SPORT AT THE professional level is spectacle. A player spends a lifetime of empty stands at the school, district and even state circuits, until, having finally made it at the national level, he is able to participate in an ancient ritual, performing before enormous cheering or booing crowds, drawing energy and impetus from them; looking up to the skies after making a century or waving his bat derisively at an audience in another country that had mocked him. And then comes a pandemic and severs the relationship overnight. The player is again thrown back to his beginnings, when all that exists are two teams slugging it out in isolation. It is a reality about to confront cricket and what it does to performance is right now the least of anyone’s concerns. Because the first order of the day is to at least begin playing again.
Cricket is now taking its first faltering steps to get back to life from the lockdown. A number of separate happenings came simultaneously to announce this. There was primarily the news that early July would finally see an international cricketing event: a Test series between West Indies and England. Earlier slated for June, it was postponed by a month, which seems not so bad when there was a question mark over whether it would happen at all. On June 9th, almost a month before the first Test slated for July 8th, the West Indies team arrived in England. They will train for three weeks by themselves while also fulfilling the quarantining obligations. It hadn’t been without some niggles. Three West Indian players decided that they didn’t want to take the risk of travel and refused to go. Whereas such a spurning would have invited punitive actions in ordinary times, they were immediately told there would be no consequences. A statement by Cricket West Indies (CWI) said: ‘Darren Bravo, Shimron Hetmyer and Keemo Paul all declined the invitation to travel to England for the tour and CWI fully respects their decision to choose to do so. As previously stated, CWI will not hold this decision against these players when considering future selection.’ The release also gave some indication of how the lockdown would impact the tour. It said: ‘The West Indies squad will live, train and play in a “bio-secure” environment during the seven weeks of the tour, as part of the comprehensive medical and operations plans to ensure player and staff safety. The bio-secure protocols will restrict movement in and out of the venues, so the selection panel has also named a list of reserve players who will travel to train and help prepare the Test squad and ensure replacements are available in case of any injury.’ The key thing about the series is that it will be played in stadiums where the stands will be devoid of any audience. That would be the new normal for the foreseeable future.
On Tuesday this week, the International Cricket Council also came out with a set of regulations for the resumption of cricket. This was as per the recommendations of a committee headed by Anil Kumble and had these points:
– There could be Covid substitutions. If a player showed symptoms of the disease, he could be pulled out and another player from the team play in his stead. – Saliva could not be used to shine the ball, an already enforced ban which was ratified. It is not going to make fast bowlers happy. They will be one more arsenal short in a game that is increasingly skewed towards batsmen. – On the other hand, it allowed for sweat to be applied to balls because the virus (hopefully) only inhabits saliva – Non-neutral umpires, as in those belonging to the same country as the home teams, will be there. As a result of that, teams would be given an extra DRS review to appeal against decisions. – More space would be given on the jerseys of players for advertisements. This was so that revenue-hit boards could earn more money.
The third news on the cricketing front was Sourav Ganguly, President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, indicating that the Indian Players League (IPL) would be held. One of the major revenue earners in Indian cricket, the domestic T20 league was slated to be held in end of March, precisely the time when the lockdown began. After some other provisional dates being toyed with, it had been thought that the year might just have to be written off. On June 10th, Ganguly wrote to BCCI’s affiliates that the tournament had not been shelved for the year. A PTI report on his letter said: ‘“The BCCI is working on all possible options to ensure that we are able to stage IPL this year, even if it means playing the tournament in empty stadiums,” Ganguly wrote. The fans, franchises, players, broadcasters, sponsors and all other stakeholders are keenly looking forward to the possibility of IPL being hosted this year. Recently, a lot of players both from India and other countries, participating in the IPL, have shown keenness on being part of this year’s IPL. We are optimistic and the BCCI will shortly decide on the future course of action on this.’ In the same letter, he also spoke of the domestic leagues being restarted and that they could get innovative with the formats to make it more feasible.
The IPL’s eventual fate will also be tied to the T20 world championship in Australia, which was to be held in October as per the pre-pandemic schedule. As of now, the ICC hasn’t decided what it will do about it. Should it be cancelled, then it gives a window for the IPL to be held. And then there is the next Indian cricket team’s tour to Australia. After some indecision, it was recently scheduled for October by Cricket Australia, just before the T20 World Cup. There might not be any health reasons that puts the tour in jeopardy but if the T20 World Cup is cancelled, then the IPL will be held around the same time and then there will be permutations and combinations required to please everyone.
In any case, all these matches will be to empty stadiums and the entire cricketing ecosystem will need to adapt to the changes. Former Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid shared his thoughts on the future in an interview to Sony Ten Pit Stop this week. Players, he thought, would definitely miss the connection with the crowd and the energy it brings. On being asked whether cricket, ‘as we know it’ will change, he said it will be different until a vaccine is found and added, “Life is going to be different and cricket is a reflection of life in a lot of ways… It is going to be different whether it is the way we play the game, how we interact with teammates, dressing room etiquette, viewership—getting used to playing with less people watching you. We will have to adjust our expectations.”