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Once the bubble was breached, the Indian Premier League (IPL) didn’t have a chance. For four weeks, the tournament walked a tightrope. Then the bubble burst.
Positive cases came thick and fast. It started with Kolkata Knight Riders’ spinner Varun Chakravarthy and medium pacer Sandeep Warrier contracting Covid. Then, the virus entered the Chennai Super Kings bubble, infecting their chief executive Kasi Viswanathan, bowling coach Lakshmipathy Balaji and batting coach Michael Hussey. Sunrisers Hyderabad wicketkeeper-batsman Wriddhiman Saha and Delhi Capitals leg-spinner Amit Mishra, too, tested positive. The IPL had to be postponed.
Hindsight offers an advantage. Now it’s easy to say the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) committed a blunder by not organising the tournament in United Arab Emirates (UAE) like they did last year. Then again, things need to be put in perspective.
The IPL is Indian cricket’s million-dollar baby. It’s the BCCI’s showpiece event. Such is its global popularity that London mayor Sadiq Khan publicly spoke about his desire to bring the IPL matches to the English capital. As the tournament was postponed, four English counties reportedly have started to make an overture as regards to hosting the remaining 31 matches of this year’s event in England in September. Middlesex are said to be one of those counties. The Middlesex County Cricket Club call Lord’s their home, cricket’s sanctum sanctorum.
The Emirates Cricket Board is always willing to host the IPL in the UAE. In fact, it feels like that their readiness is just a phone call away. So there’s nothing wrong in the BCCI being keen to host the event in India. After all, the tournament is meant to be played in this country.
The decision to organise this year’s event was finalised in January, when the Covid curve in India had flattened. There was an air of optimism that the virus had left us. Vaccine roll-out had commenced as well. The Indian government fell prey to its complacency and misreading of the situation. The BCCI wasn’t the sole ‘offender’.
“It was discussed, but the numbers (Covid cases) in India in the month of February was (virtually) nothing. It has just gone through the roof in the last three weeks. Before that it was nothing. We did the England series. We discussed about the UAE but then decided to do it in India,” BCCI president and former India captain Sourav Ganguly told The Indian Express in a recent interview.
Once the bio-bubble arrangements were made in India, it was well-nigh impossible to shift the IPL out to the UAE. Yes, by early March, Covid had been wreaking havoc in Maharashtra and the tournament started in Mumbai. Then again, as Ganguly said: “We started with Mumbai and Mumbai we finished without any case. And Mumbai was very high (number of active Covid cases).”
How the bubble was breached in Delhi and Ahmedabad would remain a matter of conjecture. There’s a school of thought that Varun went to a hospital to have a scan on his shoulder, which made him exposed. In Delhi, a cleaner of the Super Kings team bus was infected by the virus and it spread from there. We shouldn’t pinpoint. Rather, from the fallout, there’s a lesson to be learnt for the BCCI.
To start with, the Indian cricket board failed to pre-empt. In the UAE last year, matches were played across three venues – Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. Teams travelled by road. A multi-city arrangement in India in the middle of a pandemic and air travel involved – forget specially designated IPL check-in counters at airports – was always fraught with risks. The BCCI made a mistake by not sticking to just one or two cities.
Also, the BCCI erred in not appointing Restrata, the UK-based company that was in charge of the IPL’s bio-security last year and did an excellent job. “They don’t have a big presence in India, that was the problem. We discussed their name, but they don’t have a big presence. So we went with others,” said Ganguly.
As it turned out, the IPL’s bio-security this term wasn’t up to the mark. Maybe, the successful organisation of the India versus England series that preceded the T20 league created a false belief. Arrangements around international teams are more regimented and almost foolproof. Unlike international teams, almost all the IPL franchises carry a lot of hangers-on as part of their entourage.
As for the question of morality, you have to respect the sentiment that cricket became meaningless, as a Covid death march engulfed the country. At the same time, the IPL is a business operation, which continued when all was well inside the bubble. When continuation became untenable, it was suspended.
Mind, factories haven’t stopped the production of luxury goods. People haven’t stopped watching Netflix as a show of solidarity towards millions of Covid-infected patients. Bio-bubble was breached in the Premier League also. Lots of footballers tested positive and matches had to be rescheduled. The Premier League’s eight months long window allowed the leeway for rescheduling. The IPL’s one-and-a-half-month window didn’t offer the scope for rejig. The Premier League wasn’t postponed when England reeled under a second wave of the pandemic and the country went into lockdown.
Yes, the IPL showed a lack of empathy towards what was happening outside the bubble. But unlike the election rallies and religious festivals, it wasn’t a super-spreader.