At what point during a global pandemic do you ask yourself: must the show go on? The Indian Premier League is now near that point as the action moves to Delhi, the nation’s capital, and Ahmedabad, the new cricket capital. Both are locations that continue to be severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
England’s Liam Livingstone, the Australians Andrew Tye, Adam Zampa and Kane Richardson, and, perhaps most significant, India’s Ravichandran Ashwin have all left the 2021 IPL for Covid-related reasons. While some of those players withdrew citing the difficulty of the biosecure-bubble life, and others because they did not want to be stuck in a foreign country as their homelands began to shut down borders, Ashwin’s departure is particularly relevant.
On Sunday I asked Ashwin, on Twitter, if he had considered staying at home, given this was the advice he was dispensing to his 10.3 million followers, and was met with a barrage of abuse from the cricketer’s followers and fans.
Not long afterwards, Ashwin announced, via the same medium: “I would be taking a break from this year’s IPL from tomorrow. My family and extended family are putting up a fight against #COVID19 and I want to support them during these tough times. I expect to return to play if things go in the right direction.”
Ashwin has always been a cricketer who sees the bigger picture and, though the details behind his decision have not been disclosed, it is unlikely to have been made independently from the startling numbers in the public domain. Since this edition of the IPL began on 9 April nearly 30,000 people have lost their lives in India to Covid-19, according to official figures. If anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, the number of deaths caused by the virus might be exponentially higher.
There is a severe shortage of medication, oxygen, hospital beds and even cremation facilities in major cities across India. The system is at breaking point. On Sunday, the seven-day average of active cases stood at 321,263, with daily new positives in excess of 350,000. If these were the official numbers and the IPL was being staged in the UK, it would have already been shut down. The last edition of the IPL, played in the United Arab Emirates, would have suffered a similar fate.
But in India things work differently. There are certain cash cows that cannot be criticised, but even more protected are the holy cows, such as the IPL. The Board of Control for Cricket in India is run by Jay Shah, the secretary, and he reports not so much to the president of the BCCI, Sourav Ganguly, the former India captain, as to Amit Shah, the home minister of India, who is also the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Jay also happens to be Amit’s son.
This works well on a practical level, in that the BCCI has been able to create a biosecure bubble for perhaps the only domestic tournament in the world that can afford it across two months and many cities. The BCCI has also been able to secure privileges from the government of India, such as having separate check-in counters and security corridors in airports for the players and others in the IPL.
What has been in focus during recent IPL matches is the presence at many grounds of invitees of the teams or the IPL – who have sometimes masked up and at other times not – while essential allied services, such as a neutral media reporting these games as events and beyond, were shut out.
On Sunday, the IPL broadcast included public service messages such as masking up and maintaining social distancing, something that had been all too absent from the time the tournament began. This had to happen. The manner in which it was solely celebrating entertainment and glory during its nightly four-hour televised pockets, while a nation outside gasped for breath and begged for life-saving medication, was tone deaf and, frankly, unsustainable.
But then as a public exercise, the IPL has always been remarkably good at reinventing itself.
And the signs are that those working on the tournament – most significantly the live broadcast – have been given the go-ahead to actually speak about something other than maximums and the latest features of the sponsored SUV on display.
There is also an argument that the IPL’s continuation keeps its vast audience indoors at home every evening and provides a window of normality during what is an unprecedented crisis.
Ultimately, however, its continuation comes down to money. The IPL generates a significant proportion of Indian cricket’s revenues – estimated at £318m this year – and this will defray expenses incurred in the last 18 months.
Domestic players, coaches, support staff and countless others who rely on seasonal cricket wages are waiting to be paid. The BCCI can afford to do so but only if the show goes on, it insists.
If it does continue, however, the results had better match the positive intentions. If not, even the holiest cows may not be safe from the wrath of a nation scorned.