While the pandemic has spelt disaster for many industries, one thing it has decimated is the business of sport. And yes, contrary to what many might say, sport is a business, an industry, providing employment to thousands and thousands of people around the globe.
What we have also learnt during the pandemic is that without live sport, life feels incomplete. The joy that many felt when Real Madrid overtook Barcelona after a post-resumption spurt, or when Juventus claimed yet another Serie A crown and Liverpool won their first ever Premier League title, having last won the old First Division 30 years ago, was out there for everyone to see, particularly as most people felt this season would be suspended.
But for most of India, real sport only began in earnest when cricket resumed, with the England versus West indies Tests. The series has been a tour-de-force of organisation and has laid the template for other events that will now surely follow – the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) kicks off in mid-August in Trinidad, and then, the event that all of India has been waiting for – the Indian Premier League!
ECB Set the Pace
The bio-secure bubble that the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) created around the series and also for the Pakistan series that follows has proved to be an immense success so far. Of course, England has the advantage of having two grounds with top-class hotels situated inside the premises, thus taking away the associated risk of travel to and from the ground each day.
Everyone – players, officials, television crew – was housed inside the hotels at Southampton and Manchester, and each floor was allocated to a different group of people involved in the game, so that there was no inter-mingling, thus avoiding any chance of the bubble being contaminated. Photos of breakfast showed players and commentators sitting alone at a table, rather than sharing a chat over coffee as usually happens. Safety above everything else has been the mantra.
A post shared by Stuart Broad (@stuartbroad8) on Jun 28, 2020 at 7:15am PDT
This cautious approach will now likely be replicated by every other event in the foreseeable future. In the CPL, for example, the television crew have been asked to reach nearly two-and-a-half weeks before the first game. They will be isolated in the hotel for 15 days, before they are allowed to start work. There will be constant testing as well.
IPL to Start Indian’s Cricket Return
That brings us to the IPL. In what has come as a matter of immense relief to everyone associated with cricket in India, the event is finally set to take place between September and November in the United Arab Emirates.
For colleagues within the sports broadcasting industry, the IPL provides two months of work every year, and its postponement was a massive blow. Most of them have not earned any money for the last four months and are unlikely to, until the IPL begins. Savings have begun to run low and mental health has been a huge concern. So for them, and others like them who are associated with the league, this is nothing short of a godsend.
But while having the event is a welcome move, it will be a huge logistical task to set up a system in a different country. It is understood that the teams will be in charge of ferrying their players in – whether it be on charters or on commercial flights. Everyone will be tested before they leave for the event, and then also on arrival.
Overall, the UAE is a great choice to have the event – testing facilities are easily available, as are quality hotels which will be desperate for business as Dubai in particular relies heavily on tourism.
Most important, of course, is the fact that there are three international grounds within driving distance of each other. This would allow teams to operate from one central base, instead of having to shift hotels. If you stay in Dubai, Sharjah is only a half-hour drive (depending on traffic), while Abu Dhabi would be about 75 minutes away.
Of course, a league such as the IPL is a totally different beast from a bilateral series – for one thing, there are eight teams involved, rather than just two, and in the UAE there will be three television crews, instead of just one, which scales everything up dramatically.
Also, the franchises will have to find their own hotels and make their own travel arrangements, instead of a central body such as the ECB doing it for the bilateral series in England. To create a bio-secure bubble around eight teams as well as the organising team and broadcast crew will be a much larger task, but if any event can achieve this, it is the IPL, which has already shown immense adaptability when shifting the event away twice before. Of course, at that time, the situation was not complicated by a pandemic!
New Ground for Broadcasters
With regard to the coverage of the tournament, something that I as a broadcaster would be keenly interested in, Sky Sports’ handling of the West Indies series has provided some great pointers. Where usually a large number of crew members are packed into one broadcast room, that might have to be re-jigged for this event.
Social distancing norms will need to be followed, with fewer people packed into one room, meaning more rooms required by the broadcasters. Workstations have been separated by plastic barriers in the UK, something which will probably need to be replicated during the IPL as well.
Innovative ideas will have to be implemented in order to minimise crew on site – for example, Sky has not kept a statistician on site, but they had a direct line of communication to the commentators and to the graphics team, from home.
In India, too, experiments have successfully been conducted where match graphics have been inserted remotely. In fact, the way Star added Hindi commentary for the recent 3 Team Cricket event in South Africa would have provided them with great leanings to take forward into the IPL. None of the commentators were sitting together – each of them commentated from their own home, while the director was sitting in an entirely different location and the Hindi graphics were added on remotely from Delhi. Unthought-of times have called for innovative measures, and the broadcasters have ensured that they have lifted their game too.
— Irfan Pathan (@IrfanPathan) July 18, 2020
Of course, for world feed commentary, it is likely that commentators will be on site. It will mean them sitting far apart, as well as each commentator being assigned their own microphone unit, because lip microphones need to be physically held over the upper lip, a practice that isn't ideal in the current scenario.
It will be difficult to bring out the excitement associated with T20 cricket in a stadium bereft of crowds, and it will take a lot of skill and hard work to find new ways to draw in the viewer. The advantage though is that while there is usually no time for analysis in a T20 game, now it might be essential to keep the television viewers' interest up. Consequently, the coverage and commentary might be deeper than usual. Harsha Bhogle tweeted a few days ago that while Test cricket's coverage wasn't diminished much by a lack of crowd, it is a different case with white ball cricket, because we are so used to crowds at these games.
Other observation: No crowds doesn't seem to matter as much in a test match (and @SkyCricket have a track going) but something in the audio definitely missing in this telecast #3teamcricket. Maybe we are used to a lot of noise in T20 cricket......
— Harsha Bhogle (@bhogleharsha) July 18, 2020
Sky Cricket provided a separate crowd audio track, similar to that in football, while there has been talk of putting screens up with shots of spectators watching the game at home being beamed on them to give the effect of a crowd.
There have been a lot of ideas thrown about, and if there is one thing that we can be certain of, it is that the IPL broadcast will not be short of innovation. Some of these will work, others might not, but the coverage as well as the entire conduct of the IPL will be a very useful reference point for other tournaments that happen in the near future, as we soldier on in what is now ‘the new normal’.
(Hemant Buch is a broadcaster and writer who’s been in the business for over 25 years. Formerly a Senior VP at Ten Sports, he currently works on live broadcast of cricket all over the world. When he isn’t working, he’s probably chasing tigers in the wild with a long lens. He tweets @hemantbuch)
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