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Mumbai Indians celebrate winning the IPL in 2019

The Indian Premier League is the biggest cricket competition in the world. As an entity, it prides itself on being a billion-dollar operation, unstoppable in its heft and glory.

That muscle has never been more defined than it is right now. India is being ravaged by a vicious wave of coronavirus that has a proud country on its knees. Meanwhile, the IPL continues in its ivory bubbles, as owners and hangers-on crowd the dignitaries enclosure in otherwise empty stadia.

Perhaps it’s worth taking a few pages out of the IPL’s book to outline the situation.

Speak to anyone associated with the franchise competition and they’ll tell you all about its uniqueness, much like the Covid variant sweeping through India, known as B.1.617: the result of two mutations making it more transmissible and harder to combat. Some are calling it “the double mutant”. How’s that for innovation?

Numbers are a big thing in IPL land, so here are a few to pop in a neat little graphic. India has now recorded more than 210,000 coronavirus deaths in the last 14 months, the fourth-highest toll globally behind the United States, Brazil and Mexico. There are close to 18 million cases, more positive tests over the last seven days than any other nation. And even so, there are strong claims that both metrics have been drastically under-reported.

Social media, usually a battleground for lurid hashtag wars, is instead now filled with the pleas of millions for medicines, oxygen tanks, and hospital beds. The cricketers themselves have gone off their usual scripts to preach caution and relay distress.

And what of the optics? The streets usually packed with fans trying to get a glimpse of their stars are now littered with people taking their last breaths and dark smoke from makeshift funeral pyres fills the air usually reserved for the residue of fireworks. A competition that raves about the memories it makes is a third of the way through a 14th edition no one will ever forget, and some may never forgive. 

Of course, this is not the IPL’s issue alone – far from it. The vested interests of board directors, tentacles spread wide across the nation’s most high-powered rooms, make this cricket’s problem. As such, the game finds itself in a corner where inconsistency and contradiction meet.

In the last few days, it was announced domestic IPL players would be privy to precious vaccinations from Saturday. The quandary of those within arguably the safest place in the world becomes whether or not they take them.

To do so will be at odds with the altruism that has underscored the game since March of last year. That by playing through such a crisis, they offer relief without adding to the burden.

Players across a number of sports have vocalised the belief they are at least providing a distraction. And even with the mitigation of a professional athlete’s mind geared more towards positives than negatives, countless fans have cited the continuation of sport as having a helpful impact on their mental health.

But what of those workers in the luxury hotels, those behind the scenes for broadcasters and ground staff whose own well-being is part of the cost? Even the players who feel an obligation to continue on and keep quiet?

The England and Wales Cricket Board are in constant dialogue with their 11 players still in the IPL hotels. While there are no further withdrawals imminent after Liam Livingstone pulled out a week ago, there is collective anxiety and a growing sense of guilt. Those feelings are not restricted to the English contingent.

Three Australians have left the tournament: Andrew Tye (Rajasthan Royals), Adam Zampa and Kane Richardson (both of Royal Challengers Bangalore). Meanwhile, Chris Lynn (Mumbai Indians) revealed he asked Cricket Australia to charter a flight at the end of the competition paid for with the money the players give back to their governing body from their elaborate pay packets. Meanwhile, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been blunt in saying that players will not be prioritised for repatriation flights or when it comes to the mandatory 14-day quarantine period they will have to undertake on their return.

Even Pat Cummins’s donation of $50,000 (£36,000) to PM Cares Fund elicited scrutiny with fears the money will not reach its intended destination. The fund, set up by India’s prime minister, Nanendra Modi, in March 2020 to cope with the pandemic, is fraught with controversy over its lack of transparency, with its various exemptions from auditors and established freedom of information acts.

Cummins’ contribution led to Brett Lee donating one Bitcoin – approximately £38,000 – to Crypto Relief to help with the purchasing of oxygen tanks. Those acts rallied loud calls for other players to do the same, as if public shaming were a viable route out of this disaster.

Again, it’s essential to see the bigger picture here. The ECB adopting a wait-and-see approach is at odds with their stance in South Africa at the end of last year. Their early calling of that limited-overs tour was closely followed by Cricket Australia abandoning their visit to the country altogether.

Last summer’s bio-secure success in England still carried logistical and emotional complications. The ECB know how much greater the toll is in India beyond those making a healthy living. And while the players can make the call, the ECB could and arguably should take the lead and bear the hit of removing their players. For safety primarily, but also to set an important precedent that they are willing to risk the administrative wrath of the BCCI by doing the right thing, the jeopardy of a home series against India notwithstanding. Can money be this important? Depressingly, you don’t need to answer that.

Optics, intentions and commerce dressed up as compassion are not solely issues of the BCCI or IPL. But they are right now. And if they can look upon the current situation unfolding at their doorstep and pull the curtains that little bit closer together, then it falls on the players, coaches and commentators to air the doubts they harbour. Ravichandran Ashwin’s withdrawal from the competition earlier this week came as a shock as an India player breaking ranks to acknowledge just how dire the situation is, drawing everyone else into wondering the true part they are playing.

Because for those involved, each day brings more toil. In the coming months, we’ll hear more from them on the struggles they had continuing in their bubble and the internal conflicts they wrestled. Sentiments that are far from disingenuous, and it is certainly easier to pass judgement so far removed. In the case of the Australian players, they cannot get back into the country and would be foolish to leave the bubble. Perversely, playing on is their only viable option.

But each day of passivity from those calling the shots brings us closer to outright negligence. And unfairly, those participating will be bear the brunt of harsh judgement from cohorts of fans for compliance because of the failures of boards and the competition to act quickly and decisively. The blemish on reputations will last long – the scars on consciences even longer.

Therein lies the futility of the IPL carrying on so brazenly. Even when you look away, you can still hear the screams.

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