1 June 2020 06:58 PM

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SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 1 APRIL, 2020

Was Cricket Saved from Football’s Virus Clutch?

India might have narrowly averted a crisis, but not intentionally


As the pandemic that impacted significant parts of the world has now spread its tentacles into the country, at the height of sounding like a cliché, things could have been a lot worse. The headline that the Indian Premier League (IPL) franchisee owners might have saved cricket could well change should the Indian Premier League force cricket’s hand in the coming days post the first twenty-day lockdown. For the moment though, it appears that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the IPL franchisee owners not seeing eye-to-eye might have worked in India’s favour at the end of the day.

A startling news started making the rounds recently. A group of prominent scientists and experts from Italy put forth the argument that the inadequate assessment of the situation that led to the hosting of a Champions League match between Atalanta and Valencia in the Bergamo province in Italy, led to both countries, Italy and Spain, suffering massively with huge populations falling for the coronavirus.

Milan’s San Siro stadium where the clash took place on the 19th of February this year is being now considered the venue where the virus took hold of the populations in both countries. It is believed it was the site at which the first locally infected virus turned up on Bergamo’s doorstep two days later after one-third of its total population was reportedly at the game as were thousands of fans from Spain.

In a live Facebook conversation with the Free Press Association in Rome, the Mayor of Bergamo, Giorgio Gori did not rule out the view of experts. This is what he had to say:

“We were mid-February so we didn't have the circumstances of what was happening. If it's true what they're saying that the virus was already circulating in Europe in January, then it's very probable that 40,000 Bergamaschi in the stands of San Siro, all together, exchanged the virus between them. As is possible that so many Bergamaschi that night got together in houses, bars to watch the match and did the same. Unfortunately, we couldn't have known. No one knew the virus was already here.”

The virus was then not only locally transmitted in Italy but travelled back to Spain reportedly with a journalist who was covering the match returning infected. While Spain’s Valencia’s team also reported that over thirty percent of their team had been infected by the covid-19 virus despite precautions, Atalanta announced its first player affected in the form of goalkeeper Marco Sportiello. Ironically the nearly 46,000 fans present at the stadium was a record attendance for Atalanta which incidentally won the match by a 4-1 margin. Not surprisingly Bergamo has suffered a massive casualty of over 7,000 cases at last count and over 1,000 deaths.

Although not confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt, the fingers point heavily to this one tournament and the massive out-of-control situation that has the Italy’s medical machinery overburdened and at breaking point, showing how the impact of sport can have a deadly effect under pandemic conditions.

In that light, it is not hard to see how India might have dodged a bullet by not hosting cricket tournaments even in a late hour decision, irrespective of the fact that it came about in a situation that did not directly have the at-risk population at heart at the get go.

At first, it began with the discontentment over the BCCI’s announcement that the IPL prize money would be sliced by half. While the cricket fans, or should one say more specifically, IPL cricket fans, were divided over the issue as the BCCI sought to disclose the payments accruing to each franchisee, the franchisee owners wrote to the BCCI stating the trouble they would fall into if the proposed pay cut was implemented.

However, that battle was soon overshadowed as the focus shifted to the possible ramifications on the sport, taking cognizance of the impact the coronavirus was now having in Europe and countries such as Great Britain and Italy. The BCCI claimed that it had received communication from the Sports and Youth Affairs ministry as well as the Healthy ministry and in keeping with the directive would go ahead with the rest of the series involving South Africa – the first one day international of three was rained out in Dharamsala – being played behind closed gates.

However, while South Africa decided to honour the series as part of the Future Tours Programme, the IPL franchisee owners and the BCCI did not quite see the IPL in the same light as the international series. They insisted that the presence of cricket fans at stadiums hosting the IPL matches was endemic as far as the game was concerned and was reduced to nothing without it. And it was not hard to see why.

For most franchisees, the IPL is a corporate investment, seeking exposure for their company, brand and products but also, as a way to seek return on investment once a year over a ten year period. With the IPL now entering its thirteenth season, the novelty of the sport had worn off and what had replaced it was the concrete reality that the corporates wanted to see money where the mouth was. The BCCI, led by chairman Sourav Ganguly, had already rubbed them off the wrong way.

Furthermore, the government of India enforced a blanket ban on visa, effectively ruling out the participation of foreign cricketers. None of the franchisees nor the BCCI wanted to undergo the hassle of changing the work status on the visa, and thereby, complicate the taxation plan. Therefore, the BCCI put forth a contingency plan to have the IPL go forward, without only the Indian cricketers, at least until the 15th of April, the date set by the government of India for the clampdown.

But the IPL franchisees owners stuck to their guns, negating the idea of having to renegotiate pay scales for the Indian cricketers and also, thereafter make adjustments, for the loss of revenue for the potential lack of attraction for the tournament without these foreign cricketers which make up a significant percentage of interest as far as fans are concerned. It is, also, why although officially the IPL is a domestic level competition, it enjoys a top level status internationally for the attention it garners including the top notch foreign players it is able to attract with lucrative financial dole outs.

In a bang for buck scenario, not only was the original date of 29th March, 2020 pushed back, but also, the ensuing evolving situation in the country and the stalemate with the franchisee owners put the BCCI on the backfoot as far as contingency plans go.

But if more than one scientist and doctor at the epicenter of the crisis in Italy can concur on the probable cause of this rapid widespread infection, what seems like a financial setback in the interim has larger and rather positive ramifications for a country like India where healthcare is already overburdened in a populous nation and despite government assurances, is far ill-equipped to handle an outbreak of this proportion.

While the inadvertent side-effect of the deadlock in decision making between the BCCI and the franchisee owners might have given India a temporary reprieve to contend and come to terms with handling an unexpected pandemic of this proportion, the scenario could change just as quickly when the government becomes lax in protocol, comes under the influence of powerful (possibly influential monetary) compulsions and the BCCI meets with the franchisee owners who suddenly sense any tournament is better than an outright cancellation.

Cricket has already had a close brush with covid-19. One spectator who attended the women’s final between eventual winners Australia and finalists India in the ICC Twenty20 World Cup at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on the 8th of March tested positive, putting that part of the world into a tizzy.

Although thus far, the feelers from the IPL franchisee owners has been that they would rather have a full blown tournament with all of their players or nothing at all, and it has fortuitously given India the chance to deal with lesser headaches about crowd control at stadiums and such, the financial implications are being calculated on a day to day basis and it is not just about human life but rather the bottom line that could come into play. This is why the horrific story in Italy and the probable football angle must be of utmost consideration before making the next call for the game to resume.
 

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