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Cricket’s Indian Premier League heads to the UAE as political power and money hit coronavirus concerns for six

Rohit Sharma hits cricket ball with man crouching behind.
Rohit Sharma will captain the Mumbai Indians in the IPL after winning the tournament in 2019. Steve Christo/EPA

The Indian Premier League (IPL), a franchise Twenty20 cricket tournament in which players from around the world compete in eight different teams, was postponed in March because of coronavirus.

After months of uncertainty, it will now take place in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) instead of India, with the first game on September 19 in Abu Dhabi, followed by other games in Dubai and Sharjah. This brings relief to cricket fans, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), team owners, broadcasters and sponsors.

The total value of the tournament in 2019 was estimated at US$5.9 billion. If the 2020 tournament hadn’t taken place, it was estimated the BBCI could lose around US$680 million in revenue.

The tournament has been to the UAE before. In 2014, unable to host the IPL during India’s general election, the BCCI chose the UAE as the venue for the first 20 matches. The Gulf country was easily accessible from India, offered excellent sporting and hospitality facilities, and was also home to about 2.5 million Indians who would ensure the galleries were filled.

In 2020, with all Indian cities under lockdown and the BCCI determined to organise the IPL to keep the revenues flowing, UAE stepped up as host again. Aside from the BCCI, the other beneficiaries are India’s ruling politicians.

India-UAE relations

The UAE and India share amicable diplomatic and trade relations. In 2018, UAE offered financial assistance to flood victims in Kerala. The following year it supported the Indian government’s controversial decision to rescind the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir. Shortly afterwards, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi was conferred the Order of Zayed, UAE’s highest civilian award.

The two countries have also helped each other during the COVID-19 pandemic. The UAE donated seven tonnes of medical supplies to India which reciprocated by sending a contingent of doctors and nurses. It’s likely the decision to shift the IPL to the UAE will strengthen bilateral ties further.

State reluctance

India’s state governments, both those ruled by the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party and its allies, as well as opposition groups, are also likely to be relieved that the tournament moved to the UAE. They were circumspect about policing venues when their risk management resources were already thinned by the pandemic.

The IPL’s cancellation in March meant all India’s states lost a stage for city-branding and the income raised by taxing state cricket associations. But the potential gains were unlikely to balance out against the tremendous effort required in security and public health arrangements.

Virus concerns

The security of the IPL personnel is now a foreign country’s responsibility. But in mid-September, a few days before the start of the tournament, the UAE was reporting around 1,000 new cases of the virus a day, jumping nearly four-fold in a month.

By early September, the virus had breached a cricket bio-secure bubble and infected 14 IPL personnel, including players, support staff and one BCCI medical commission member. Most of those infected belonged to Chennai Super Kings franchise.

The infection of cricketers with the virus was not enough for the BCCI and the Indian government to cancel the tournament. As former cricketer turned-BJP politician Gautam Gambhir said: “Just because of one person, the tournament can’t be sacrificed.” Gambhir’s statement and the BCCI’s IPL mentality that the show will go on despite opposition in some quarters. There is resolute loyalty to a financial agenda.

A rigorous testing regime is planned for the tournament, with travellers to the UAE expected to quarantine on arrival, even if – for some players – that means missing out on some of the early games. But a few days before the tournament was due to begin, it still wasn’t clear if spectators would be allowed into the stadiums at all.

The organisation of a long tournament with several hundred people, including cricketers, non-playing staff, team and match officials, and media from various countries during the worst global health crisis in a century, shows the extraordinary reach of the BCCI’s power.

The support the IPL has had from both the Indian government and the mainstream media for its plan to continue with the tournament are also clear indications of the BCCI’s influence. This IPL, if it ends well without further COVID cases, will only reinforce the BCCI’s clout in Indian political and financial circles.

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