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IPL finally moves out of India, but at what cost?

Hindsight they say is 20/20 but many will, argue Indian Premier League (IPL) should have always gone back to the UAE as a venue — that is if it had to be played at all, this year. To hold it in the midst of unaccountable loss in India, the kind last seen during partition was to mock a gasping country with entertainment of unreality television — the kind that has canned clapping and real high-fives.

Just before the tournament was suspended, local media in Gujarat reported that an ambulance was stopped to make way for an IPL team convoy in Ahmedabad — a city that was hosting a big chunk of the matches including the final on May 30. The bewildered wondered if showcasing the newly minted Narendra Modi stadium was a bigger factor than cricket or lives in the decision to go ahead with the tournament.

Whether it was Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI’s) ego or political compulsions, the cricket board further ridiculed intelligence by announcing that the change of venue was due to the impending monsoon. We are not the ones living in this bubble.

Bio-secure bubbles

IPL this year made a mockery of sheer survival with BCCI refusing to stop the tournament even as the pandemic raged on. The cricket body’s pursuit of power — monetary in their case- to the exclusion of the dying and the dead was on full display. BCCI did a rethink only when COVID hit closer home with players and officials going down despite being in ‘bio-secure bubbles.’

In the meantime, constant testing of players took place at a time, labs were floundering and people with symptoms couldn’t get admitted because of delayed results, resources were diverted to stadiums when people were dying outside hospitals- dystopia has many reincarnations. The people needed relief ‘they’ said, they were right — but only through medicines and oxygen, the people needed distraction ‘they’ said, they were right but first one had to stay alive.

The economics of COVID hasn’t spared many although the levels of tragedy are relative. As per a Duff & Phelps report the brand value of IPL in 2020 was Rs45,800 crores ($8 billion), down 3.6% from the previous year. If this year is abandoned, the cash rich BCCI could lose around Rs2200 crore ($400 million), PTI quoted a senior BCCI official with the biggest loss estimated from broadcast rights and title sponsorship.

But it will also not be easy holding the remaining matches in the midst of hectic cricket calendar and getting overseas players back especially with countries hesitant to risk players before the T-20 World Cup shortly afterwards.

Richest cricket tournament in the world

IPL is the richest cricket tournament in the world but if COVID has taught us one thing, it is that money does not always make the world go round- we saw how the rich and the poor were all helpless when it came to hospital admissions and drugs. As the Australian cricketer Adam Zampa said of the IPL, “someone who has a family member on their death bed probably doesn’t care about cricket.” And there were countless lying on that bed.

The players lamented about the tough bubble they were in doing what they enjoy doing — whether for the love of cricket or money. The bubble was broken last year, reportedly at least one top player was asked to leave — and clearly it wasn’t foolproof again this year while ordinary citizens were forced to break their bubbles to get medicines and oxygen cylinders for their families.

Promptly once the IPL was suspended captain Kohli and his wife Anushka were in a video, publicising donations, as though they had just chanced upon Covid that day. The real foot soldiers of COVID meanwhile continued their work the only way it can be done in our country, by connecting the dots.

Like most people and things, sports too may not be the same post the pandemic. Will our cricketers stand up to be counted or will they maintain the same slam dunk streak that represents the IPL they play? Perhaps we put too much faith in them — during the height of the crisis while resources were in short supply a former cricket star reportedly continued to hold on to his hospital bed even though the doctors said he would be fine at home.

Lack of empathy

The repercussions of the killing of George Floyd last year were seen across global sport — from Lewis Hamilton taking a fist to England and West Indies cricketers taking the knee before a match, sports have shown that it does not exist in a bubble, that it is intrinsically linked to community.

The Indian cricketers had ample opportunity to use their reach to send a message whether it was on the man-made disaster that is the vaccination drive or urging fellow citizens out of their vax hesitancy. Unfortunately, their social media platforms remained silent.

Those Indian athletes who speak up are seldom cricketers — without responsible activism, these are real VIP perks. To expect anything more than cricket and entertainment is on us. Hopefully we as fans at least have evolved.

It is safe to assume that post-Covid, the big daddy that is Indian cricket will still sail through, but other less glamorous sports will feel the pinch. Mental health and athletes — it is a noiseless wave and Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open has finally put the spotlight on it. In the new era, those who can last will play, transient nature of sport could become the new normal.

There is also confusion over the World T 20 scheduled later in the year in India, the pace of current vaccinations especially when states begin easing unofficial lockdowns may once again force a rethink. If there is one thing, we have learnt it is that boundaries disappear quickly.

This September the IPL will likely be back, there will still be no saliva on the ball or handshakes after the toss. The canned clapping though will be back. For some the show must go on.