The bubble is safe. The bubble won’t burst.
That seemed to be the mantra of the bigwigs of the Indian cricket board every time they were questioned about hosting the Indian Premier League (IPL) amid the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Even as millions were affected, and the death toll rose by the day, most Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) officials were confident that nothing could stop them from completing the tournament.
Then, their worst fears came true.
Despite the much-hyped bio-bubble in place, and stringent protocols as well, the cracks grew visible as multiple players and support staff members tested positive for the virus, eventually forcing the world’s richest cricket board to abruptly call a halt to the 2021 edition of the tournament.
And along with the bubble, the false sense of security too was shattered.
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Shreevats Goswami, who has been part of the IPL for more than a decade, says the panic in the dressing room was unprecedented. Reports emerging that a Sunrisers Hyderabad teammate had tested positive — it turned out to be Wriddhiman Saha — sent shock waves through the other franchises as well.
While the team managements initially tried to control the situation, the overseas players grew restless, with most of them wanting to leave the bubble immediately. “It was tough for them. The fact that most countries had imposed travel bans from India made matters difficult,” said Goswami, who plays for Sunrisers. “Maybe had I been in their shoes, I would have felt in a similar way. It is not easy to stay away from home amid uncertainty.”
A day earlier, Kolkata Knight Riders players Varun Chakravarthy and Sandeep Warrier had tested positive for the virus. “Till then, we thought maybe it was a one-off incident, but when Saha’s news came in, there was panic. The players were asked to get back to their rooms and tests were done quickly,” Goswami said.
An overseas player, who does not want to be named, said things indeed got a bit scary. “With so many reports coming in, we were not sure what exactly was happening out of the bubble. We knew things were not looking bright, but did not know what to do next,” the player said. “After the tournament got postponed, the real challenge began. Now, the question was: how do we reach home? It was tough to keep emotions in check.”
The BCCI tried its best to douse the fire — assuring the franchises that the leaks were plugged and the bubble was still safe — but things spiralled out of control as more cases surfaced within hours.
The players and the franchises still don’t have a definitive answer as to what went wrong, but they fear that things went haywire once they started travelling ahead of the second leg.
“It is difficult to answer what led to this. Maybe there were too many venues, maybe the testing should have been looked at again,” Ness Wadia, the co-owner of Punjab Kings, said.
At a time when most major cities across India are witnessing a surge in Covid cases, the BCCI went ahead with its plans of playing the tournament across six venues, with even its president, Sourav Ganguly, telling Sportstar that the “players are safe inside the bubble” and that the tournament will “go ahead as scheduled.”
But many in the franchises and the board feel the decision to have matches across venues may have been the reason behind the disaster.
While the teams felt safe in Mumbai and Chennai, once the IPL caravan moved to Ahmedabad and New Delhi, there were challenges. Even though the state associations claimed there were no goofups, loopholes remained. “At least two weeks before the Ahmedabad leg, we put all our groundsmen and the other staff under quarantine and they were tested every second day. It was all fool-proof,” Gujarat Cricket Association secretary Anil Patel said.
If everything was “fool proof,” then what led to the fall?
“We will look into what went wrong and see how we can improve and do better in the coming years,” BCCI treasurer Arun Dhumal told Sportstar, quickly recollecting the success it had during the home series against England — which concluded a week before the IPL.
“We need to remember that we were able to host the England series over a period of two-and-a-half months without a hitch,” Dhumal added.
The India-England series was a bilateral affair with just three venues hosting the fixtures. In the case of the IPL, the board perhaps got a bit too ambitious and went ahead with six venues — a move that clearly backfired and eventually led to the pause.
The postponement of the tournament means a loss of around ₹2,000 crore for the BCCI. “Since we had to postpone it in the middle of the tournament, that would be the estimated loss for now,” the treasurer said, hoping that the board manages to find a suitable window later this year to complete the league.
“We have to see our FTP (International Cricket Council’s Future Tours Programme) and also keep in mind that the T20 World Cup is to be held later this year. Between that, we will work out a schedule and see how to go about it,” Dhumal said, indicating that it is too early to say when and where the remainder of the tournament could be held.
While reports suggest that some English county clubs have shown an interest in hosting the IPL, BCCI president Ganguly has clarified that the tournament won’t be held in the UK or even in India.
Rather, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a frontrunner to host the event in the September-October window.
As India struggles amid the second wave, there are high chances that the T20 World Cup too will be shifted to the UAE — even though the ICC is expected to make a decision in June-July.
“I think the IPL will definitely come back, sooner than later. If you look at the cricketing window — (there is a slot in) September before the T20 World Cup. That could happen,” Wadia said, admitting that UAE will be a good backup.
If the BCCI is yet to calculate the actual loss from the suspension of the season, the franchises too will soon hit the drawing board to figure out their own. But if the tournament doesn’t happen this year, there will be a ripple effect on the stakeholders.
Star Sports, which won the tournament’s television and digital rights for 2018-2022 for ₹16,347.5 crore, is supposed to pay the BCCI ₹54.4 crore per match.
With only 29 matches held so far, and if the tournament is canned for the year, the board stands to lose close to ₹1,600 crore for the remaining 31 fixtures. It would be a similar story for title sponsors Vivo and other partners.
“That means the board will earn half of the total amount committed for this season. Since the franchises work on a 50:50 revenue-sharing formula with the BCCI, it will only pay 50 percent of the revenue earned from the central pool. So, things are bound to get difficult for both the BCCI and the franchises,” a board insider pointed out.
Dhumal, however, prefers to wait before jumping the gun on the actual loss incurred.
A large section of the cricketing fraternity believes being “over adventurous” has actually led to a loss of face for the BCCI. After successfully hosting the tournament in the UAE last year, it should have been “extremely careful” before bringing the tournament to India.
But in their defence, the board officials say that after successfully hosting the bilateral series against England, there was practically no reason to panic. “The schedule for the tournament was planned well in advance, and at that time the situation was much better,” Dhumal said.
But then, as centres like Mumbai and Delhi announced lockdowns, shouldn’t the board have thought of alternatives? A governing council member explained that after the board decided against shifting the tournament to the UAE, there was not much of a scope to turn things around. “Once the tournament got underway successfully, there was no reason to panic. We successfully completed the Mumbai and Chennai leg, so we never really thought that things would go out of control,” he said.
“It is difficult to answer what led to this. Maybe there were too many venues, maybe the testing should have been looked at again,” says Ness Wadia, the Punjab Kings co-owner. – Vivek Bendre
But did complacency creep in?
Else, why did the board not hire the services of the UK-based Restrata, the company that successfully conducted the tournament in the UAE, and instead opted for local options?
The official version is that Restrata was not considered since it did not have a strong presence in India. But then, was the bubble really as foolproof as claimed?
“There were no breaches from the players. But when you are hosting a tournament across cities, it is impossible to keep everything under control. It is too early to find out what went wrong, but it needs to be checked whether everyone followed the protocols,” the board insider said.
While the postponement could lead to the T20 World Cup being taken out of India, Dhumal does not believe this will impact brand IPL.
“Till the time the tournament was on, the viewership was pretty high. Also, one needs to understand that we had to postpone the tournament due to the situation, and at that point in time, the safety of the players and everyone involved in the tournament was paramount,” the BCCI treasurer said, hoping it would not have an impact in the longer run.
Though the board took a bold step by hosting the tournament in the middle of the pandemic and trying to earn brownie points ahead of the T20 World Cup, perhaps it should have been a lot more careful about the security and the breaches, perhaps taking lessons from the Pakistan Super League, which had to be deferred for similar reasons.
But then, the board lived in a bubble. And that bubble burst.