little while later she was running herself through breathing exercise drills, as teammates - reduced to a small strip of thumbnails on her phone screen, mirrored her efforts via Zoom call.

It is learnt that another player, defender Manpreet Kaur, had symptoms on arrival, which led to teammates from Haryana who'd travelled with her to be quarantined as well despite them carrying negative reports. In the latest tests conducted on April 24, Manpreet's report returned negative while those who were isolated on her account have tested positive.

"We're both confused and surprised," Punia told ESPN. "We've had heavy sessions over the past couple of days and trained this morning too and felt no fatigue or any of the other symptoms associated with the virus. We're hoping for a re-test later this week so if that returns negative we can get back to training." In their first competition since the pandemic halted play last year, the side toured Argentina and finished winless in seven matches against their junior team, B team and world No. 2 ranked senior squad in January. They then travelled to Dusseldorf, Germany for a four-match tour, losing all of the encounters.

Rani, it is learnt, came down with a bout of typhoid following the team's return from Germany. She's been recuperating since and has now tested positive for Covid.

The team is planning to tour the Netherlands in May, however, in an evolving virus scenario, there are no definite answers. Keeping competitions and training in mind, Punia says she was extra cautious during her visit home, to Sirsa, Haryana this time.

"My family had stocked up on everything I needed so that I didn't have to step out at all," she says. "My father and brother who have to go out for their jobs even got themselves tested for me. I was also careful to not come into contact with anyone outside my household during my stay. The reason we went home now was because we didn't want to do so too close to the Games. Also most of us were a bit homesick. The worst part of testing positive is being stuck inside our rooms. As sportspersons, you're used to the freedom -- to train or go for a run."

Karnataka goes into a 14-day lockdown starting Tuesday, but for the men's and women's hockey national campers life remains unchanged at the SAI facility. Their travel is restricted to within the campus -- training ground and gyms to rooms and back. Those who've tested positive are in a bubble within a bubble, dividing their hours between checking temperature and saturation, attending group Zoom sessions and counting down days for a re-test. The men are awaiting results of tests they underwent on Monday. "This time, unlike last year, the good thing has been that we are allowed to train and use the gym with proper social distancing protocols, even during quarantine, as long as we test negative," says Punia. "For the seven of us that's gone for now."