The Indian Premier League (IPL) begins in the UAE on Saturday. The biggest and richest cricket tournament outside the World Cups, it is usually held in India but has been taken outside because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Here's all you need to know about the tournament - and why holding it at all is such a big deal.
First up, why should we care about the IPL taking place in the UAE?
The IPL is at the front and centre of India's - and the world's - cricket economy. It is so important that, typically, very little other top-level cricket is scheduled at the same time. A cancellation, because of the pandemic or otherwise, would have led to losses of between US$500-530 million for the Indian cricket board (BCCI) - and that's just the value of the media rights for a year. The fact that the tournament is being held this year, though a few months off its original March-May window, is an encouraging sign in a challenging economic climate. The IPL economy goes far beyond India - cricket boards of the smaller nations, like Afghanistan, too earn incomes for letting their players participate.
Why not hold the tournament in India?
Logistics, mainly. Cricket has resumed since its mid-March halt, with England hosting the international teams of West Indies, Pakistan, Ireland and Australia, but the IPL is an entire tournament, logistically a more complex operation and far more international in nature. It involves eight teams and several hundred players, support staff and officials. The usual IPL scheduling template, involving eight venues across the country and multiple (and often very long) flights, wouldn't have worked in a Covid-19 world. More so given India's climbing infection rate. What was needed was a more compact host country, in roughly the same time zone, with stadiums close to each other, reachable by short road journeys, and with top-level communication, accommodation and other facilities. And reasonably virus-free.
Why the UAE?
Simply put, the UAE ticks those boxes: size, facilities and location. It's roughly the geographical centre of the cricket world. Most of the players are from India but the overall mix of those involved is truly global: Other countries represented this year are New Zealand, Australia, England, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Afghanistan and several Caribbean nations. And the Covid-19 infection rates are still very low and localised. The UAE is anyway a long-standing venue for cricket matches - it has been Pakistan's "home" venue since 2009 - and also hosted part of the 2014 edition of the IPL.
So how has the tournament been organised there?
Like the NBA did by putting together a bio-bubble in Orlando, the IPL, along with the eight franchises, have put together bio-bubbles in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, where the matches will be held. Players and officials have had to clear a total of five Covid-19 tests - two before flying out and three in their first six days of arrival in the UAE - before entering the bio-bubble. Then, all squad members will be tested on the fifth day of every week throughout the tournament.
Under IPL rules, no person can leave the bio-secure bubble during the course of the tournament. Strict social distancing norms have been recommended, including squad members discouraged from having any close contact even within the bubble, which includes moving between hotel rooms. Squad members have also been asked to wear masks outside their rooms at hotels and avoid any unnecessary movement. There will be exceptions, of course. If an injured player needs to visit a hospital for X-rays or scans, then the guidelines suggest the movement be restricted to the clinic with minimal interaction with outsiders. All the teams have booked out entire wings of hotels or resorts from a safety standpoint.
This is similar to the rules for the cricket matches in England, isn't it?
Yes, it is. England hosted West Indies, Pakistan, Ireland and Australia at two venues: Ageas Bowl, Southampton and Old Trafford, Manchester. Both these grounds have on-site hotels, which made local travel and accommodation simpler. Players were all part of a bio-bubble for the duration of the matches. Simple breaches - like a player taking a detour home while travelling from one venue to another - were dealt with very strictly.
So the stage is set, then. Are the players ready? You'd hope so. They've been in the UAE since the end of August, first completing their quarantine process and then getting down to training. The fans definitely will be ready because they've been starved of cricket. Indian players, on an average, play for 10-11 months a year. That includes eight-nine months of international cricket and two months of the IPL. But they last played in early March, before the pandemic struck. That has made it seven full months of no cricket for a cricket-crazy country. That could potentially make this the most-watched IPL ever.
Really? What are the numbers usually like?
According to a report in the Economic Times, the IPL final in 2019 - the Indian equivalent of the Super Bowl - had 462 million TV viewers worldwide. On digital media, Star India's video streaming service Hotstar recorded a reach of over 300 million viewers, with a peak concurrency of 18.6 million viewers for the final, between Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings.
What are the big talking points this season?
MS Dhoni, the celebrated former India captain, is now retired from international cricket but will captain Chennai Super Kings. Virat Kohli is a global superstar, who has made the Forbes list of richest athletes in the world for a few years now, but his team, Royal Challengers Bangalore, have never won the tournament. Among the foreign players, there's Jamaica's Andre Russell, Afghanistan's Rashid Khan and Australia's David Warner - all of them are global cricket superstars.
Is there any American interest?
For the first time ever, an American national will be part of the IPL. Ali Khan, 29, resides in Ohio and plays for the USA national team. He was first noticed while playing a local T20 tournament at Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill, Florida, by a few talent scouts. Over the last three years, he has already featured in T20 leagues across the Caribbean and Pakistan. This year, he will play for Kolkata Knight Riders, a franchise co-owned by Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan.