COVID-19: IPL's biggest challenge yet

IPL: The IPL faces its biggest challenge — COVID-19. Fans will be holding their breath, and the competition will be just one reason for this.

A general view of the crowd cheering Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings during the IPL final in 2019. Owing to the COVID-19 restrictions, the 2020 season of the IPL will have fans glued to the television sets as the franchises battle it out in empty stadiums in the UAE.   -  K. V. S. Giri

A dozen years is a long time in sport; often it is the spread of a career from debut to retirement. Thirteen years ago, when the Big Three of Indian cricket — Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly — decided that the inaugural T20 World Cup was not their cup of tea, there were understanding nods around the country. India had just won a Test series in England, and T20 was not anybody’s cup of tea in India. Just as the 1975 World Cup in the longer white-ball game had not been India’s favourite either.

Left to himself, Ganguly might have made it to that inaugural T20 World Cup. He writes in A Century is Not Enough about Dravid giving up the captaincy after that England tour. “He did not even drop a hint he would be quitting,” Ganguly says, “If he had done that I would not have opted out of the T20 World Cup.” Had Ganguly decided to go, would the other seniors have changed their mind too? That will have to remain in the pigeonhole marked ‘What If?’ in Indian sport.

But India won overnight, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) became the greatest supporter of the format. A previous attempt at a T20 tournament, the Indian Cricket League (ICL), was banned after a couple of seasons, and the path was clear. Lalit Modi, now the forgotten man of the IPL, was the energy behind the effort, its first non-playing star. Rumours of a ‘Modi camera’ trained on him during the matches were given credence by his reactions being beamed regularly. For a while he could do no wrong; later he could do nothing right.

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The auction, the razzmatazz, the noise-making in the manner that only the recently converted can get up to and the safety valve in having ‘icon players’ spread across the geographic zones meant that only one thing could cause the whole plan to be a damp squib: a poor inaugural match. The sport would be judged on the field of play. Brendon McCullum ensured it would be memorable. His unbeaten 158 off just 73 deliveries (10 fours, 13 sixes) lit up the Chinnaswamy Stadium. Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) made 222 for three. Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) scraped to 82 all out, Extras being the top-scorer, and the template was established: big hitting, quick running between wickets, run rate of 8-plus per over, 10 if possible, or 11 as in this case! RCB had a team of fabulous Test match players; the gap with T20 was immediately discernible.

It was many seasons before the bowlers came into their own, before spinners began to be consistently successful. Before tactics were worked at, before data began to rule. Some of that evolution is captured in Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution by Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde. Mining data and the ability to connect dots are crucial for coaches.

Now the IPL faces its biggest challenge — COVID-19. Fans will be holding their breath, and the competition will be just one reason for this.

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