With COVID-19 still a clear and present danger, the 13th edition of the Indian Premier League, for the first time, will become solely a TV spectacle, with billions expected to watch the Twenty20 extravaganza from the confines of their living rooms and/or smartphones. When defending champions Mumbai Indians and former winners Chennai Super Kings set the ball rolling in Abu Dhabi on Saturday (September 19), the Emirates Cricket Board, the tournament hosts, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India will have a prayer on their lips, hoping the virus stays away and the tournament concludes on a satisfactorily safe note on November 10, four days before Diwali.
The IPL has emerged as the centrepiece—the Kohinoor, if you like—in the BCCI’s bejewelled crown. With a brand valuation of $6.8 billion (Rs 47,500 crores), it is one of the richest sports properties in the world. The BCCI earns annual revenue of approximately Rs 4,000 crores from the IPL. Fifty per cent of this comes from global broadcast rights fees. The BCCI then shares half of its riches with the eight IPL franchises, who spend big on signing up the world’s top players. Prize money for the winning team is Rs 10 crore; the runner-up gets Rs 6.25 crore.
With so much money at stake, missing this year’s IPL was not an option for the BCCI. With the ICC cancelling the World T20 in Australia due to the pandemic, a desperate BCCI easily found a window to host the tournament and the Emirates Cricket Board, always eager to stage high-profile events, agreed to host the IPL, since Indian metropolitan centres like Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad had become Covid hotspots.
But Dubai gave IPL organisers a big scare when 13 members of the Chennai Super Kings tested positive for coronavirus at the end of August. With stiff protocols to stay safe, cricketers will face the enormous challenge of playing a mental game like cricket, with 15 people constantly present in the playing arena, confined to a ‘bio-bubble.’ Then there are dressing rooms, hotels and rigorous training.
“It was like living in a jail. There is very little you can do in that space. After a training session, you have to go back to your room and lock yourself up. It can really create stress, because there is no social interaction with anyone,” said Suresh Raina, who left the Chennai Super Kings camp fearing that it was too great a risk to stay in an environment that was not safe from the virus.
By the time the IPL ends, every member associated with the game, directly or indirectly, would have stayed cooped up in that ‘bio-bubble’ for more than three months. The bubble being referred to is a bio-secure environment planned to prevent the spread of coronavirus. It aims to minimise the risk of transmission of the virus from one person to another during a tournament. Some teams, like Royal Challengers Bangalore, have taken a psychologist with them, but the doctors specialising in the intricate workings of the mind refuse to divulge details of how players are coping with the stressful atmosphere. And the tournament has just got under way.
The bio-bubble was a success when live cricket resumed with the West Indies tour of England in July-August. The series passed safely, with no one testing positive, but that was a bilateral series and the safe cocoons created in the team hotels in Manchester and Southampton were just a couple of minutes’ walk from the ground. The IPL will be different--eight teams and their big support staff will be driving all the way from team hotels to stadiums in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi. This can be a logistical nightmare, as well as being a most expensive exercise, what with the long list of anti-pandemic SOPs.
“No proper cricket for six months is something that has never happened before any IPL. This IPL will be a test of physical and mental skills. The experienced players have to lead the way and manage the stress on and off the field,” says RCB head coach Simon Katich. Most teams have used the weeks ahead of the IPL to get used to the conditions, and the desert heat is one of them. There will be 10 double headers, with the first match starting at 3:30PM IST. All evening matches will start at 7:30PM IST. In all, 24 matches will be held in Dubai, 20 in Abu Dhabi and 12 in Sharjah. The playoff venues have not been decided yet.
The new sporting normal—bringing forth such nullifying spectacles as an Old Trafford bereft of the sharp clatter of claps after a boundary, or an Arthur Ashe stadium in Flushing Meadows sans the roar between points—will mean there will be no spectators at the stadiums. When a portion of the IPL was held in UAE in 2014, most matches saw capacity crowds. But IPL superstar A.B. De Villiers is already missing the fans. “I think everyone wants to play in front of big stadiums, there is a sort of adrenaline that pumps into you when the crowd gets very loud, especially in the Chinnaswamy, when the RCB crowd gets going and it gets difficult to stop the RCB side. We will miss that,” says De Villiers.
But playing in front of empty stadiums can be good for the junior cricketers because crowds can put pressure too. “The focus on scoring runs will be better for a newcomer who wants to make a mark. Many Indian players coming from the domestic circuit are not used to packed stadium,” Katich, a former Australian opener, points out.
All said and done, everyone is waiting for the cricket to start. With IPL coming at a time when there are no examinations for students to sweat over and the festive season is round the corner, the Covid crisis, as every stakeholder must have been silently acknowledging, has its positive side too. Whether the IPL passes the safety test or not might go down to a super over.