COVID-19 has taken a big toll on sports, from the cancellation of Wimbledon to the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics. Cricket’s marquee event, the Indian Premier League, gets under way this week after a five-month delay. Just not in India. A bit more than 1,620 miles away in the United Arab Emirates, to be precise.
While this might seem like a radical step — akin to moving Major League Baseball to Costa Rica for a season — the shift makes a lot of sense. India locked down its economy, but failed to stem the coronavirus. The country now has the second-highest number of cases, overtaking Brazil. Packing stadiums in the cricket-mad nation of 1.3 billion was a non-starter. But to deprive them of the opportunity to stream their favourite stars would have piled cruelty on tragedy.
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Cricket is as much a religion as a pastime. An alternative had to found, the closer to the subcontinent the better. The UAE isn’t one of the top cricketing jurisdictions that play five-day games called “tests,” typically limited to England and a clutch of her former colonies. It does, however, excel as a transportation hub and a venue for international events. And IPL is a global business — valued at some $6.8 billion — headquartered in Mumbai.
Far from showing the limits of corporate cricket, the pandemic era may display its strengths, according to Tim Wigmore, co-author with Freddie Wilde of “Cricket 2.0: Inside the T-20 Revolution.” Unlike the traditional contests that typically unspooled over days-long clashes between national teams, IPL is synonymous with a smash-and-bash short format, called Twenty20, or T20. Games are over in a few hours. Each side gets 20 overs; at six balls per, the 120 total deliveries means there’s an incentive to swing for the fences. Dead-ball strategies sometimes used in longer forms of the game serve no purpose.
Stately and genteel, this isn’t. Critically, the eight teams in the tournament are all based in India and feature domestic stars sprinkled with the best global talent money can buy. In times of disease, it’s easier to manage what’s essentially a transplanted domestic competition than clusters of international teams with the diverse customs and quarantine requirements that come with them.
To gauge the temperature of IPL and, through it, the broader game, I caught up with Wigmore via phone and email. His work with Wilde was named book of the year in the 2020 edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, the sport’s unofficial bible. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our exchanges:
DM: The rise of the Indian Premier League is a reflection of the rapid expansion of India’s economy the past few decades. But growth slowed dramatically amid the pandemic. Can the IPL survive this slump?
TW: Yes, absolutely. The IPL is only going to grow in the years ahead. Holding this year’s competition in the UAE and without any fans is a big inconvenience, obviously. But it doesn’t change the long-term trends which are making the IPL an even bigger part of world cricket.
DM: Is the pandemic generally accelerating or slowing down changes to the way the sport is played?
TW: Historically, cricket has been unusual in how much it has revolved around nation versus nation contests. T20, especially the IPL, is moving cricket toward the [European] football model. There will be international tournaments, but fans’ day-to-day focus will increasingly be on club games. There’s clearly a huge amount of uncertainty, but the pandemic could well accelerate the changes, and the shift to cricket being a sport that increasingly revolves around club versus club matches.
Boards face a new normal of bio-secure venues, chartered flights and quarantining teams on arrival. All of this will take time and money, which is increasing the costs of international cricket even as the revenue earned from it decreases. This is partly true for domestic cricket, too, though you don’t need to fly in a whole squad from a particular country. The difference is you get a lot more games for the time and effort of creating an environment to play. There are 60 IPL matches in seven weeks — over the same period of time, an international team might be able to play five tests and, say, six shorter-form games.
DM: Why the UAE? The country isn’t one of the elite playing nations. What’s in it for UAE and the League?
TW: The UAE is perfect. It has great transport links with the rest of the world and very good facilities. The UAE hosted most of Pakistan’s home games since 2009, and the International Cricket Council has its global academy there. And it seems to have coped with COVID relatively well. For the UAE, staging the IPL — they already staged half the IPL in 2014 — helps position itself as a venue for elite sport. And it’s a significant boost to the hospitality sector.
DM: India is also one of the top cricket nations. Other countries have gone through periods of dominance, such as the West Indies from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, or Australia in the 1990s through, say, 2005. Why is this moment different?
TW: There is one huge difference: Those two brilliant teams didn’t generate over half of cricket’s total wealth, as India now does. So you have a country that’s the economic giant of the sport, and a team that’s one of the best in the world — India is ranked in the top three in the world in all three formats. India’s on-field rise over the last 20 years only suggests it will become more successful in the years ahead, benefiting from the transformation in cricketing infrastructure in the country, its sheer population and love for cricket. When you take on- and off-field performance together, India could be said to be almost as dominant in cricket as the US is in basketball.
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DM: Cricket has been reinvented before. Does the IPL and T20 owe a debt to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket venture in the 1970s, which pioneered the use of coloured clothing, day-night matches and innovative TV coverage? Is the IPL, in essence, a child of Packer?
TW: What Packer did was essentially about getting the TV rights to Australian international matches. As soon as he could do this, peace broke out in the cricket world. Packer’s impact was profound, with those changes you outline. But he didn’t challenge the orthodoxy that nation versus nation competition represented the pinnacle of cricket; the unofficial games were between players representing countries, with the famous slogan “C’mon Aussie C’mon.” World Series Cricket was still about Australia versus England and Australia versus the West Indies.
The IPL is completely different, as it’s about domestic matches: Mumbai versus Chennai, Bangalore versus Delhi, and so on. It has successfully challenged the orthodoxy that international cricket should take precedence over domestic cricket, moving cricket more in line with football or basketball. International boards used to fight the IPL and try and stage internationals at the same time, forcing players to choose between the two. Now, major international boards don’t stage fixtures at the same time as the IPL because they know that players will choose the IPL.
DM: Saudi Arabia is described the central bank of oil. Has India become the central bank of cricket, where it has the ability, through IPL, to essentially control demand and supply?
TW: Absolutely. A player can earn more in a single IPL season than many could in their entire careers under the old model. It’s reshaped the economics of the game. Look at the way the international cricket calendar is now organised, COVID notwithstanding. IPL gets its own window, free of clashes with any major international tournaments. Nobody else gets that privilege.
Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies.