Cricket stakeholders foresee sweeping changes post COVID-19

Players, coaches, administrators, franchise owners, umpires and broadcasters weigh in on the resumption of cricket after COVID-19.

Sobering times: Indian batsman K. L. Rahul arrives at an airport wearing a protective mask in Lucknow on March 13, 2020. The ODI series between India and South Africa was called off after the first match due to COVID-19.   -  PTI

It’s been more than two months since international cricket across the world stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of those involved with the game are starving for some live action. Last week, the International Cricket Council released its ‘back to cricket’ guidelines for a phased return. Is it time for a restart?

Sportstar spoke to players, coaches, administrators, franchise owners, umpires and broadcasters for their thoughts on a new beginning.

PLAYERS

Navdeep Saini (Fast bowler, India and Delhi)

I haven’t thought about this at all. When cricket resumes and if there are new rules for bowlers to make the ball shine, I will think about it then. As of now, I don’t know how to go about this. It will be important to see what else you can do to make the ball shine.

It is a part of the game and the ball will only talk if there is shine. Shine karne se hi ball kuch na kuch harkat karti hai, agar ball harkat nahi karegi, to mushkil rahega bowler ke liye (the ball performs at its best when there is shine, if it doesn't then it is a problem).

Faiz Fazal (Batsman, India and Vidarbha)

When I think about the future, I don’t find an answer to when cricket will resume again. Right now, it is very risky to step out and train. It’s a very dangerous phase and we should not be careless in our approach. Ultimately, human lives are very important and that’s the priority now. No matter how much protection you take, it may be difficult to tackle the virus, so the risk remains. It is important to stay at home and build your immunity. For now, we are having training sessions at home via Zoom app, and will continue doing that for now.

There are a lot of factors involved in it, and it is important that we take time to approach it. There will be fear for sure, so we need to take things slow and react accordingly.

COACHES

Dav Whatmore (Coach and Director of Cricket, Baroda)

It will be the objective of everyone to restart as soon as possible. That would probably mean playing matches without people watching them. That also means, cricket in India could have a tighter schedule with a smaller amount of games in each of the formats, especially the Ranji Trophy. If the IPL is conducted in September-October, then there is less time for normal season. It will be compressed in three formats. Exactly how will it play up is up to the parent body (BCCI) to decide. With respect to international cricket, the ICC has a role to play perhaps revisiting the FTP. At the moment, there are a number of series that has been cancelled or postponed, and there are some series coming up. The T20 World Cup is an important tournament for all the countries, so that could be deferred until next year. That’s up to the ICC.

But international cricket may have to be played without too much of a crowd.

Coaching, I don’t think, will have that much of a difference. You would still try and train and play. It’s just that you have to be safe depending on the conditions. You got to come up with the tactics.

Chandrakant Pandit (Coach, Madhya Pradesh)

What is the priority at the moment? I think it is human health and their lives. It is for every country. We have to accept whatever guidelines come our way. I don’t know how you can prevent this. Everybody is keeping the health of people at the forefront. As long as we can fight COVID-19, we should take the prevention.

VIRAT KOHLI

In this picture taken on November 16, 2019, India captain Virat Kohli shines the ball in a Test against Bangladesh in Indore. The ICC is set to ban the use of saliva due to hygiene considerations. - AP   -  GETTY IMAGES

There can be changes in cricket. The advantages the bowlers got earlier were well within the rules of the game. But now, if we have to think about the rules and avoid the other precautions, it may not be advisable. If we don’t follow the rules, a cricketer can contact coronavirus, which will be worse. And these rules could be temporary.

ALSO READ | Zaheer Khan on saliva ban

It is not only a problem for the sports fraternity, it is a human problem. Everybody is suffering due to the virus.

As and when the government permits us, we will go in full swing. But there will be travel restrictions. Social distancing is essential now. If 25 cricketers are going to be together, it should not affect them and cricket should not be over. If not today, then tomorrow, we all can enjoy cricket but at the moment, living is more important to us.

We will win the battle.

ADMINISTRATORS

Sanjay Jagdale (Former BCCI secretary/selector)

It is difficult to say the changes that may happen in cricket now. It all depends on whether a vaccination is found for COVID-19. There should be some new development.

There are, of course, going to be changes. It is hard to assess what is going to happen to the virus. Even the scientists are not sure as to what can stop the pandemic. A lot of people are saying it is going to be with us but there should be some treatment. We may need to wait longer to reach a decision regarding cricket.

People have misused the cricket ball before, even before saliva was used to swing the ball. I know it will be difficult for the bowlers but there can be alternatives. You can help a fast bowler by making changes in the ball or depending on what type of wickets you provide. These are other ways to keep the game fair and strike a balance between batsmen and bowlers.

Arun Dhumal (Treasurer, BCCI)

It is indeed challenging because this phase has come out of the blue. This is a learning for all of us on how to cope with the challenge and see to it that we perform our hundred per cent (despite the odds). Be it for the players, for the staff - everybody is working on a strategy on how to go about it so that things are fine when cricket resumes.

The BCCI will also be in a difficult position in case cricket does not resume fast, especially the Indian Premier League. In that case, the BCCI will also have to face a lot of financial hardships. It would definitely have a spiraling effect. It is not rocket science to understand. In case the BCCI is in a problem, the State associations will also be facing the problems. We can only distribute something to the cricket bodies when [funds] are coming to the BCCI.

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All the boards are feeling the heat. Once things settle down, everybody needs to sit across the drawing board once again and re-draw their strategies, as to how they can cope with the situation. The BCCI will definitely do whatever possible to help world cricket at large because if cricket has to survive, then BCCI will have a role to play and we would like to do our bit so that competitive cricket is there.

Wasim Khan (Chief executive, Pakistan Cricket Board)

There are two key fundamental challenges. One is finance, which I think administrators across all the cricket boards will have to meticulously manage and there will be a lot of contingency planning going on behind the scenes, with the ‘worst case what if’ scenarios.

Secondly, it will be about rescheduling bilateral cricket with all the postponed series that will happen. Clearly, there will be a backlog, and it is up to us to work our way through all of that. We are all committed to do it, it is about working in solidarity and finding a collective solution.

At this point of time, the players and all the stakeholders need to be given confidence.

FRANCHISE OWNERS

Venky Mysore (CEO and Managing Director, Kolkata Knight Riders)

The key point to be remembered is that live entertainment is going to be in great demand. Sports is the best thing here - cricket in particular in Indian context. Now, under the current situation, live entertainment is something that you can only enjoy on your television and digitally. What’s the end game with this? Until the vaccine comes out, this is going to be the scene.

But we are in a category which is not only in great demand but it’s going to continue to be even more premium than anything. It might take two years to get a vaccine for COVID-19. So what happens between now and that period? How do you manage? The bottom line is with all this, the thought process and innovation has to come in as to how you prepare for the short run and also for the long run.

The short run situation is where you can come up with creative ideas and leverage it with technology to be able to give the fans as much enjoyment, happiness and fulfillment as you could possibly can give in all the limitations. I see it as a three part thing - how to manage in short run, how do you push it in medium run and how do you position yourself for the long run? That’s my thought process around it.

In this picture taken on March 10, a statue representing a former fan is pictured ahead of the Champions League match between Valencia and Atalanta in Valencia, Spain. Empty stadiums may have to be endured for a while yet due to COVID-19. - AP

 

The team that we have is always together. We are not an event management company, we are a franchise which is professionally run and there are people who work round the year. Certain franchises put the team together only to stage the tournament. Problem with that is, you are putting together a show only for that period, so you are not doing anything. We built our franchises on two pillars - brand and fan base. If you want to build your brand, you need to work throughout the year, that’s how the brand becomes more valuable and you get a premium and other brands associate with you. When it comes to the fan base, that is something which is going to be with you, so during this time, even though they will be disappointed not to come to Eden Gardens and watch us live, we will have our ways of engaging them.

In times of COVID-19, you have to look after the health and safety of players. You have to be innovative too. Suppose you hold it in a city like Mumbai where there are four grounds and teams have their own hotels, which is completely sanitised and have two buses each. That’s one model.

In 2014, we went to the UAE for one leg of the tournament. There were three grounds, separate hotels, there were restricted movements - that’s going to be the thought process now: how do you contain this? The risk needs to be managed and run the robust tournament. People ask if foreigners don’t come what will you do?

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Look, that’s not even an option. The strength of IPL is the fact that it’s a marquee product which is of international quality and that’s caught the imagination of public over 12 seasons. You don’t want to tinker with that. It’s the combination of Indians and foreigners that makes the tournament exciting. That draws people to the stadium and draws people towards television. So, you cannot tinker with that. We need to take all the precaution and work through it.

Salman Iqbal  (PSL team owner, Karachi Kings)

As an investor, as a cricket team franchise owner, you want crowd in the stands. But realistically, as a fan, you just need to see cricket now. We are tired of watching the old games. At this stage, we are even ready to have cricket in empty stadiums, because the game has to begin. If we go to with the theory that they won’t be any cricket until fans come in, then it will take us at least a year from now to attain normalcy.

If fans don’t come in, we will lose a lot of money and there is no doubt about it. But all the industries - cricket, television - are taking a hit. It’s an issue worldwide. The world post pandemic will be different and there will be a lot of financial changes. If somebody is spending a dollar a day now, he/she will have to cut down it to fifty cents. That’s where savings will be important and I am sure, all the boards - including the Pakistan Cricket Board - will come up with financial solutions. If they keep charging us all the money, as it was pre-pandemic, then that’s not a way. Post COVID-19, the whole scenario changes, television viewership will improve, but it is important for the Boards to ensure that the leagues are not hurt.

The boards will have to let us know how things will affect. If there is no in-stadia activity, then that budget will change. So basically, the whole financial aspect will change. If the owners and Boards take a hit, then even player salary may also be hit, unless we come up with a new way of making money. We have to find ways to survive and also sustain.

UMPIRES

Shavir Tarapore

It'll be interesting to see how the TV audience warms up to player celebrations with physical distancing. Everyone is watching so much of TV now, whether it is cricket, football, hockey... in cricket, for instance, maximum celebrations take place when a wicket falls. Television's dominion over the game has a lot to do with the drama and raw emotion the sport evokes on the field. How the authorities get the balance right is something worth looking forward to. In the foreseeable future though, playing in front of empty stands may not be economically viable for the game.

Today, you may say 60 – 70 percent revenue comes from the television rights but ticket sales matter just as much. That's where those running the sport and individual associations come in. It has to be a holistic effort.

Shining the ball with saliva or sweat is another aspect that needs to be looked into. Say under the new guidelines, it is decided that bowlers can only use an artificial substance like wax to facilitate swing bowling , under strict supervision of the umpires. But you can't just expect fast bowlers to arrive and immediately get used to the alternative methods... Using saliva or sweat is a habit and you can't control it easily.

Plus, a ball exchanges hands throughout the day. How do you deal with that then? What happens if a bowler applies saliva once? Do you change the ball? In the event it keeps happening intermittently, do you keep changing the ball or come up with some sort of a penalty? These are all factors that need to be considered moving forward.

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The grassroots cricket is an important stakeholder in all this. Ensuring the safety precautions around physical distancing and use of artificial substance are implemented properly is paramount. These are all young kids, who in their youthful exuberance, can tend to overlook these important measures. What do we do then? Therefore, any significant overhaul in the rules needs to be a well-thought-out plan.

Vinayak Kulkarni

When cricket can resume depends on whether we want to have public cricket (with spectators at venues) or private cricket. Private cricket can resume after a month or so when things are relaxed, when people can commute. If you want to go public, fingers crossed, don’t know, because we can’t say we can have only 100 spectators. Then it’s not a game.

One argument you can make is that I can beam it on TV, you can sit in the house and see. The purists of the game will still go to the stadium.

Graham Dilley of England hands over his sweater to the umpire in the third Test between England and New Zealand at Wellington in March, 1988. According to the ICC guidelines, players should no longer hand their personal equipment to the umpires. - THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

But as far as [the issue of] saliva being used [is concerned], and players’ sweaters [being handed over to the umpires], there may be certain changes. In fact, a lot of things are written on that, whether umpires will hold the caps and sweaters. If you see some of the grounds, behind the wicketkeeper there’s a box to keep the fielders’ helmets. Like that, you can keep a box where you can keep the cap and sweater also, and if more than one person has to keep you can have plastic bags for each individual.

[To ascertain the alternative to] using saliva on the ball, manufacturers have to sit together and decide. It’s not hygienic.

It will be difficult to start with but as the days pass, [bowlers can adapt to it]. But in local matches, it has been tried. People say, ‘use these poppins, or mints’. We allowed officially to use mint, i.e, we allowed them to be applied on the ball. Nothing happened. Unless you have the skill, these minor things won’t make a lot of difference. But at the highest level, people have the skills. It may make a difference.

The most important thing is keeping the shine on the ball. [Players] are not [risking contracting coronavirus any other way] as cricket is not a contact sport, except when shaking hands, which can easily be stopped. Ball is thrown from one end to the other. So, if your hand is clean, and if you get to a point where at every drinks break, everybody should wash their hands, that can take care of it. Next is only keeping the shine on the ball. For that, now we’re using sweat and saliva. You find out some other substance, it can be an extraneous substance, having the same properties. Then it wouldn’t make any difference. Now the argument may be that the saliva which we apply, the availability of it is limited in quantity. Maybe some less, some more. But ultimate quantity is limited. So you provide the same quantity of extraneous substance which can take care of these things. We can do the chemical analysis of sweat, we can do the chemical analysis of the saliva.

If you play in a closed stadium, where limited number of spectators are let in, they maintain the distance, and players do not come anywhere near them, or no spectator comes near them, then there’s no problem [in restarting cricket]. But if you have like in Indian stadiums where people come in hordes, then we will have to wait for a longer time. One person with COVID-19 may be the spoilsport for all. Players can be safe because a separate enclosure is there, rooms are separate. Even now no player goes near a spectator unless he wants to give an autograph or he wants to mingle.

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There will be restrictions. It will be like a family of 15 moving around for three months where nobody goes and mingles with somebody else and comes back.

Cricket can resume. But what is our ultimate motto, just to play or promote? If I’m promoting it, how do I promote? I want to promote remotely or physically also? Cricket of course will not stop, it’ll move on.

As umpires, we only facilitate. We will welcome that, any resumption of cricket, we welcome it. As of now, we don’t come in contact with many people. Maybe a caterer who comes into the dressing room or a captain, to talk. Otherwise, where do we come into contact with players? We do maintain a distance. The only thing is, when 40,000 people are watching, I may raise a bar; that will be absent, so I’ll have to look at something else to raise my bar.

BROADCASTERS

Matt Weiss (GM, Fox Cricket)

It's going to be difficult and we will need to be guided by our federal State governments on that in the first instance. Our Rugby League is due to start on May 28 and the [Australian Rules Football] mid June - so that should help the cricket schedule fall further into places.

There are a lot of moving parts depending on the T20 World Cup scheduled in October. Then at Fox Cricket, we need to schedule our summer from there. Our contract with CA is a close working relationship - we are great partners and I can't see COVID-19 having any impact on our existing contract moving forward. As a subscription based model, we can wait for cricket to return. It and our football codes will be a great boost after a tough period for all sports broadcasters.

India arriving for summer would be another terrific series and we can't wait for that to happen. Crowd or no crowd, we can broadcast to a world starved of sport the clash of two great nations. Being winter season, the cricket channel itself is always lower at this time of year. Having said that, we had launched 'A Week with Warnie' featuring six half hour interviews with an icon of the game done by one of the best interviewers Mark Howard. Shane helped make the series outside his contract with us to help Fox Sports at this tough time - to provide some great content for our subscribers. That's why he is a team player and a legend.

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Sam Balsara (Chairman, Madison World)

Indians are more adaptable than other nationalities. If Germany which loves football as much as India loves cricket can play football in empty stadiums, so can we play cricket in empty stadiums. Anyway most of the “commerce” is related to television rather than spectators in stadiums. The earliest cricket can resume on television is in September, because it starts raining from June to August and lots of pitches across the country are relaid at this time.

If you see generally in Test cricket, anyways there is very limited crowd on weekdays in India, and even less abroad. Also, domestic cricket in India is played in near empty stadiums. Still, cricket is played very competitively. It will be good to add some innovations like crowd stimulation sounds and VR screens where fans can interact. I am sure cricket will still generate interest amongst fans, especially in times like today when fans are starving for live action.

While getting fans to the stadiums will be a challenge till the time a vaccine is found, the organisers and broadcasters will have to think of ways and means to get more interactions between the cricketers and the fans. There may be instances when fans interact with cricketers while playing, get VR screens put up in stadiums with faces of fans cheering from the homes being telecast on it. Also, one can simulate the sounds of fans cheering when wickets, four or six are hit, etc.

I think the priority for the board will be to hold the IPL and bilateral series. This is because it will be more controlled with limited players coming in from abroad and matches being in select venues. As viewers are starving for new content, live cricket matches besides the IPL will also generate huge ratings.

(Reporting by: Shayan Acharya, Abhishek Mukherjee, Wriddhaayan Bhattacharyya and Ayan Acharya)

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