Is it a case of "too little, too late" or "better late than never"? The answer, in the context of Tuesday's indefinite suspension of the Indian Premier League, depends on how optimistic or pessimistic one is about life. But the decision to call off the world's richest cricket competition midway through the season, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is devastating the country in which it is being held, is the right one. And that is what's important, both for India and the game itself.
In February, the number of Covid-19 cases in India began rising, with infections averaging at about 10,000 per day. The situation worsened in April due to several factors, ranging from irresponsible behaviour among the public to the government’s lack of preparedness for a predictable “second wave”. Election rallies, religious festivals and other social gatherings were all held, many of which became superspreader events. Behind the aggregate figures – 20 million people infected and 222,000 dead – are soul-crushing stories of people dying on the streets, sometimes outside hospitals.
Amid this unprecedented crisis, it has puzzled many to see live cricket being broadcast on television from stadiums inside the country. Many within the cricket fraternity and outside have questioned the rationale for the BCCI, the competition organiser, kicking off the season, which started on April 9, in the first place. Even though the tournament was being staged inside bio-secure bubbles, criticism grew louder over the fact it was being held in cities most affected by the pandemic, particularly Delhi.
According to some, ambulances and fully kitted-out mobile-testing centres commissioned to look after the eight competing teams and organisers could no doubt have been activated instead for the public good. Cricket writer and podcaster Siddhartha Vaidyanathan put it best on Twitter, when he said: “A national tragedy is a time for every single resource. Players are being tested every other day. Ambulances wait outside stadiums. Police requirement. These are resources that can save lives. And every life matters.”
Even if going ahead with the IPL was justified – it was surely a welcome distraction for many, at first – its continuation up to this point has been criticised for appearing "tone deaf". In a searing piece for the Hindustan Times, veteran journalist Sharda Ugra wrote: "The IPL plays itself out nightly on our TV screens. Bubble-wrapped into tone deafness in a persistent, foghorn blast for its many sponsors every five minutes, rather than any quiet, measured acknowledgement of the suffering outside its gates."
Indeed, could the presentation have reflected the sombre national mood, by way of mellower live commentary, more thoughtful product placements and regular in-stadia announcements acknowledging the suffering? Absolutely.
Ugra's point has rankled many cricket fans who follow European club football. Some have pointed, with a measure of envy, to the amount of time, money and effort clubs such as Manchester City have invested in the communities they are part of, especially in these hard times.
This may be akin to comparing apples with oranges, however. For, unlike club football, franchise cricket is not played continually throughout the year. Which leaves teams in the IPL and other competitions around the world with much less time and fewer financial resources to plough back into the cities or regions they claim to represent. Surely though, they can follow the lead of one IPL team – Rajasthan Royals – which announced a $1 million contribution towards Covid-19 relief.
As a former sports journalist who covered the game for more than a decade, I often sympathise with cricketers, for we can hardly fathom the pressures they play under, both on and off the field. Indian players, in particular, are always hectored by fans to show more social consciousness and have an opinion on all matters. Yet the radio silence on this matter from some top cricketers, including Indian national team captain Virat Kohli and his deputy, Rohit Sharma, have befuddled me and so many others. This contrasts wildly with India's footballers and other athletes who have provided funds and their own social media accounts to help amplify urgent requests for medial aid.
Kohli's wife, Bollywood star Anushka Sharma, has announced she is starting a "movement", alongside her husband, to eradicate Covid-19. But, the fact that a normally vociferous Kohli has thus far said so little about the current crisis has led to speculation that he is simply showing fealty to the BCCI, the world's richest and most powerful cricket board, and its flagship product, the IPL.
True or not, however, none of this is likely to damage the IPL brand, for cricket will continue to be a national pastime. Besides, since its inception in 2008, the tournament has constantly polarised public opinion. Even today, it provokes debate between purists, who prefer the game to be played and presented in a more traditional way, and new-age fans who love its breezy format, franchise model and glitzy presentation.
Many have pointed out that the IPL provides scores of little-known, up-and-coming players with the platform to succeed and financial compensations they would otherwise not have received had they only plied their trade in the country’s more established but poorer domestic competitions. This is true, even if the naysayers scoff at the rich and famous franchise owners, some of whom have had no prior association with the sport. Even those who call the IPL a “Mickey Mouse tournament” that serves only to dilute cricket’s quality and competitiveness concede this fact.
If nothing else, the IPL reminds all Indians that their country, which boasts having the globe's largest cricket economy, commands the world's attention and perhaps even respect.
Which is probably why, despite the broader scope of the debate this time, it is instructive that the IPL was suspended not due to unfavourable public opinion – more than half the viewers opposed it, according to one poll – but because infections were reported inside some of its bubbles.
That said, more than anything else, sport needs a narrative that reflects the society it is meant to serve in order to succeed. Was Indian cricket even cognisant of the tragedy unfolding around it over the past month? That’s for its custodians to reflect on during their time off.
Chitrabhanu Kadalayil is an assistant comment editor at The National