Kevin McCullagh | Could IPL 2020 be one of the great Covid comebacks?

Kevin McCullagh takes a look at the world’s biggest annual cricket competition, the Indian Premier League, ahead of its move this year to the United Arab Emirates

Kevin McCullagh

Some great comeback stories are being written as leagues and federations around the world resume after lockdowns. Stories of ambition, hope, hope dashed, hope rekindled, races to borders, fight islands, ill-advised nightclub parties and more. It’s blockbuster stuff, and I’m glad I’m only writing about it and not having to play a responsible role in it.

This year’s Indian Premier League will undoubtedly have a claim to being one of the boldest, most ambitious returns – if it can pull it off.

It’s the world’s biggest annual cricket competition, a sports marketing phenomenon, and the obsession of several hundred million Indian fans – there is a lot riding on the IPL taking place: more than $500m per year in global media-rights revenue for the Board of Control for Cricket in India; $270m of ad revenues for domestic broadcaster Star India; and almost $70m in sponsorship for its eight franchises.

India’s failure to contain the pandemic meant a competition on home soil was out of the question, so the BCCI has moved the entire league to the United Arab Emirates. The move is not without precedent: in both 2014 and 2009, the IPL was held outside of India due to clashes with Indian general elections, and security forces were unable to secure both events.

Nevertheless, shifting an entire league to another country is no small logistical feat, especially with Covid-19 containment measures to deal with. The league and teams are operating within ‘bio-secure bubbles’ designed to limit the potential spread of the virus.

Befitting the IPL’s glamourous, money-spinning image, billionaire team owners have put their players and staff up at luxury hotels. The Mumbai Indians shared pictures on Instagram of the entertainment room at the St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort in Abu Dhabi.

Host broadcaster Star India has more than 700 production staff working on the event, across the UAE, India and other markets. It is also operating a bio-secure bubble at its Mumbai production centre, covering 400 staff on six floors.

As if rearranging your biggest domestic league in another country was not a big enough challenge, in June IPL title sponsor Vivo withdrew after a public backlash against it in India. The mobile phone brand was targeted because it is Chinese, and Indian public sentiment has turned sharply hostile towards China and Chinese companies since a May border clash between the two countries.

Vivo and the BCCI astutely announced the suspension of their deal for one year. India’s pre-eminent sports tech unicorn stepped up to replace it. Dream11 has a booming online fantasy sports business, and owns growing sports media platform FanCode.

As the tournament has drawn closer, further cracks have appeared. Recently there was news that 13 of the Chennai Super Kings entourage had tested positive for Covid-19. This prompted the departure of star batsman Suresh Raina, who flew back to India at least partly out of concern for his health. Media reports said Raina was also struggling with the isolation of quarantine, compounded by a recent family tragedy.

A spike in Covid-19 cases in Abu Dhabi led the emirate to introduce testing at its borders with neighbouring Dubai and Sharjah. The IPL teams and matches are split between the three emirates, and border controls create more logistical headaches. The BCCI has said this is the reason behind the slow release of this year’s match schedule.

To add to the confusion, a positive Covid-19 test for one of Star India’s staff led the broadcaster to halt flights of more staff from India.

BCCI president Saurav Ganguly did not sound full of confidence last week when, in the wake of the latest hiccups, he told the Times of India: “I hope the IPL will be conducted well. We have a long schedule for the tournament and I sincerely hope everything will go on just fine.”

If the board, the league’s franchise teams, and the UAE authorities pull it off, this year’s IPL will be an inspiring testament to sport’s ability to continue amid the current challenges, and will join the pandemic’s pantheon of great comebacks.