It took less than 24 hours for IPL 2021 to turn into a fiasco.
Two players from Kolkata Knight Riders tested positive on Monday. By afternoon the same day, three from the Chennai Super Kings camp had also tested positive. That set alarm bells ringing in the bio-secure bubble and outside in the corridors of power in Indian cricket.
Flustered, but not yet fallen, the IPL governing council scrambled to save the tournament, claiming with hollow bravado that the itinerary would be rescheduled and the show would go on. However, Tuesday morning a player each from Sunrisers Hyderabad and Delhi Capitals also tested positive. The season had been wrecked.
For a little over three weeks, the IPL had seen a bitter battle between proponents and opponents of the tournament. Opinion was divided down the middle. Critics saw the glitzy tournament as adding injury and insult to the tragedy wrought by the second wave of the Coronoa virus that hit the country.
The other side of the argument saw the IPL as offering some relief to people beleaguered by sad news all around them, as well as livelihood to over 100000 people in its ecosystem. Ultimately, it was the deadly coronavirus that had the final say.
Once news filtered through that the bio-secure bubble had been breached, panic spread rapidly across all teams, support staff, officials, broadcasters et al. Players, one learns, demanded of their franchises to be released asap. And not just those from overseas, but also from India, including the big-ticket ones. It was impossible to continue the tournament.
To stage IPL 2021 season in India with the Covid pandemic still raging was always fraught with high risk. That was one of the reasons why the previous edition had been taken to the UAE late last year.
Health safety protocols are not enforced with stringency, a malaise that in fact afflicts the sub-continent. The Pakistan Super League, it might be recalled, was also suspended half-way when several members of the teams tested positive.
Among the reasons mentioned why this happened was because members of that particular team were ordering food from outside in violation of bio-secure bubble protocols. Also mentioned was that some players had taken time off with friends/family between matches.
How far these are true is unknown. But that disregard for rules and laws is true and rampant in the sub-continent and hardly contestable. In fact, a couple of hours before I started writing this piece, I read a news story saying that two people had been arrested by the Delhi police with fake accreditations to the IPL matches at the Arun Jaitley Stadium!
But should this even come as a surprise?
Initially, the explanation was that the breach in the bubble may have been caused with KKR’s Varun Chakravarthy, among the first to test positive, who went to a hospital (within SOPs of the bubble) for a stomach ailment where he may have unfortunately contracted the infection.
Arrest of the two impostors who got into the Delhi stadium, however, throws up an altogether new dimension to the breach.
How many such people came into the ground with fake accreditations? Who all did they meet? How was the security process violated so easily if those designated to issue accreditations were doing their job properly?
These questions will undoubtedly be pursued in the investigation launched by the BCCI. But the issue gets further riled when you consider that of the people who tested positive, all were not based in Dehli, but also Ahmedabad, the other venue where matches were being played in this phase.
This suggests not just one breach, but multiple ones. Since the new mutations of the dreaded virus have shown a propensity to grow and spread exponentially, across even younger age groups, it is a moot question as to how many people involved in the IPL may be afflicted.
In hindsight, though, the biggest blunder was in the BCCI being lulled into complacency and bringing the tournament to India. It is now an open secret that some in the BCCI, and even with the IPL governing council, had strongly advocated that this edition too be played in the UAE where healthy safety protocols are enforced stringently.
Even about a week prior to the start of the tournament on April 9, in the wake of rising coronavirus cases in the country, these Board members reiterated that there was a threat to the IPL if played at home, but they were summarily overruled by the powers that be. Why, only weeks earlier, three different series against England had been played without hitch, so what could go wrong?
However, a bilateral series involves far less people than an IPL tournament, only one bio-secure bubble is needed instead of multiple ones, and there was extremely limited travel involved. For the IPL, teams and their entourages had to fly to different cities. Even in chartered flights, the risk factor increases manifold.
In the UAE, on the other hand, risk with travel was completely minimized as distances from hotel to ground was two hours or so maximum, with drivers and loaders also secured in the bubble. Some BCCI members are now saying that maybe IPL 2021 could have been held at just one venue. But that’s hollow rationalization after the crisis blew up.
Like the political leadership, or because of it, the BCCI was also lulled into complacency that the Covid menace had been mitigated by India, and the tournament could be staged successfully. The Covid tsunami was building up from January itself. Several virologists, and experts on epidemics had raised the red flag.
The BCCI as a major sports body should have taken cognisance of the impending crisis independently, but chose to ignore it too. For BCCI office bearers of the Board to say now that nobody expected such a deep crisis shows blinkered commitment to administration and shallow ability to tackle a crisis staring it in the face.
The suspension of the season has resulted in a loss of face to the BCCI (and the country) and could have serious ramifications. The BCCI says it will do everything to complete the season at some time this year. But this may not be easy. The cricket calendar is packed, especially for India.
In June, the team travels to England for the inaugural World Test Championship final against New Zealand. This will be followed by a full Test series against England which stretches till the first week of September. The T20 World Cup to be played in India starts on October 18 and goes on for four weeks.
There is a window available between mid-September and the first week of October to resume and complete the IPL 2021 season, but whether overseas players may not be available, as they may be in preparatory camps.
A window could also be created perhaps after the T20 World Cup, but this will mean reducing the domestic season drastically, and also cutting down on other international commitments. Moreover, after the T20 World Cup, players might be totally spent to play the IPL.
Above possibilities and probabilities is the issue of credibility. Neither the governments nor the BCCI has emerged from this disastrous season smelling of roses. Overseas players, their Boards and countries, are going to be very wary the next time around. And while not vocal about it, home players too.
There is already a buzz going around that the T20 World Cup should also be shifted to UAE. Premature and harsh to think along those lines, but may become inevitable if the BCCI (and the governments), does not get its act right.