SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 24 MARCH, 2020
Corona Cuts Short Cricket, F1’s Commercial Ambitions
The BCCI is busy in the midst of a pandemic - and not alone
From expecting to stage sporting events in the face of a deadly pandemic to being forced to come to grips with reality, more than one sport including cricket and Formula 1 racing have taken a tumble, and face a grim, uncertain reality as does much of the world in the face of the new coronavirus.
The domino effect was almost too close to be brushed off as coincidental. In a world reluctantly forced to take cognizance of a rapidly worsening scenario, one nation staged an international cricket match behind closed doors in front of an empty stadium, while another had to face the blunt realisation that money at all costs was not palatable in a situation involving health risks, and the dramatic devaluation of the tournament without half the playing world participating in it.
While some have called it misplaced confidence, Japan’s adamant stance that the Tokyo Olympics 2020 will go ahead as scheduled has seen countries like Canada pull out of participating in the premier event. But it was not just the Olympics organisers that face the onerous task of having to take such drastic decisions.
Prominent Formula 1 drivers were willing to pull out at the eleventh hour as the racing organisers chose to look past the fact that one of the staff on the McLaren team had tested positive for Covid-19, an announcement made hours before the official kickstart of the opening race of the season in Melbourne, throwing the racing world into a tizzy.
Astoundingly, it took Formula 1 officials until two hours before the practice session on Friday in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix to realise the danger posed by the fast spreading coronavirus – and the danger that they would face depleted crews and participating drivers if they chose to go ahead. This turned into a scenario where Formula 1 was forced to constantly revise potential start dates to the season.
Back home, such was the attention on the Indian Premier League that the Board of Control for Cricket in India involved itself in ongoing frenetic discussions with the IPL franchisee owners to the point where Cricket South Africa had to approach them and request them, in light of the IPL postponement, to call off the current one-day internationals so the South African team could safely return home.
Statements by Cricket South Africa acting CEO Jacques Faul, and interim director of cricket Graeme Smith, attest that they had to reach out for help to the BCCI, which announced the postponement of the IPL while failing to address the issue of the South African cricket team’s presence in the country. They show how the BCCI continues to hold sway when it comes to matters of commercial importance, even in the face of a pandemic that has gripped the world.
As governments are forced to face public wrath for ignoring or downplaying the spread of Covid-19 in China back in early December – the relevant, painful message of the whistleblower doctor before his own death having virtually gone unheeded – the new reality of the world was laid out over a weekend where sporting tournaments were called off one after the other, in a seeming chain reaction of decisions.
It was a grim Friday when fans at the Sydney Cricket Ground were turned away from the stadium gates hours before the start of the first one-day international of the Chappell-Hadlee trophy, even as hosts Australia played to an eerily empty stadium and won the first Trans-Tasmanian contest that seems of little consequence now.
Certainly the BCCI did not have to wait for its scheduled meeting on Saturday to realise that the IPL franchisees were unwilling to relent to the scheduled commencement date of March 29 if it meant a huge contingent of foreign cricketers would miss out, given the government of India’s blanket ban on visas until April 15.
Predictably, the announcement was made for a tentative IPL start date of April 16. And still the BCCI did not touch upon the status of the three-ODI series between India and South Africa. With the first match in Dharamsala rained out, South Africa were waiting to know the status of the bilateral series in the midst of a pandemic – and then, as a result of the BCCI’s delayed decision, the team had to struggle through long layovers and roundabout travel to find the safest possible exit out of the country.
The official statement from Cricket South Africa states that Faul and Smith had approached the BCCI and “have expressed their gratitude for their understanding and cooperation in arriving at this very responsible decision.”
“Our view is that this decision is both necessary and a precaution that had to be taken in the interest of cricket and the sustainability of the game,” were the words attributed to Faul. “We will apply our minds to the input of (virology) experts and act in a way that reflects our duty of caring for our players.”
It did not take long thereafter for CSA to announce a two month lockdown on cricket and for provincial announcements to follow. In the meantime New Zealand had already left Australia, fearing they would be trapped by their own country’s entry and exit rules, even as an entire gamut of cricketing tournaments were thrown into turmoil.
For a familiar, sobering reminder of the way administrators view these sporting entities, the manner in which the BCCI chose to address IPL concerns without a thought to the international series happening in the country says it all.
Protecting the health of the public was the more obvious reason offered for postponing the IPL after huddled backdoor conversations. Also in the mix was the fact that the IPL was simply not considered lucrative enough with only Indian cricketers available in the first round of discussions.
That the cricket board and franchisee owners did not think that Indian cricketers alone could fetch them the fat remunerations they have become accustomed to over the past decade is a telling sign of the corporate investment, the surreptitious greed of cricket administrators, and the deceptive manner in which the IPL virtually emulated the sidetracked Indian Cricket League to officially call itself a “domestic tournament” on paper to escape the regulations of the governing body, the International Cricket Council.
On similar lines, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton minced no words to express what he thought were defiant and ignorant statements from the parent body, suggesting that despite the revelation from the McLaren garage that one of their members had tested positive, and therefore the entire team was packing up instead of testing and preventing further exposure, race officials declare the race was on.
F1 CEO Chase Carey was testy in response to Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel’s comment that “Cash is king” (originally attributed to Hamilton) saying, “I guess if cash was king, we wouldn’t have made the decision we did.” This was after the race had officially been called off, less than two hours to the practice session, with only a handful of drivers and teams willing to participate in Sunday’s event.
By then the horse had bolted, and Formula 1’s volte face bitterly exposed its concern for the health of the sport and its many investors including millions of fans. Even before F1 could turn around its decision – from intending to host the race no matter what, to calling it off – prominent drivers including Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen had reportedly flown out of Australia even before the race was officially cancelled.
As Formula 1 now contemplates ways to get the season off the ground – appeasing fans with teaser virtual Grand Prix series, with the participation of some drivers alongside gamers, there have been as many as seven races scrapped or postponed already with the potential summer break being entirely obliterated by a sudden congestion of races, and in a rare scenario, of holding races with a minimum of 12 cars as regulations state in the rare scenario where the virus has changed rules of entry between countries.
Instead of throwing itself into the huge community responsibility and taking on a task force given its considerable influence and monetary capacity, the BCCI has been busy, unmindful of the dramatic unfolding of the situation across cities as clueless state and central governments attempt to contain a scenario they do not fully comprehend, and is continuing its discussions for potential IPL places and dates.
It is even considering holding the IPL abroad, and in a window with little international cricket being played it won’t think twice about having to overshadow or prevail.
While the rained out match in Dharamsala saw the television studio enjoying extended live broadcast time, on air was Sunil Gavaskar expounding the imperative of having crowds at stadiums for the IPL to generate the required atmosphere – not to mention the hype – even as VVS Laxman seemed more interested in preventive measures and not having matches at all rather than risking crowds.
The idea of being on the BCCI payroll even as a commentator could be felt once more as the world was changing in the backdrop.
Whether it required crowds at the cost of having to deal with a pandemic the country had neither the resources nor the wherewithal to handle, seemed entirely secondary. A wide range of fans thought such opinions were coming from the privileged, who did not have to live from paycheque to paycheque, and were therefore unmindful of the long term impact, gambling dangerously with the passion of fanatic fans.
Yet there are dissenting voices, such as that of Helmut Marko, the Red Bull Racing motorsport advisor, who believes Formula 1 would have “sent a message” by holding true to the Australian Grand Prix.
However, not only did the 76 year old not explain the substance of the message, he also showed how utterly uninformed and negligent are the voices that run these scenarios, in failing to understand the deadly impact of the pandemic on millions of affected and vulnerable people around the world.
A century after the first flu pandemic took its worldwide toll (killing tens of millions in India) and in an age of easier access to information, more than one organisation has failed to stay on top of its game, putting hundreds and thousands of crew members working behind the scenes, and their prime assets the players, and also huge populations, at risk.
In less than a week since the dramatic cessation of the cricket season and indefinite postponement of Formula 1 races, the world has grown quiet and uncertain, with huge losses being counted in human and financial terms. It is more difficult to anticipate the number of cases of needless exposure, infection and death in the time it took to arrive at these pivotal decisions.