IPL 2021: Cricket bats on in the time of COVID 2.0

It’s too late, of course, to debate if getting the tournament back to India was the most sensible decision


Unprecedentedly, within five months of the completion of the previous edition, a brand new season of the Indian Premier League is upon us. This short turnaround time stems from the postponement of IPL 2020 from its regular April-May window owing to the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Twelve months on, on that front at least, little seems to have changed.

A second, in some parts third, wave has been wreaking untold damage despite millions of people getting vaccinated globally. India has seen a dramatic surge in the last few weeks with caseloads higher than ever before and Mumbai emerging again as the hotbed of infection.

It’s against this grim backdrop of anxiety, uncertainty and a touch of dread that Season 14 of the world’s most celebrated league kicks off at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai on Friday, on the IPL’s return to home territory.

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It’s too late, of course, to debate if getting the tournament back to India was the most sensible decision. There is plenty of merit to the argument that the IPL could have been staged in the UAE for a second year running in deference to the prevailing circumstances, though in fairness to the Board of Control for Cricket in India, at the time when the call to host the competition in India was made, the cases were on a steady decline and a return to reasonable normalcy appeared imminent.

Last season’s IPL was the first exposure to a majority of the players of life in a bio-secure bubble. Even at that early stage, it was clear that these bubbles would come to stay for a fair while. There were muted whispers about the deleterious effects of being cooped up in hotel rooms and restricting forays to the ground for training and matches. Over the last eight months, the real impact of slipping from one bubble to another has been tangible, with several top players opting out of either international or franchise commitments.

Bubble fatigue is as widely discussed a topic as mental and physical burnout are, Australian Glenn Maxwell the latest big name to throw light on the challenges of existing in a cocooned environment. India’s cricketers have perhaps had it the hardest, non-stop international action from late November literally preventing them from sleeping in their own beds for more than two or three nights at a stretch.

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This is a time when any positive is most welcome. The very make-up of franchises offers players the opportunity to spend time with different people than usual. The fair sprinkling of overseas stars and less heralded Indian aspirants is certain to lift the ennui and monotony of seeing the same faces and interacting with the same individuals day after day, even if that has contributed immensely to enhancing team spirit and camaraderie.

In so many ways, this IPL is a ‘home’ event only in name. At the announcement of the schedule, the authorities had said the early part of the tournament would be played behind closed doors, deferring a call on whether to throw the gates open to a reduced spectator presence to a later date. It’s safe to assume now, given the mushrooming of cases across India, that Season 14 will be played in its entirety without in-stadium attendance. That’s far from ideal; the IPL’s USP lies in the emotions it triggers in the thousands who flock venues night after night for eight weeks on the bounce, but a lack of atmosphere is the least of the concerns today, when safety and commonsense are the need of the hour.

Additionally, while matches will be staged at five centres out of which franchises are based, no team will play on its own patch to rule out any unkind cut to the other three teams that would otherwise have played only on neutral/away territory. That’s unlikely to call for huge adjustments because teams and players by now know what to expect at different venues. During the trading window and at the mini-auction, both of which transpired before the destination of the tournament was known, franchises hedged their bets a little to piece together combinations for any and all eventuality. The wisdom of the buys and transfers will only unfold as the tournament gathers steam.

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Like in the UAE last year, there has been a string of COVID-positive cases prior to the start of action, but unlike then when all of them were specific to one team (Chennai Super Kings), the spread is more even now. While that has triggered alarm in certain quarters and roused the IPL-haters into a frenzy, it’s important to take cognizance of the fact that these positive tests came before the teams moved into their respective bio-bubbles.

Of greater and more impactful concern is the slew of positives among the ground staff at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, where matches will start on Saturday. Forewarned, it now becomes incumbent on state associations in Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad – the IPL is more a BCCI and less a franchise-driven event this time year as well – to ensure ground staff and other personnel who are certain to be associated with the tournament in some capacity or another are placed in bio-bubbles appropriately and tested at regular intervals to prevent a repeat of the unfortunate Mumbai scenario.

With all decks cleared for the start of play, each single stake-holder has no option but to scrupulously follow the SOPs and not put a foot wrong off the field. In a fortnight’s time, teams will start travelling too, a tense exercise even if commercial airliners will be jettisoned for chartered flights.

Franchises have left no stone unturned in trying to ensure a peaceful, worry-free environment for their personnel, including access to top-notch mental health professionals should the need arise. Justly or otherwise, sport is often saddled with the responsibility of lifting moods and spirits. An incident-free IPL is just the shot in the arm beleaguered India needs right now.

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