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With the IPL’s suspension, the Covid-19 crisis has finally infiltrated India’s biggest sport

IPL-India-Sports Fantasy
REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
The show is over, for now.
By Hasit Shah
Published Last updated

The multibillion-dollar Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament was finally suspended today (May 4).

In India, there are around 400,000 new daily Covid-19 infections (that we know of); a lack of hospital beds, vaccines, and oxygen supplies; and bodies cremated wherever grieving relatives can find space.

But until now, some of the world’s best players, along with support staff, TV crews, and the entire machinery of a major sporting event—except spectators—were still moving around the country in Covid-secure bubbles. Medical resources are severely limited in India, and questions were raised about whether any should be diverted to athletes rather than desperate patients.

The decision to suspend the league was made after a rising number of Covid-19 cases within the IPL bio bubble. So far, at least four players and two non-playing members of staff have tested Covid positive.

What is the Indian Premier League?

The IPL was created in 2008 as a way to monetize a shorter, more television-friendly version of the world’s second most popular sport, in its modern economic heartland. Global superstars eagerly signed up for huge fees, by the usual standards, and the league revolutionized the dynamics of the game.

There are eight IPL teams, with US-style names—among them, the Punjab Kings and the Kolkata Knight Riders—that are owned, or at least fronted, by megastars like actor Shah Rukh Khan. The 2021 season began on April 9, and its 60 games were scheduled to be completed by May 30.

Players are keeping their eyes on the ball

Although they don’t sign checks or deal with sponsors, star players hold a great deal of political power in any sport; there was an uprising within soccer against the European Super League last week, and many prominent US athletes have become activists. But most IPL players kept their heads down and got on with it.

Some overseas players have already left the IPL and gone home; others would like to leave but are subject to travel restrictions. Australian Pat Cummins was praised for sticking around, making a large donation, and expressing sympathy with India on social media. The Rajasthan Royals announced a donation of more than $1 million to Covid relief efforts, while another team, the Delhi Capitals, gave $200,000.

The games continue elsewhere

In January, England suffered its own Covid disaster. While it wasn’t at the scale of India, more than 2,000 people were dying every day at its peak, and the health service was under strain. But soccer had returned, with players undergoing a rigorous testing and isolation regime to honor lucrative TV contracts for a locked-down audience.

In the US, the National Football League’s season was similarly successful last autumn, while this year’s Tokyo Olympics and European Football Championships are still going ahead, and even hoping to welcome spectators to stadiums. In that context, and although it is not taking place in Europe, the US, or Japan, the IPL was far from anomalous.

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