Who could forget the Indian Premier League 2021 part one? All aboard the franchise flagship, fingers pushed firmly in ears, as a deadly Covid surge ran through India.
While the players were trapped in bio-bubbles – Covid-tested every two days, surrounded by healthcare professionals, three ambulances outside every ground – the general public wept outside hospitals, pleading for beds for their desperately ill relatives, and repeated, heartbreaking calls went out on social media for oxygen cylinders.
The death toll was horrifying, climbing up to an official count of 4,000 people a day in mid-May – official figures that were widely disputed. By the end of June, the official Covid death count was 400,000, but a study by the Centre for Global Development estimates that the number of excess deaths in India between January 2020 and June 2021 was between 3m and 4.7m. Not all, but the majority of those deaths are believed to have been from Covid.
In April, as the death toll rose, the circus rumbled on, hubris be damned, as badminton’s Indian Open and then the Asian Boxing Championships were called off, the Board of Control for Cricket in India shoulder-barging down any charges of insensitivity, as around the world countries started to close their borders to those travelling from India. The journalist Sharda Ugra spoke of the players being “trapped in a golden cage”, unable to speak about the crisis because of fear of how the BCCI might react.
At the end of April, Hemang Amin, the interim chief executive of the BCCI, had pinged off an email to the players both reassuring them that they were “totally safe” and urging them onwards with a queasy rallying cry: “While you are professionals and will play to win, this time you are also playing for something much more important … humanity.”
But it was a tournament living on borrowed time and eventually, on 4 May, as four different bio-bubbles were breached – Delhi Capitals, Kolkata Knight Riders, Sunrisers Hyderabad and Chennai Super Kings – and with one franchise in open revolt, the overseas players desperate to go home, the BCCI had no option. The IPL was off.
Not for long, however. By the end of May, the BCCI had announced that the remainder of the tournament would take place in the UAE in September and October – monsoon season in India. It was all a bit of a squeeze, what with the fifth Test against England at Old Trafford due to finish on 14 September and the IPL due to start on 19 September. An informal request from the BCCI was floated in front of the England and Wales Cricket Board to cancel or reschedule the final Test, a request which was politely knocked back.
As we know, events took over. When Covid cases in the Indian support staff started to spread, the Indian players had doubts. By last Friday morning, only two hours before the fifth Test was due to start, the announcement came: there would be no play at Old Trafford. Private jets were chartered that same day and by Saturday morning players were arriving in Abu Dhabi in front of franchise paraphernalia, to sit in yet another bio-bubble before the tournament begins this Sunday with MS Dhoni’s Chennai Super Kings taking on the defending champions, Mumbai Indians.
Just over half of the competition is still left to play, with 13 matches scheduled for Dubai, 10 in Sharjah and eight in Abu Dhabi, with the final held on 15 October . There will be time, just, for a scratch and a shave before the T20 World Cup starts two days later, spread around the UAE and Oman.
This unsustainable scheduling was the reason behind Dawid Malan, Chris Woakes and Jonny Bairstow all pulling out of the competition last week to prioritise England’s T20 World Cup bid and the Ashes, while Jos Buttler withdrew in August because of the birth of his second child. Jofra Archer is unavailable because of his elbow injury, which has ruled him out till next year and Ben Stokes is still recuperating.
Ten English players are left. Adil Rashid, a late replacement for Jhye Richardson, will play for Punjab Kings in his first stint in the IPL, joining Chris Jordan. Sam Curran and Moeen Ali will turn out for Chennai Super Kings, Eoin Morgan is captain of Kolkata Knight Riders and Jason Roy flies out on Tuesday to join Sunrisers Hyderabad. The white-ball star of the English summer, Liam Livingstone, will play for Rajasthan Royals, Tom Curran and Sam Billings for Delhi Capitals, while Sussex’s George Garton was a late call up for Royal Challengers Bangalore after a successful Hundred competition for the victorious Southern Brave.
What are they are playing for? Professional satisfaction and development: naturally. Money: of course, it’s a lucrative gig. Fun: you’d hope so. But ultimately, it is to keep the insatiable IPL beast happy – two new franchises are already planned, as well as, eventually, a women’s competition to replace the nascent T20 Challenge. Regardless of burnout of players or scheduling jenga, it just has to happen. The spring 2020 version, cancelled because of the pandemic, slotted nicely into the autumn slot in the UAE later that year, displacing the T20 World Cup and postponing it until autumn 2021. Like it or not, the IPL is now the most lucrative and important tournament in the world.
• This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe and get the full edition, just visit this page and follow the instructions.