As with so many recent questions, no one knows the answer

Updated - April 07, 2020 11:16 pm IST

Published - April 07, 2020 05:47 pm IST

A general view of play with empty stands after Cricket Australia announced no public will be admitted to venues for the three match series during the One Day International series between Australia and New Zealand at Sydney Cricket Ground on March 13.

A general view of play with empty stands after Cricket Australia announced no public will be admitted to venues for the three match series during the One Day International series between Australia and New Zealand at Sydney Cricket Ground on March 13.

The American novelist and short story writer John Cheever said it best, although others too have said something similar: “I can’t write without a reader.”

It is the reader who makes the writer; the audience which makes the performer. Can you conceive of a concert, for example, in an empty hall, or a cricket match with no one in the stands? A few months ago this would have sounded absurd. Now we are forced to consider it in our virus-induced world of isolation and inactivity.

The UEFA Champions League, Serie A in Italy, the English Premier League, Mexico’s football league were only some of the events that experimented with matches in empty stadiums before lockdowns and travel restrictions became the norm. There is something weird about playing in empty stadiums — especially since we call popular sports ‘spectator sports’.

Cricket has sometimes been played in empty stadiums — but that was because no one turned up to watch. The expression “two men and a dog” was used so often to describe the turnout at some county matches in England that it has evolved into a sporting cliché. In India in recent years, Ranji Trophy matches would sometimes count as well attended if two men and a dog actually sat in the stands.

‘Immoral feel’

There is something almost immoral about sport sans spectators. True, at the top level, it is not the paying spectator at the stadium who keeps the sport alive, but those munching on chips and nuts on their sofas back home lounging before a television set. Cricket has long ceased to be only a game played over 22 yards and become one played on the 22 inches (and more) of the television screen.

I suspect it is possible, thanks to CGI, to put cheering crowds into the background when a game is in reality being played in empty stadiums, and maybe that is where we are headed. I don’t know if technology is advanced enough for us to be shown Don Bradman facing up to Jasprit Bumrah or C.K. Nayudu taking on Shane Warne.

However, that is a discussion for another day. Meanwhile, the IPL. It hasn’t been formally called off yet nor have fresh dates been announced. That’s understandable. It certainly can’t take place this month nor does it seem likely it can in the near future.

As with so many issues relating to the current situation, no one knows. Can India squeeze in a small window for a truncated tournament in September? No one knows. By when should a call be taken? No one knows. Contact-tracing and curve-flattening enter the discussion — two terms few had heard of till recently.

Already the World T20 in Australia in October-November is looking shaky, while the World Test championship is stuck in limbo and the ODI league (scheduled to begin next month) might have to be cancelled.

Not surprisingly, players and those involved with the tournament are hoping the IPL is held this year. England’s Jos Buttler told ESPNcricinfo that the IPL “has the weight” to force changes in the calendar. Sanjay Manjrekar thinks it will kick start the economy. These are positive thoughts even if built on nothing more substantial than hope. The International Cricket Council meeting May 8 -10 might provide some answers, or at least a set of alternatives.

Money matters

Star India acquired the rights for IPL for five years in 2018 for ₹16,347.50 crore while franchises have paid a king’s ransom for some of the players. You can see their dilemma.

It is crass to speak of such huge figures at a time when the country, and especially its poor are in dire straits. Not playing a tournament for one year is hardly in the same league as lives lost and livelihoods deprived in recent weeks.

If there is a school of thought which believes that playing a truncated IPL — whenever that might be — at empty stadiums would salvage something from the wreckage of the coronavirus, that is understandable too.

But this is not like transporting the whole tournament lock, stock and barrel to South Africa as the second edition was. There was no treacherous virus then, no travel restrictions, no danger in crowds and no need for social distancing. The 13th edition faces something sport hasn’t had to deal with in such numbers and with such intensity.

If Cheever were to return to our midst, he might be surprised to hear a fan has ‘heard’ all his short stories. ‘Readers’, in the classic sense may not be necessary in the age of audio books. Perhaps spectators may not be necessary in the age of television and live streaming. Still, the human cost of even a curtailed tournament might be too high.

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