Around five months ago, Anuj Rawat and Lalit Yadav, both in their twenties, were returning to their hotel from a Ranji Trophy match when they got to know they had been selected in the Indian Premier League (IPL) auctions. The entire team applauded. Neither could celebrate that night. The Delhi team players had to return to the field the next morning for the third day’s play in the tie against Andhra at Ongole in Andhra Pradesh.
The two players, both of whom had begun playing cricket as children in their village playgrounds, were elated. It was a moment they had waited for. It was their maiden IPL contract, a milestone in their cricketing careers. Rawat, 20, a former under-19 captain, got selected for Rajasthan Royals, and Yadav, 23, who played for under-23, for Delhi Capitals. “Whenever one plays cricket, at the back of the mind is the desire to play in IPL. It’s the next level of cricket,” says Yadav. That night, when he called up home to give the news, his father told him to focus on the next day’s game. He switched off his cellphone and the lights and slept. In the morning, there were 450 messages on his phone and 88 missed calls.
He, and the others, was to report at the Feroze Shah Kotla ground on March 20th. But then, they got a message that the IPL, scheduled to begin on March 29th, had been postponed. The coronavirus had brought the world to a standstill. On March 25th, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day countrywide lockdown, which included freezing all sports activities, to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The Centre suspended all visas to India till April 15th. Just after the lockdown was extended for a fortnight as numbers of covid-19 cases rose, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) confirmed that the IPL season had been postponed indefinitely.
“Naturally, we were disappointed,” says Yadav, whose world revolved around cricket right from when he played the game as a 12-year-old in his native Khaira village in Najafgarh, a town on the outskirts of Delhi famous as the hometown of former India star Virender Sehwag. For Yadav, he was a hero. When Sehwag had come down to inaugurate the village cricket academy, Yadav could just manage to shake hands with him in the crowd. An all-rounder, Yadav too bats right-handed, like Sehwag, and likes to go after bowlers. Having made his first-class debut for Delhi in 2017, Yadav came under the spotlight with six sixes in an over twice: in a T20 match at the Najafgarh sports complex for Sporting Club and in the DDCA T20 league at Feroz Shah Kotla.
As uncertainty loomed over the timing of IPL, Yadav reconciled to the fait accompli. If not this year, then next. Back home with his joint family, with whom he has hardly been able to spend time over the past three years, Yadav replayed videos of the matches he has played. He watched them for 10-15 days. “I got time to introspect and see my shortcomings. I was sixth or seventh in the batting order, often in high-pressure situations. I realised I needed to learn to deal with that and not let it get to me.” He started his day with meditation, initially for 15 minutes, extending it to half an hour. He continued with his running sessions. He is waiting, like several others hit in some way or other by the pandemic, to get his life back on track, to fulfil his dream, interrupted half-way.
And he is ready to play even behind closed doors. “If the guidelines stipulate this, it’s cool. I haven’t anyway played in jampacked stadiums, but I have played in empty ones. So for me it will be a familiar experience. I am physically and mentally ready.”
Rawat too made his first class debut in 2017 in Ranji Trophy. Born in Roopur village near Ramnagar in Uttarakhand, he moved to Delhi when he was 14 to pursue training in cricket. Seeing his interest in cricket, his father Virendra Pal Singh Rawat, a farmer, admitted his son at Bal Bhawan International School, Dwarka. Keen to see his son succeed as a cricketer, he struggled to support him, using part of his loan for it. He joined the West Delhi Cricket Academy, run by Virat Kohli’s coach Rajkumar Sharma. A wicketkeeper and batsman, from opener to lower middle order, he showcased his capability at Kotla against Gujarat, hitting 15 boundaries and two sixes in his score of 133 runs. In 2018, when he was captain of the U-19 team for matches in Sri Lanka, it was Sachin Tendulkar’s son Arjun, part of the team as a left-arm pace bowler, who hogged the limelight. By 2020, Rawat was all set to join the league of cricketers playing for IPL. He gave trials for Kolkata Knight Riders, Delhi Capitals and Rajasthan Royals. “Every team member of Rajasthan Royals is in touch. We are told to be prepared. Any door can open,” says Rawat, who returned home to pursue his fitness regime. In the morning, he plays mobile games. He does his workout on equipment he has purchased for the purpose in the evening. He too is waiting for some sign that will allow him to return to life on the field.
As the number of Covid-19 cases rise, bringing in a realisation that it is time to learn to live with the virus, with new norms and rules, in every sphere of life, the Government has allowed sports complexes and stadiums to open, though spectators will not be allowed, as part of the guidelines for Lockdown 4, which is in place till May 31st. The decision has stirred the sporting world. One of the events that it has triggered speculation over is the IPL, the most attended cricket league in the world with a brand value in 2019 at Rs 47,500 crore, according to financial consultancy Duff & Phelps. Can cricket, a non-contact game, be played in Covid-19 times before empty stadiums, given that any kind of gathering will be prohibited? Given the constraints, is this a better option than not playing at all?
Former India left-arm spinner Maninder Singh says IPL was a great opportunity for the youngsters, who have been playing consistently for Delhi. “IPL is such a platform that performance draws eyeballs. It’s a stage to showcase talent while playing with international cricketers. Besides, it would have given them financial security, which gives added motivation to play.” He recalls his own cricket days in the Indian team from 1982 to 1993, when he had name and fame but hardly any money.
The 2019 season of the IPL offered a total prize money of Rs 50 crore with the winning team getting Rs 20 crore. The average amount a player takes home now is about Rs 3 crore. In the 2020 auction, Australian pacer Pat Cummins became the second most expensive player in IPL history, when he was signed for Rs 15.5 crore by Kolkata Knight Riders. Yuvraj Singh, signed by the then Delhi Daredevils for Rs 16 crore, is the most expensive player so far. If the IPL is not held this year, it would be the first time that it has missed a season since it was first held in 2008, after the BCCI launched the franchise-based T20 competition. BCCI President Sourav Ganguly and Treasurer Arun Dhumal have been quoted as saying that if the IPL does not take place, the loss would be at least Rs 4,000 crore.
While the idea of playing matches behind closed doors is gaining acceptance, as the virtual replaces the real in these times in several fields, for the IPL to kick off it would first require domestic and international air travel to open up to fly in overseas and Indian players. According to Maninder Singh, a lot of people watch the matches on television, but for players the adrenalin rush that comes with the presence of 40,000-50,000 spectators in the stadium will be missing. “But you have to go with the time and the need of the hour,” he says.
Playing to an empty stadium would mean loss of the gate money, which is estimated between Rs 2.5 crore and 4 crore per match. But the bigger sources of revenue are sales of media rights for broadcasting the event and sponsorship and advertising. In 2017, Star India won the IPL global media rights from 2018 to 2022 for a consolidated bid of Rs 16,347.5 crore. Borrowing from the US approach, India has in the last decade built a number of franchise competitions. They all depend on sponsorship and marketing, but with the economy badly hit due to the coronavirus, these leagues also face uncertainty.
If the World T20 in Australia in September-October is put off, the BCCI may find a window at that time to organise the IPL. But uncertainty looms over IPL 2020, as of now. Like all else, cricket too will have to reinvent itself after Covid-19, with new norms and protocols. For one, ICC’s cricket committee, headed by Anil Kumble, has ruled that players can no longer use spit to shine the ball, a practice to get the ball to swing. They can only continue to use sweat for that as it is considered safe.
Experts are exploring ways to balance safety of sportspersons and others involved with restarting sports. Even putting together an event without spectators and executing it to perfection is a challenge, says Abhinav Bindra, former shooting champion and India’s only individual Olympic Gold Medalist. “I would prefer to be conservative, wait and watch, and go step by step. Safety has to be paramount and sports should be an ambassador for health. The sporting community has to act responsibly in contributing to containment of the virus. One has to find innovative ways to retain interest in sports for both athletes and fans.”
The world over, sports are on pause. The International Olympic Committee and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided on postponing the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. It is now scheduled from July 23rd to August 8th, 2021. The All England club cancelled Wimbledon this year due to the coronavirus. This is the first time since World War II that the most famous tennis championship has skipped a year. The calendar of events has gone awry in India too, with the lockdown putting on hold events concerning a dozen sports between March and May. A day after the Centre issued guidelines for Lockdown 4, sports minister Kiren Rijiju tweeted, ‘I’m happy to inform sportspersons and all concerned that sports activities will be conducted in sports complexes and stadia strictly in accordance with MHA guidelines and that of the States in which they are situated.’ Detailed parameters were being drafted to help athletes in the India camp to resume normal training.
Wrestler Sonam Malik, 19, aspiring for Olympics selection, is worried she has not been able to practice seriously ever since the lockdown. She has been training with her brother, also a wrestler, at her home in Madina village of Haryana’s Sonipat. “The training at home has not been too good,” says Malik, who beat 2016 Olympics Bronze medalist Sakshi Malik at the national women’s wrestling trials. Sonam, who took up wrestling at the age of 13, overcame a nerve issue in her right shoulder inhibiting her arm movement, early in her career. She competed in the 65 kg weight class and went on to win medals: bronze in the Asia Cadet Wrestling and World Cadet Wrestling Championships in 2018 and gold at the World Cadet Wrestling Championship in 2019. She is also worried about the future of wrestling, a contact sport, during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Indian Olympic Association President Narinder Batra is reported to have written to sports minister Kiren Rijiju seeking a one-time financial assistance of over Rs 200 crore for sports governing bodies in the country, saying sponsors won’t come forward until next year. He said ‘hand-holding by government’ was a necessity as it would be difficult to restart operations smoothly after the lockdown is lifted.
Right now, everyone is just waiting—uncertain but hopeful.