A week, it is said, is a long time in politics. It seems that it is no different in sport these days. With the world in flux over the Covid-19 pandemic, sports bodies around the globe have had to walk a tightrope in terms of conducting sport. While the list of cancelled events dominated the headlines even a month ago, the good news is that live sport is returning in different parts of the world.
While major cricket will stage its comeback through the England-West Indies Test series to be played in the United Kingdom in July, there have been hopeful noises coming from different quarters around the globe.
The major point of interest has been the International Cricket Council Twenty20 World Cup, which is scheduled to be played in Australia in October. To many, it was a foregone conclusion that the tournament would be deferred, or postponed at the very least but it came as a surprise that the ICC have held on for the moment.
ICC board keeps fingers crossed
When the ICC Board met over a conference call in mid June, it deferred taking a call on the men’s Twenty20 World Cup, putting off a decision on the event to July, when the board meets next. A spokesperson said the Board wanted to give itself “the best possible opportunity to make a right decision for the sport”.
The ICC Board announced that it would continue planning for the men’s Twenty20 World Cup and the women’s 50-over World Cup (to be played in New Zealand in early 2021) with the proviso that the situation around travel has to improve in the near future.
“The situation surrounding the global pandemic is evolving rapidly and we want to give ourselves the best possible opportunity to make the right decision for the whole sport. The health and well-being of everyone involved is our priority and other considerations fall out from that,” ICC Chief Executive Manu Sawhney said.
“We will only get one chance to make this decision and it needs to be the right one and as such we will continue to consult with our Members, broadcasters, partners, governments and players and to ensure that we make a well informed decision.”
Cricket Australia on tenterhooks
While the ICC Board was still hopeful that the Twenty20 World Cup would go on as scheduled, Cricket Australia, who will be hosting the event, were less optimistic. Earl Eddings, the Cricket Australia Chairman, who also sits on the ICC Board, thought it was “unlikely” and “unrealistic” that the event would go on as scheduled.
“I sit on the ICC and we’re having meetings as we speak,” Eddings said. “It’s a bit of a moving target at the moment. I’d say it’s unlikely, while it hasn’t been formally called off this year or postponed, trying to get 16 countries into Australia in the current world where most countries are still going through Covid-19 spiking, I think it’s unrealistic or would be very, very difficult. We’ve put forward a number of different options to the ICC we’re working through at the moment.”
Eddings had written to the ICC earlier suggesting that the event be postponed, with Australia hosting it in October-November 2021, which would have meant that India’s turn to host the event would be postponed to 2022.
Meanwhile, Nick Hockley, CEO of the T20 World Cup local organising committee, who replaced Kevin Roberts as Chief Executive of Cricket Australia, said his organisation would be ready for any eventuality including the tournament being postponed. “There’s a huge amount of work going on around T20 World Cup contingency planning,” Hockley said. “I think there’s meetings coming up next month at ICC level where some decisions will be made and we’ve got a fantastic local organising committee who are busy preparing for every eventuality and the decision that will come forth.”
India wait on World Cup decision
While the cricket world at large is waiting eagerly to see what decision would be taken on the hosting of the Twenty20 World Cup, India were especially keen to know what would happen, given that the 2020 edition of the Indian Premier League hung in the balance.
The tournament, which would normally have been played earlier in the year, was suspended (not cancelled), in the hope that the lack of a Twenty20 World Cup would open up a window in September-October to play the franchise-based tournament.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India were proceeding with plans to stage the tournament in that window despite the lack of clear direction from the ICC on the matter. Sourav Ganguly, the former India captain who is currently in charge of the BCCI, wrote to all state associations immediately after attending the ICC Board meeting, telling them to be prepared to make the event happen.
“The BCCI is working on all possible options to ensure that we are able to stage the IPL this year, even if it means playing the tournament in empty stadiums. The fans, franchisees, players, broadcasters, sponsors and all other stakeholders are keenly looking forward to the possibility of IPL being hosted this year,” Ganguly’s letter read. “Recently a lot of players, both from India and other countries, participating in IPL have also shown their keenness on being a part of this year’s IPL. We are optimistic and the BCCI will shortly decide on the future course of action on this.”
What shape will the IPL take?
The IPL could well be played outside of India, to empty stadiums. In 2009, the IPL was shifted to South Africa when it clashed with general elections, meaning that logistics of security and other governmental agencies could not be assured. The tournament could face a similar fate this year for multiple reasons.
Firstly, the months from September are some of the wettest in different parts of India, meaning that the monsoon could play havoc with any schedule proposed. Secondly, the Covid-19 situation in India is far from resolved — unlike New Zealand for example — and it may prove tricky to get players from around the world to come together for the tournament.
Finally, with crowds unlikely to be permitted, it makes little difference if the games were shifted out of India, with television rights holding strong as long as the games were played as close to prime time in the subcontinent as possible.
Brijesh Patel, the former India cricketer who is now chairman of the IPL, laid out the situation. “We have to watch how things are going to play out over the next one month from a Covid perspective. We don’t mind shifting the IPL to another country, either in part or in full. There are other aspects to be considered here,” he told the Times of India newspaper. “Suppose we shift just the first leg out of the country, we will have to go through a quarantine when we fly there. But we may probably also have to go through another quarantine when we’re back for the India leg, if Covid doesn’t relent. Or who knows, by October things will be different. Let’s see. Right now, we’re not ruling out the idea of playing the whole tournament overseas.”
While moving the tournament out of the country would be a loss to India’s fans, who pack the stadiums during the tournament each year, the alternate of not playing the tournament at all would be worse. “Whether in India or overseas, the tournament won’t be played at more than two or three venues because it’s only for television.”
The Emirates Cricket Board has offered to host the tournament in the UAE, with grounds in Dubai and Abu Dhabi having staged matches of the tournament in 2014. Sri Lanka have also made themselves available, and Colombo, with three international standard cricket grounds could be a prime candidate. But, from a weather perspective, the United Arab Emirates was a safer bet, and it was believed that it would be easier to create a bio-secure environment in region.