From mid-May to mid-June, India has seen a four-fold increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, and a similar rise in the number of deaths. That might be a strange way to begin a column on sport, but no discussion on any field of human endeavour now can start anywhere else. What we have learnt in the past weeks and months is this: We don’t know much. Future plans are balanced precariously on this non-knowing.
To talk of cricket at a time like this might be offensive, even blasphemous, but sport is a measure of normalcy around the world, and we must get it right. If India remain among the top COVID-19 countries, it is unlikely their players will be welcome for a cricket series.
Quid pro quo
The ‘lives versus livelihood’ debate — the Australian Cricket Board will lose $300 million if India don’t tour later this year – cannot afford to get lost in the thickets of desperation. The build-up to the international season is a period of organised quid pro quo.
India accept to tour Australia in return for which the Australian board allows its players to travel for the IPL. Pakistan tour England in the hope that England will tour their country for the first time since 2005.
Australia are happy to postpone the World T20 and focus on the Indian tour for practical reasons — it is more complicated to keep 16 teams and staff in a ‘biosecure’ environment for nearly a month, much easier to deal with one team. There is too the suggestion, nothing overt, that if the World T20 is postponed then that will open up a window for the IPL.
Behind all these ‘return to normal’ plans, pulling the levers of sport, is television.
The West Indies team is already in England, in quarantine, getting ready to play three Tests in three weeks before empty stadiums. It is a team of 14 players and 11 reserves. England are staring at a loss of nearly $300 million if there is no cricket this season.
Such is the keenness of the England Cricket Board to have both the West Indies and Pakistan tour that they are paying for the chartered flights on which these teams arrive. The tour fees for the reserve players too will be paid by them.
The extra players are in the team in case a substitution has to be made at short notice. The International Cricket Council has already ruled that a ‘Covid substitute’ may be used if a player tests positive during a match.
The IPL question
It is looking increasingly likely that the IPL will be taken out of the country — as happened in 2009 owing to Lok Sabha elections at that time — with the UAE the most likely venue. There is talk of a shorter, more focused tournament, but ultimately COVID-19 will decide.
Not surprisingly, most people associated with the IPL, from the millionaire team owners and players to the cottage industry around the tournament (groundsmen, cobblers, souvenir-makers) feel confident the tournament will go ahead. Again hope, rather than realism is the cause for this optimism.
The purely domestic scene seems to inspire less hope. How many and what tournaments are to be curtailed or dropped is a decision that can be taken only as the situation clarifies. Is it better to play a full season of the Ranji Trophy, which is the national championship, rather than a series of truncated tournaments? And that’s only for our senior cricketers.
At the age-group levels, it is probably best to cancel the season. There is too the question of payment to the domestic players, for many of whom cricket is their livelihood. The BCCI treasurer said a couple of months ago that there would be no pay cuts, but will he be of the same mind a couple of months later?
There is nothing like sport to give us a sense of normal life, and that’s something we need more urgently now than at any other time in memory.
But when everyone’s survival depends on everyone else, it becomes difficult to draw the line between what is possible and what is not. We have gone from a nation that didn’t take the COVID-19 seriously to one which boasted we were better off than some European countries to one which is threatening to overtake the worst-affected.
Cricket is important, but not that important.