The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the country assumed tsunami like proportions during the week that went by. The huge increase in numbers of people getting affected, the surge in figures of those felled by the disease and the growing test positivity rate, all point to the destruction wreaked by the pandemic on the vast population of our country. The pictures of people running around seeking medical attention, the fears over availability of adequate number of hospital beds and oxygen and queues even outside cremation grounds tell the story of the intense battle being waged for survival in the face of the onslaught by the deadly virus.
Matches in the Indian Premier League (IPL) continued on schedule at the allotted venues despite the grim situation prevailing in all parts of the country. The bio-secure bubble has ensued that the players, assisting staff and officials are spared the ravages of the disease. But that has not prevented some players and officials from leaving the bubble and heading home. While Ravichandran Aswin left the camp of Delhi Capitals to take care of his family, three overseas players from Australia - Adam Zampa, Kane Richardson and Andrew Tye - and one from England - Liam Richardson - left for their home countries over the worry that if any travel ban to India is introduced later on, they would get stuck here for a longer period. Umpire Nitin Menon left the bubble and proceeded to Indore upon getting information that both his parents tested positive. Umpire Paul Reiffel made arrangements for returning home after hearing that Australia government had stopped flights from India, but he could not leave as the route through which he was planning to proceed got closed.
These developments have thrown up the question as to whether the IPL should go on this year. One prominent English language newspaper announced its decision to stop coverage of the IPL stating that this was “a small gesture towards keeping the nation’s attention focused on life and death issues”. There have been observations in social media as well demanding that matches be stopped forthwith as it is not appropriate to conduct the tournament at a time when millions are affected by the dreaded virus. Adam Gilchrist, former Australian wicketkeeper and IPL player, also posted a comment on Twitter about the “frightening numbers” of COVID patients in India and the inappropriateness of continuing the tournament. Meanwhile some sections of the media came forward supporting the continuance of this year’s edition, saying that calling for its stoppage was “misguided moral outrage”.
At this juncture, it would be interesting to weigh the pros and cons behind both arguments. It is not in doubt that the country is facing a crisis of immense proportions as the second wave of the pandemic have hit us very hard, bringing in its wake considerable devastation. At such critical times, it is essential to focus all attention on tackling the pandemic and preventing its further spread. Some of the essential things required to be done to keep one safe from the virus involve taking individual precautions such as wearing of mask, use of hand sanitisers and practise social distancing. A group sport like cricket is not the best advertisement for such promoting such actions.
Critics point out that conducting an event, which is less of a sporting activity and more of an entertainment package, is grossly inappropriate at a time when thousands of people are dying everyday due to the pandemic. There is some substance in this criticism as IPL has been packaged as a product for the audience watching television from the comforts of their living rooms, with star gazing, music and cheer leaders being as much a part of the spectacle as the game in progress in the middle. There is a school of thought that conducting such events when the country is facing the ravages of a pandemic amounts to sheer apathy on the part of organisers. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has been chastised for going ahead with the matches before empty stadia from inside the security of the bubble when people are queueing up in front of hospitals not too far outside the playing arena.
Another point of criticism has been the apparent lack of involvement of the BCCI and cricketers with the relief work being undertaken to fight the pandemic and its consequences. Till Pat Cummins, the Aussie player turning out for Kolkata Knight Riders announced that he was contributing $50,000 for ensuring more oxygen supply to hospitals, there was a complete silence from the side of players and officialdom about providing monetary or other support for helping to tackle the crisis. After Cummins informed the world about his contribution, more cricketers joined the fray and made substantial contributions. Of late, couple of franchisees have also jumped into the bandwagon. This should help to blunt the edge off the barbs launched by those opposing further conduct of the tournament.
What are the factors that support continuance of the IPL? In the first place, there has not been any issues regarding its conduct. The bio-bubble has been in place, none of the players and officials have been infected during the course of the tournament and all required norms have been observed scrupulously. Organisers had made it clear that those who wish to leave the bubble could do so at any point of time. The fact that only a handful of cricketers have chosen to get back home indicates that the rest feel safe and secure where they are at present. Further, the conduct of matches have not hampered the efforts put in by the government, health care professionals and other organisations in the front ranks of the battle against the virus.
Another equally important aspect pertains to the organisation of the championship itself. Though each edition of IPL lasts for around 50 days, more than three-four months of preparations go into this before the first ball is bowled. Hence calling off the event midway through will have the effect of laying to waste all the efforts put in by hundreds of persons for making this possible during a difficult year. Moreover, successful conduct of the IPL is an advertisement not only for the BCCI and Indian cricket but for the nation itself as we rarely hold other sports events of international standards where the top players from a field participate. Hence, stopping the championship all of a sudden would not only dent its reputation and bring down its brand value but also cast a shadow on the ability of nation for organising such tournaments.
Further, one of the principles that has guided the approach of the government while tackling the second wave of pandemic has been to ensure that people be allowed to carry on with activities involving their livelihood, to the extent possible. Abrupt stoppage of this edition of IPL will only serve to achieve the opposite purpose of denying sustenance to hundreds of those who depend on it for a living.
Finally, would the stoppage of championship help the battle against COVID-19 pandemic in any manner? There is no allegation that any resources of government or private enterprises which could have been used in the fight against pandemic have been diverted for organisation or conduct of IPL. Every match is watched by approximately 400 million spectators on television, a clear indication of the popularity of the event, despite the various criticisms against it. This will even buttress the argument that this event acts as a good distraction to the common folk in a time of great distress and helps to bring down the mental stress and strain brought on their daily lives by the pandemic and its consequences.
After weighing both sides, it becomes evident that there does not exist a case for stopping IPL unless there is a serious threat brought about by breach of the bio-bubble. Suspending the tournament midstream when it is running well will only help to inflict huge financial losses on the BCCI and earn that body and its flagship event a bad name and serve no gainful purpose. Hence there is no logic or merit behind this suggestion.
I am not a fan of the IPL or the entertainment package that it offers to the public, where cricket is just one of the many ingredients. Nor do I support the crass commercialisation of the sport that IPL espouses. But I earnestly believe that righteous self indignation of a select few is no reason for suspending the operations of an event, which adheres fully to the extant rules and regulations. Those who feel morally outraged about the conduct of IPL should avail of the option of switching off their television sets rather than seek its stoppage.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)