During the first half of 2020 and beyond, the sweeping tentacles of the coronavirus left in its wake a trail of destruction — the destruction of life, of livelihoods, of existence as we knew, of faith and belief and optimism.
Viewed against the prism of irreplaceable loss and a paradigm shift in people-to-people relationships, the cancellation of several high-profile sporting events seemed no more than a minor irritant, though it’s no secret that these competitions are a source of livelihood for thousands more than just the celebrated athletes who strut their stuff.
Inevitably, the world’s most storied cricket tournament too was thrown out of gear as COVID-19’s worldwide march continued unchecked. To the consternation of several, the Indian Premier League has come to establish itself as cricket’s flagship annual extravaganza. That might appear a tall claim for a tournament that pits city-based franchises against each other, a far cry from the more hallowed country-versus-country showdowns, but only the very myopic or blasé can afford to overlook the pride of place the IPL has come to occupy in the cricketing firmament.
From a heady, if somewhat contrived ad-mixture of cricket and entertainment in its early years when the concept of franchise play had yet to take deep root in the Indian psyche, the IPL has evolved into a mega platform that brings most of the best in the world together and systematically dismantles the ‘class divide’ between a 100-Test veteran from Kingston and a starry-eyed teenager from cricket-unfashionable Guwahati. It’s an equal-opportunity enterprise that rewards the ability to perform under pressure, but it’s an enterprise that has now shed the frills and runs on its own steam – the cricket itself.
Between, say, the last week of March and the last week of May every year, cricket boards carve out an unofficial window of minimal – if at all – international action so that their top players are able to make the annual pilgrimage to the world’s cricketing capital, entertain the masses, embellish their reputations and bank balances, and elevate a format once dismissed as a ‘slam-bang slug-fest’ into an art form populated with stunning fielding efforts, extraordinary batting pyrotechnics, and breathtaking bowling innovations.
With high-quality cricket as the driving force, the other associated elements weighed in to make this a financial success for all-comers – from the player with a million-dollar pay-cheque to the former India international receiving a handsome pension, and from the cobbler outside the MA Chidambaram Stadium who addresses footwear malfunctions of almost the entire Chennai Super Kings franchise to the man with the inkpot who homes in on those willing to wear the colours of their favourite franchise on their face-cheeks.
The already prevalent air of the pandemic-driven despondency was clouded with further dismay as the possibility of Season 13 of the IPL not being staged in 2020 loomed large until, in the first of several masterstrokes, the Board of Control for Cricket in India requisitioned the services of the Emirates Cricket Board to host the 60 games, and convinced the Indian government to fast-track the necessary permissions to take the competition out of the country in a non-general election year. That was only step one, of course.
Team owners were desperate for the tournament to be held anywhere – even in front of empty stands, as it eventually was – so long as it was conducted. To their great delight, there were no high-profile pullouts, speaking both to the prestige of the event and to the vote of confidence in the organisational skills of the BCCI, with a little nudge from not-inconsiderable financial gains, of course.
In so many ways, the UAE was the best place to host the tournament, in the revised, one-off (hopefully) September-November window. Apart from only a smattering of positive COVID-19 cases, it boasted three readymades, world-class facilities in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah. Since the time-zone is only an hour and a half behind India’s, it was possible for the matches to be staged during prime television time.
Then again, no matter the time zone, eventually, the IPL hours would have constituted prime TV time for obvious reasons, but it helped that no major tweaks were necessary and that neither of the primary protagonists – the players and the television audiences – had to contend with having to grapple with the challenges of unearthly hours.
Furthermore, given the strict, no-nonsense adherence to the elaborate and well thought out safety protocols, no breaches would be viewed with kindness or a chalta hai attitude. If you didn’t conform, you were out. There would be no bail-outs, no ‘let’s take a chance and see how it goes’. Follow the guidelines to a ‘T’, and all would be well; step out of line, and make a beeline to the airport for the first flight back home.
Despite these uncompromising strictures, much of it appears easier said than done. The fashionable anti-IPL minority was hoping for the first mini-crisis, and it didn’t take long in coming after the franchises started to arrive in the UAE post 20 August for six days of quarantine and three rounds of testing before they could enter the amorphous but clearly defined bio-secure bubble. There were knowing screams of ‘I told you so’ when 13 members of the extended Chennai Super Kings entourage, among them two players, tested positive, and CSK legend Suresh Raina hastily left for home for reasons still to be properly elucidated.
The start of the tournament was still three weeks away, and already, the first flashpoint had been reached. As things turned out, that was more a whimper than a bang; CSK and their vast legion of fans did miss Raina, but in the larger scheme of things, those developments towards the end of August did little to dent the standing or the outstanding organisational success of the competition.
The entire world was witness to the action on the field, to the dramatic run-chases and the spectacular meltdowns, to the shelling of ‘sitters’ and the completion of gravity-defying catches. Behind the scenes, no stone was left unturned in ensuring the seamless conduct of not just the IPL, but also the women’s T20 challenge that shadowed the climactic week of the men’s competition.
Because of the strict quarantine protocols and the even more pressing need for social media engagements because a) the tournament was not in India and b) fans didn’t have access to stadiums, each franchise travelled with close to 50 members – and that’s not counting families. That alone makes for around 400 individuals – players, support staff of various ill, net bowlers.
Additionally, safety protocols had to put in place for broadcast teams ranging from highly-acclaimed former internationals-turned-commentators to other personnel with different job descriptions. Throw in mandarins of the BCCI, among them president Sourav Ganguly and secretary Jay Shah, both of whom made multiple trips to and from the UAE, and the magnitude of the task in front of IPL chairman Brijesh Patel becomes far too clear.
Patel, the former Indian batsman, has made a name for himself as one of the most efficient administrators in the country in the last two decades. As secretary of the Karnataka State Cricket Association, he earned plaudits for several far-reaching developments; in so many ways, the BCCI was fortunate that it could rely on his expertise and tactical acumen in these challenging times.
Patel’s wasn’t so much a hands-on as an overseeing role, with generous help from numerous other totally committed individuals who once again worked in tandem to reiterate that when it comes to organisational efficiency, few can match Indians. With generous dollops of support, encouragement, and unalloyed support from the Emirates board, and the governmental agencies therein.
No praise can also be too high for the manner in which the franchises acquitted themselves. It’s impossible for us, no matter what our own predicaments are, to fully comprehend the challenges of spending close to three months in a bio bubble, with outside interactions practically non-existent, GPS trackers ensuring the participants stick to the beaten path and travel restricted either for practice or for matches.
In deference to the extraordinary circumstances and with little regard for financial considerations, franchises pulled out all stops to ensure their entourages enjoyed their stay to the extent possible under the circumstances. Several of the teams were housed in holiday resorts and had unfettered access to private beaches; mental conditioning coaches weren’t the exceptions, and players were encouraged to freely and without fear air their misgivings and seek recourse in reassurances and remedies.
The quality of cricket was a testament to the fact that there were no lingering after-effects of having to perform day-in and day-out in uber-controlled environments which seriously threatened the mind as much as they did the body and cricketing skills. It’s perhaps only to be expected that players, commentators, and team owners would complement the BCCI for the exemplary conduct of this cricketing carnival in the most testing of circumstances, but the events of the last 12 weeks confirm that the encomiums sliding off their tongues aren’t without basis.
Have to admire the commitment & discipline shown by @ipl and @BCCI crew for the smooth and safe conduct of the #IPL2020. Also a big hand to all 8 franchise for creating a safe bio secure bubble for teams and family 👏 👏
— Rohit Sharma (@ImRo45) November 12, 2020
— Ravi Shastri (@RaviShastriOfc) November 10, 2020
Perhaps, Ricky Ponting should have the last word. The former Australian captain has seldom been an establishment man, and most certainly never been a BCCI man, if you like. After seeing his wards go down by five wickets in Tuesday’s final to Mumbai Indians, the Delhi Capitals coach remarked, “It's a tournament that's been extremely well run. I was skeptical whether the tournament would go through.” Tough for even the IPL’s staunchest critics to argue with Punter there, right?
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