It is fast approaching two years since the coronavirus pandemic invaded and interrupted our lives. The impacts on professional cricket, with its dependency on long game times and international tournaments, have been obvious — tournaments cancelled, disrupted, or switched to different locations, positive testing of players, reduced attendances, restricted travel, cuts in revenues for organizers, bio-bubbles for players, and attendant mental health issues.
Has cricket dealt well with these impacts?
After the initial shock and lockdowns, administrators responded to the COVID-19 challenges — and the varying policies adopted by national governments — with what seems to have been a strategy that “the show must go on.”
There will be those who argue that they had little alternative. Failure to play the game at professional levels would lead to a loss of broadcasting revenues that would threaten the game’s existence at those levels.
This was certainly the strategy followed by the England and Wales Cricket Board. An early casualty of the pandemic was the ECB’s new tournament, The Hundred, due to launch in 2020 but delayed until 2021, and set to continue this year.
The ECB’s accounts for the year ending Jan. 31, 2021, reported a loss of $22.6 million (£16.7 million), compared with a profit of $9.1 million in the previous year. Overall income fell by 10 percent, but administrative costs rose by 16 percent. These were influenced by the setting up of bio-secure bubbles which allowed international cricket to proceed in summer 2020, with visits from the West Indies, Pakistan, Ireland, and Australia.
The willingness of these teams to participate came with some expectation of reciprocal behavior. This was particularly the case with Pakistan, whose authorities were enraged with the ECB’s late decision to withdraw both men’s and women’s teams from short visits scheduled for October last year.
Australia’s hardball approach to insisting that the current Ashes series must go ahead may have had less to do with feelings of reciprocity than with the desperate desire to ensure that broadcasting and spectator income streams, estimated to be in the region of $143 million (200 million Australian dollars), were realized. Whilst Australia may be grateful to England, the stance taken toward Pakistan may have lingering medium-term negative effects.
It is ironic that, while other countries have suffered financially because of the pandemic, the Board of Control for Cricket in India has experienced an enhancement to its already plentiful finances. An increasing proportion of at least 70 percent of BCCI revenues derive from the Indian Premier League. The addition of two more franchises in 2022 will exacerbate the trend.
In both 2020 and 2021, all, or part of, the IPL was transferred, somewhat reluctantly, by the BCCI to the UAE. This had the effect of reducing both costs and revenues. Smaller crowds generated less income, which fell by 21 percent in the year to March 31, 2021. However, only three venues, in close proximity, were involved, compared with at least eight in India. Expenditure fell by 63 percent, leading to a hefty increase in surplus of funds and a 10 percent rise in net worth. In addition, viewership figures increased by one quarter in 2020, as that was the only way that India-based fans could watch the matches.
No doubt, fans and the BCCI will hope that switching the IPL to the UAE will not be a long-term feature. The venues and administrative bodies in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah benefitted not only from the IPL but, along with Oman, they hosted the T20 World Cup between mid-October and mid-November last year when it became clear that the original host nation, India, was badly affected by COVID-19.
It will never be known if the switch had an adverse effect on the performance of the Indian team, shorn of its fanatical support, thus paving the way for an alternative tournament winner. What is also not known at this stage, is whether the switch to the UAE has led to an upturn in support and interest in cricket in the region.
If so, it would match with the International Cricket Council’s recently released Strategy for Global Growth, which has central aims of protect, grow, and strengthen.
Unfortunately, in a number of emerging countries, tournaments have been cancelled at short notice and ICC one-day international World Cup qualifying events for both men’s and women’s cricket have been disrupted.
One example of the adverse effects of this applies to the Thailand women’s national team. It had earned the right to participate in the World Cup qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe between Nov. 21 and Dec. 5, 2021. Nine teams competed for three places to join five already qualified to play in the finals in New Zealand in March 2022. Thailand was topping its group when the tournament was abandoned because of the outbreak of the omicron variant of COVID-19.
Rescheduling was not possible, and the ICC announced that the three teams to progress would be Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the West Indies, based on a rankings system which excluded Thailand because it had not been granted ODI status. It also meant that Thailand missed the opportunity to join the ICC Women’s Championship, which would have guaranteed them nine series and extra funding.
The decision does beg the question as to how Thailand and others can achieve a status that befits playing performance. Doubt has been cast over the integrity of the ICC’s desire to expand female participation.
Issues of mental health in cricket have received little attention until recent years but have accelerated as the effects of bio-bubbles on players and staff have become apparent and openly discussed. The longer-term effects are unknown, although they are likely to have influenced the decision of some players to retire earlier than expected.
Nevertheless, the show has been kept on the road and the big-ticket events have all been able to generate their returns on investment. Indian dominance and short-format cricket continue their inexorable marches. It is the sideshows of emerging cricket and their aspirations that have suffered the brunt of cancellation and abandonment the most, as Thailand, the US, and Ireland can attest in recent weeks.