Resumption of the Indian Premier League (IPL) took place last Sunday in the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, having been suspended on May 4 in India.
Almost half of its scheduled matches had been completed when Covid-19 tests on a number of players and support staff proved positive. This, coupled with rising cases amongst the general population, led the authorities to bow to the inevitable.
Now in its 14th year, the tournament is the biggest revenue generator in cricket’s history and has propelled India to a pre-eminent position in the game’s geo-politics. It is against this backdrop that the cancelled Test match between England and India at Manchester on Sept. 2 needs to be assessed.
It is clear that the repercussions are manifold, but that the outcomes from this stunning occurrence are much less clear. The result of the match and the series is not yet known. No official reason for the cancellation has been agreed. Reports suggest that Covid-impacted cancellation is not covered by insurance for this match.
Lancashire County Cricket Club, the host of the match, has suffered financially and psychologically, not for any fault of its own and is unable to carry the losses without support. According to various reports, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) is set to lose upwards of £20m, much of it in broadcasting revenues. Spectators will receive ticket refunds, but their travel and related costs will be lost.
Perhaps the writing was on the wall back in May, once the IPL was suspended. At that time, it was clear that another window was sought into which it could be rescheduled. The opportunities were limited.
The Indian team would be in England between June 3 and September 7. It is rumoured that one option being explored by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in mid-May was to ask the ECB to consider starting the five-match series one week earlier in the last week of June. This would provide a larger buffer between the end of final Test at Manchester and the start of the IPL, when bubble to bubble transfer was envisaged. There is no record of a formal approach having been made, although rumours abound that the ECB was not keen.
Apart from its tragic effect and consequences, Covid-19 has introduced uncertainty into all of our lives, not just those of professional cricketers. It was with some apprehension that many of us in England entered the new era created by the relaxation of social controls on July 19. Capacity crowds flocked to the Test matches and, as the Indian coach said, when he and other members of his party were criticised for attending the launch of his book in London, “England was open”. Subsequently, he tested Covid-positive, being followed in this respect by other members of the backroom team.
Crucially, it was a positive test for the assistant physio on the day before the Manchester Test was due to start that acted as a trigger point. Despite all of them testing negative, the Indian players appeared to be spooked. A number of them were travelling with young families and were fearful that the virus might spread amongst them. Training was cancelled the day before the match, an ominous sign. The ECB’s CEO admitted to through-the-night discussions with his Indian counterparts, but it seemed that the Indian players were adamant.
Once it was announced that the match was not going to take place, it was termed a forfeiture on news lines, but this was quickly retracted, being replaced by cancellation. The tone of public statement by the ECB was that this was regrettable, had nothing to do with the imminency of the IPL and could be explained by mental health issues that had built up to bursting point after almost four months of touring.
Recognition of mental health issues has increased in cricket, particularly during the bio-bubble existence under which the game has operated in an increasingly packed global schedule. Nevertheless, surprise was expressed in some quarters as there was no obvious sign of such problems when the India team joyously celebrated its victory at the Oval four days earlier.
By general consensus, India played the better cricket and deserved to be 2-1 up in the series, but who could predict how the final Test would play out? The ECB is keen for the match to be rescheduled, the BCCI not so keen, at least not as one that completes the series.
Discussions are on-going in attempts to find a solution that would fit into India’s schedule when they tour England in early July 2022 to play two white-ball cricket series.
Whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to please everyone. Some find it a bit rich that India had a 20-strong squad in England, enough to field a team in Manchester. By all accounts, the players chose not to play, preferring to keep themselves free and fit to fly to the UAE for the quarantine period prior to the recommencement of the IPL.
England has good reason to feel aggrieved, yet its own record is not unblemished, having cancelled its tour of South Africa in late 2020. The ECB does not seem to want to fall out with the BCCI. Indeed, both boards have been at pains to say what good relations they enjoy.
If they cannot agree a solution, the International Cricket Council will be in the unenviable position of having to rule on the outcome of the series.
The turbulence in cricket shows no sign of abating, as its players and structures buckle under the pressure of playing through the pandemic.
Last Monday, citing mental and physical well-being issues, the ECB cancelled England’s four-day tour in mid-October to Pakistan, leaving the latter enraged. By coincidence, this allows English players who were on the tour and in the IPL to participate in its play-off stage. The IPL’s influence seems to be all conquering.