India’s premier cricket league is playing through its COVID crisis—but players worry about the repercussions

April 26, 2021, 12:13 PM UTC

There are few things that can dampen India’s love for cricket, not even, it turns out, a monstrous second wave of a once in a century pandemic that has overwhelmed parts of the country.

Even as India’s busiest towns and cities—including the national capital of Delhi—have come under lockdown or dusk-to-dawn curfews, the country is going ahead with the Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament, a professional Twenty20 cricket competition that launched 2021 play on April 9 in sealed “bubbles” without spectators. The event started in Chennai but will be played across venues in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Ahmadabad, New Delhi, and Kolkata over the next five weeks.

The event captures the attention of India like few others. In 2020, 405 million viewers watched the IPL tournament in total, meaning nearly half of all TV viewers in India tuned in.

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“Yes, it will continue,” an official from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) confirmed to Fortune, on the condition of anonymity. “If we change the decision, we will announce it publicly.”

Earlier this month, BCCI president Sourav Ganguly confirmed to Asian News International, an Indian news agency, that the IPL 2021 events would proceed as scheduled, even after the western state of Maharashtra announced curfew-like measures, including for the financial capital of Mumbai.

Since then, the national capital Delhi imposed a complete six-day lockdown that on Sunday was extended by another week to May 3. The decision to play on coincides with a sudden surge in COVID infections that has inundated Indian hospitals, leaving them short of oxygen, medicine, and other supplies.

India on Monday recorded 352,991 COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, and 2,812 deaths.

The lure of purses worth thousands of dollars for the top players have been a strong draw for elite cricketers to participate in the IPL tournament. But the allure of big payouts—INR 100 million ($1.3 million) for the winning team—appears to be waning in light of the pandemic. 

The marquee event, which fields eight teams representing different Indian cities and states and includes foreign players, is being played in a “bio bubble” that seals players off from the outside world, including members of the media. There have been hardly any cases of COVID-19 infections, but India’s skyrocketing infections have sparked worries among international players that they may be subject to travel bans or restrictions in their home countries when the league ends.

Two Australian bowlers playing for Royal Challengers Bangalore, Adam Zampa and Kane Richardson, have decided to withdraw from the remainder of the ongoing IPL tournament, citing personal reasons on Monday, according to a statement issued by the team. Another of their countrymen, pace bowler Andrew Tye, left midway through the tournament as he feared being locked out of his own country following the COVID-19 surge in India.

Over the past few days, several countries have restricted travel from India including Germany, Italy, Australia, the U.K., the UAE, Canada, Kuwait, Oman, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

There’s speculation that several more international cricketers may leave the Indian Premier League tournament early. “You may well find that only a handful of cricketers from two or three nations remain with the IPL teams through the end of the tournament,” said a cricket commentator, who did not want to be identified.

It’s not just foreign cricketers who have been rethinking their decision to participate in the IPL competition amid India’s COVID crisis. India’s ace spin bowler and batsman Ravichandran Ashwin also has decided to pull out.

“I would be taking a break from this year’s IPL from tomorrow. My family and extended family are putting up a fight against #COVID 19, and I want to support them during these tough times. I expect to return to play if things go in the right direction. Thank you@DelhiCapitals,” he tweeted in a message to his team.

While respecting the decision of those who did not want to go ahead, members of the Indian cricket fraternity did not see much reason for concern.

“These are obviously difficult times. I do relate to the emotions. Extended families are exposed, and sometimes you need to be there to support them. Hence some of the players are opting to take a break, which needs to be respected,” Nilesh Kulkarni, former India cricketer, told Fortune.

Amol Muzumdar, a former Indian test cricketer, echoed that participating or not “is a personal decision of each and every individual that needs to be respected.”

“On the other hand,” Kulkarni said, “you need to compliment BCCI for maintaining a bio-secure bubble in these times and having a tournament which gives people some comfort and entertainment. There is nothing like right or wrong in this.”

Kulkarni said foreign players should not worry that they will not be able to return to their home countries, since the BCCI should be able to help them in that regard. “BCCI can definitely take care of the arrangements,” he argued.

Kulkarni, who is founder-director of the International Institute of Sports Management, India’s first sports management institute, said the IPL competition is underway at a time when there are few live sports events taking place, which means big sponsorship deals are at stake.

“Because of lockdown, people are at their homes, and the viewership has increased considerably. From a business point of view, the budgets are huge for IPL,” he added. 

Cricket commentator and former player Hemant Kenkre told Fortune that there would be little point in stopping the IPL now. He said the tournament was not only about rich rewards for cricketers but also ensured the livelihoods of support staff and hotels during one of the leanest periods for the hospitality industry.

“This is the only entertainment you have during the lockdown,” he said, adding that it was a means of stress relief for fans as well as a source of livelihood. “There is a whole, huge support staff behind these people. Stopping the tournament is not going to make any sense,” he added.

Since the tournament is being put on with money from private sponsors, halting the competition won’t free up more funds for the government in its campaign to stop the virus, Kenkre said. However, he felt that the IPL teams could do more to spread awareness about hygiene protocols such as wearing masks.

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