Why the IPL will never be cancelled…

Last night I finished a column explaining how the IPL wasn’t just ‘too big to fail’, but far too rich to cancel. I was convinced the tournament would continue until it’s scheduled conclusion on May 30. That conclusion was based on the assumption that the ‘bio-secure environment’ in which the tournament was being played would remain unbreached. 

Shortly before I pressed ‘send’, word reached me that players had tested positive. When I heard that more than one franchise was involved, I was forced to reconsider for the first time. When the tournament was officially “suspended indefinitely” I was, nonetheless, shocked. 

While IPL chairman Brijesh Patel announced the decision, and assured the overseas players that the BCCI would provide “safe and secure passage home”, he and the IPL directors were rightly applauded. He also said that the tournament would continue “in the first available window” but said that it would not be next month. As reassuring as the first part of his comments were, the second part are daunting. 

When it was deemed implausible to stage last year’s tournament in India because of the pandemic, there was never talk of it being cancelled. Ever. It was always merely a postponement, a case of when, where and how it would be staged, never ‘if’. And the same applies now to the continuation and completion of IPL 2021.

The truth is, it’s not just the BCCI which needs the money, it is the rest of the cricket-playing world. The global cricket economy is worth around $2 billion per year. Over 30% of that is derived from the IPL and another 45% comes from bilateral matches and series involving the Indian national team. Three quarters of the global revenue generated by cricket is dependent on India. If you are one of the also-rans in the world, including the other two members of the ‘big three’, Australia and England, you do whatever you can to keep the BCCI happy. 

Ten percent of the internationally contracted players’ contracts goes to their home boards. That may not sound much but it mounts up. A million dollars goes a long way in a country like South Africa which is one of the reasons they allowed five players to join the league after just two out of seven games against Pakistan last month. 

England’s ECB have a different but similarly compelling reason for allowing their star players to miss the first two months of the domestic season and at least the first Test match of the English summer, against New Zealand. If quarantine restrictions still apply at the end of May they will miss both Tests against New Zealand. All because they cannot afford, literally and metaphorically, to raise the ire of the BCCI by insisting that Jos Buttler return home early. India are the main tourists for the summer and the income from the five Test series will off-set the £200 million loss the ECB made in last year’s crowd-less, Covid-hit season.

That there are so many English and Australian cricketers at the IPL is especially gauling for South Africans considering England’s refusal to play three ODIs at the end of last year following two positive cases of Covid amongst the hotel staff within the bio-secure bubble. Australia cancelled their three-Test tour because South Africa was experiencing around 1000 cases of the virus per day during a second wave and a ‘South African variant’.    

Cricket Australia cited an “unacceptable level of health and safety risk to our players.” In India currently, world record numbers of positive tests, and deaths, are being reported daily - over 400,000 and over 3000 respectively. Many respected sources indicate the real figures are probably significantly higher. 

It is important not to judge retrospectively. England’s players were jittery and so were the Australians, that must be respected. It is, however, extremely hard to ignore the conclusion that large amounts of cash can sooth frayed nerves. 

The BCCI had the money to implement a bio-secure environment for eight teams to travel between six cities using chartered aeroplanes and dedicated check-in points at airports, even securing single-use corridors for the players and support staff to walk in without the chance of encountering anybody from outside their bubble. 

The IPL is administered by BCCI secretary Jay Shah, who happens to be the son of India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s closest allies. The relationship certainly contributed to the tournament’s ability to move a huge logistical operation seamlessly between cities. There is no suggestion of nepotism because Modi himself was known to be in favour of the tournament continuing and the advice of the medical fraternity was that a strong incentive to stay at home for hundreds of millions of cricket lovers was desirable.

When the tournament moved to Ahmedabad in the biggest cricket stadium in the world that bares his name, Modi was faced with a bleak reality. Cancelling – or postponing – the tournament would be a tacit admission of abject failure to control the pandemic. But as soon as the players’ Covid bubble burst, it all came true. 

For those of you disinclined to scan international news and social media, I can assure you from the first-hand experience of friends and colleagues, the situation in India is appallingly awful. Bodies are piling up, literally, because there is insufficient oxygen to keep people alive and insufficient funeral pyres to dispose of them. Thousands of hospitals have long-since reached breaking point. 

To many people, the IPL looked like a disgusting indulgence, mitigated just slightly by the donation of $50k by Pat Cummins towards to fight against the virus and subsequently followed by a number of other players, both international and local. It seemed grotesquely inappropriate for such a lavishly wealthy sporting event to continue while hundreds of thousands of people are gasping for their last breath. 

And yet. While many high profile celebrities and news organisations called for the tournament to be suspended, few such calls were heard – at least not publicly – from ordinary members of the public. There was no end to the heart-breaking personal appeals for oxygen from the relatives of dying Indians, and criticism of the government, but few calling for the cancellation of the IPL. While that was the case, the show went on.

Now that it is over, for the time being, international cricket is holding it’s breath. The IPL will be prepared to work around the schedule for the T20 World Cup, especially because it will be staged in India in October/November, but nothing else is sacrosanct. If bilateral tours are affected and other nations face the prospect of losing millions of dollars in revenue, it will be nothing more than collateral damage. The IPL will be completed.

First whispers are that the tournament will be completed either in mid September to mid October, before the T20 World Cup, or immediately afterwards, running in to December. The first option seems highly optimistic. The second option would affect India’s end-of-year tour to South Africa which presently comprises three matches in all three formats. Should that tour be significantly compromised, Cricket South Africa would face near financial ruin. 

The oldest and most ‘sacrosanct’ series in the world, the Ashes, would also face the prospect of either starting without the biggest names from England and Australia, or delaying the five-Test series by two or three weeks. But would the ECB and Cricket Australia object and protest? Maybe. Behind closed doors. But they know where their bread is buttered, and so does the rest of the cricket-playing world. The pandemic has confirmed, if it ever needed confirming, that the BCCI sits at the head of the table with the IPL right next to it. 

It is not a ‘bad’ thing. It is just the way it is. In the decade before the IPL the counter-argument was that India would only have England and Australia to play against if they did not share their wealth. Now, of course, they might say: “Fine, we’ll play six months of IPL and England and Australia…”

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