Amid stringent social-distancing guidelines and strict quarantine measures, a galaxy of cricket stars has descended on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the 13th edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) finally gets underway on September 19. Originally scheduled to begin on March 29 but deferred following the global coronavirus outbreak, the Twenty20 (T20) extravaganza will be played in the West Asian nation over 53 days – three more than each of the previous two seasons.
As the outbreak rapidly spread across the world, the Indian government placed severe restrictions on people travelling in and out of the country, eventually forcing the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to move the IPL overseas. And when the International Cricket Council (ICC) finally postponed the men’s T20 World Cup, which had been slated to be held in Australia in October-November, the path became clear for the high-profile tournament.
Given the IPL’s place in the international calendar, the tournament will serve as an opportunity to plot a course back to action for the Indian players. The return of the India internationals after a lengthier break than planned due to the coronavirus will help shift focus from the game’s finances and politics to cricket itself. The players can dig into training and use the tournament to get into the groove before what promises to be a cramped international calendar starting with a tour of Australia in late November.
M. S. Dhoni announced his retirement from international cricket on August 15, bringing the curtain down on the career of India’s most successful limited-overs captain. However, he will play for Chennai Super Kings in the upcoming IPL and fans can still watch their favourite athlete smash the ball out of the park. – K. R. Deepak
While there is no confirmation yet, there is talk that the tour Down Under may begin with the limited-overs leg — three T20 Internationals and three One-Day Internationals — followed by a four-Test series. While workload management will be a major talking point, the IPL will be a timely opportunity to gauge the fitness and form of some key players including Hardik Pandya and Rohit Sharma, who are returning to competitive cricket after long injury layoffs.
Logistically, a key challenge of playing the IPL inside a bubble will be ensuring the tired, used pitches remain up to standard for the high-scoring T20 format. There will be more games in quick succession on each of the wickets as, according to the schedule, which has been released only for the round-robin stage, Abu Dhabi hosts 20 league games, Dubai 24 and Sharjah 12. During the UAE leg in 2014, only 12 times did teams score in excess of 160, and only twice did they go beyond 200 (both in the same game). Teams chased down targets in excess of 160 only three times. In the last Pakistan Super League tournament played in the UAE in 2018-19, there were no totals of more than 200 runs. The temperatures in September have consistently breached the 40-degree Celsius, and with the afternoon sun beating down on the wickets, the players could encounter slow and low pitches resulting in a low-scoring IPL.
There’s also going to be a change in the team combinations, with no relaxation in the quarantine protocols for the Australia and England players involved in the bilateral series in England, which ends just three days before the IPL season. They arrive in the UAE on September 17 and, according to the existing rules, they will have to serve the mandatory quarantine period and test negative on days one, three and six to be eligible to join their teams.
Rajasthan Royals, led by Steve Smith and also featuring Jos Buttler, Jofra Archer and Andrew Tye, will likely be the most affected. Sunrisers Hyderabad, with David Warner and Jonny Bairstow in the ranks, and Royal Challengers Bangalore, with Aaron Finch, Adam Zampa and Moeen Ali, might also have to do some nitpicking to come up with the ideal XI, at least for the first game.
Rajasthan Royals, led by Steve Smith (above) and also featuring Jos Buttler, Jofra Archer and Andrew Tye, will likely be the most affected by the quarantine protocols as there will be no relaxation for the Australia and England players involved in the bilateral series, which ends just three days before the IPL season. – R. V. Moorthy
However, the franchises are still negotiating with the authorities and the BCCI for a relaxation of the quarantine rule as the players are travelling from one bubble to another via chartered flight.
It will help that after months of downtime some of the top players set to feature in the IPL returned to action in the Caribbean Premier League from August 18. Sunil Narine (Trinbago Knight Riders), Shimron Hetmyer (Guyana Amazon Warriors), Chris Lynn (St Kitts and Nevis Patriots) and Chris Green (Guyana Amazon Warriors) were among those who tuned up in Trinidad on pitches fairly similar to the ones that might be rolled out in the UAE.
There’s no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on communities globally, leading to significant restrictions on all sectors of society. But sport is slowly limping back to a new normal. Pakistan and the West Indies toured England for three-match Test series behind closed doors, while European football leagues such as the Bundesliga in Germany and Spain’s La Liga completed their seasons safely. The NBA too resumed the 2019-20 season with 22 teams at the Disney campus near Orlando, Florida. This road to return will also help revive the sports economy, ravaged by the pandemic, around the world.
Conducting the IPL is crucial for the BCCI since it derives a large portion of its revenue from the T20 league, thanks to a lucrative media rights deal signed in 2017. The BCCI stood to lose income to the tune of ₹4,000 crore had the IPL not been staged. The snowball effect from that could have been significant with payments to state associations and possibly even player contracts getting affected.
The IPL will be a timely opportunity to gauge the fitness and form of some key Indian players including Hardik Pandya (left) and Rohit Sharma, who are returning to competitive cricket after long injury layoffs. – AP
However, there have been some hiccups along the way. Thirteen members of the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) contingent — including two players, Ruturaj Gaikwad and Deepak Chahar — and an assistant physiotherapist with the Delhi Capitals tested positive for COVID-19. There were some early withdrawals as well with CSK’s Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh pulling out due to personal reasons.
However, leagues across sports have had similar teething issues. When the English Premier League returned after a 100-day absence, several players and staff tested positive ahead of the restart. But the 2019-20 season was completed successfully without any major incidents. Likewise, the NBA, being staged in the worst coronavirus-hit country, the USA, moved full steam ahead with its plans for resumption despite big names like Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokic and Jabari Parker testing positive at the start.
Apart from the overall tangible impact of the IPL, when it is on, there’s a definite mood lift. There’s plenty of argument and banter. And for the sentimentally inclined — over the years — there’s been a chance to see retired cricketers ply their wares. M. S. Dhoni announced his retirement from international cricket on August 15, bringing the curtain down on the career of India’s most successful limited-overs captain. However, he will play for CSK in the upcoming IPL and fans can still watch their favourite athlete smash the ball out of the park.
Cricket across the globe will need a controlled lifting of restrictions if it is to thrive again, and as former India captain Rahul Dravid pointed out, playing in a bio-secure bubble will not always be a viable solution. That said, there is still plenty to learn from the English cricket board and how it went about getting international cricket back on its feet: getting the setup and logistics right, and underlining the importance of biosecurity and having the confidence of key stakeholders — governments and others. Hence, it is imperative that over the next two months, the players are trained and sensitised, so that they strictly adhere to the protocols put in place and make the IPL season a success in the COVID-19 era.
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