Ides of March 2020: How corona lockdown pulled the plug of several tantalising sporting tales

Gaurav Bhatt

KL Rahul keeping wickets has added balance to the Indian team with the T20 World Cup in October but uncertainty prevails over the dates of the tournament.

With due apologies to the American collegiate basketball tournament, 'March Madness' should now forever be reserved for the never-ending March of 2020.

Though the manic sporting Sundays of pre-coronavirus times seem a lifetime ago, it was mere weeks ago that this was to be a glorious spring filled with ripe storylines. Now, even if the world of sport resumes this summer, some narratives may have rushed conclusions or while some may not conclude at all. Take your mind away from the sad 'what is', to the even-sadder 'what could have been'...

All dressed up, nowhere to go

The adrenaline high of the Super Over heists in New Zealand seemed enough to tide Team India over the sobering failures in other (some would say less relevant) formats. The 5-0 T20 whitewash an indicator that Virat Kohli and Co were on the road to October's World Cup without any obvious weaknesses.

Mohammed Shami was quick to share the load from a returning Jasprit Bumrah. Shreyas Iyer made one wonder how India would have fared with a designated Number 4 last year in England. And a Rahul moonlighting as a wicket-keeper was a further good omen for World Cup hopes.

It's been two long months since then, and while ICC is hopeful of organising the tournament in Australia as planned, the escalating outbreak and grim forecasts mean everything's up in the air. While the plug hasn't been pulled yet on the Indian Premier League, the T20 extravaganza has already been delayed once. Also in limbo thus is the return of MS Dhoni.

The 38-year-old hasn't played since the World Cup semifinal loss against New Zealand and recently featured in an IPL commercial which could best be described as the Sourav Ganguly's 'Bhoole toh nahi' campaign for this generation. The ad shows the two-time World Cup-winning captain overhearing a couple poking fun at his sabbatical. "Bohot shor haina," Dhoni says, putting his headphones on after chiding them without saying a word. "Khel bolega", screams the advertisement. That's the official hashtag for the tournament, in case the commercial is too subtle for you.
For now, we are back to radio silence.

From never Walking Alone to self-isolation

Liverpool escape their personal purgatory. (Source: Reuters)

There was the two-horse race that is La Liga, and Erling Haaland's fiery start at Dortmund. Even the growing resentment among Bundesliga fans for their clubs, the billionaire backers and the German federation itself.

There was however no bigger story than watching Liverpool escape their personal purgatory.

The last of its 18 domestic title wins was in 1990, and the club was on its way to ending the wait. Sure, they'd started to lose steam but a lead of 25 points was practically unassailable. Bitter rivals Manchester United too pitched in, defeating second-placed City to leave Liverpool two wins from glory. Heartbreaks by a point, or a slip, looked distant. Liverpool couldn't be touched, parades were planned, and the stage was set for a rousing chorus of You'll Never Walk Alone.

Cut to two weeks later, and the players, like millions others, are in self-isolation, and their title ambitions in limbo. The Premier League has been suspended till April 30, and further decisions will be taken in the coming week. Reports claim clubs have been warned against using the phrase 'null and void', using 'curtailed' instead as a worst-case scenario.

But while the title race was a foregone conclusion, the action was riveting on the opposite spectrum. The flip-side to 'awarding' the title to Liverpool means consigning Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich to relegation with at least nine match-days left and eight points separating the bottom six.

To put things in perspective, in 2015, Leicester was nailed to the bottom till the 31st match-day i.e. April 11. A run of seven wins from their last nine fixtures not just helped them survive, but allowed Leicester to stage a fairytale campaign the year later, winning the title from the odds of 5000-1.

Laying siege to an empire of clay

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Dominic Thiem sailed into the last two French Open finals.

The tennis world seemed on the cusp of a #NextGen player breaking the hegemony of the men's tour, and Dominic Thiem was the safest bet. The closest to a pure clay-courter in today's game, the 26-year-old Austrian sailed into the last two French Open finals before submitting to the perennial master Rafael Nadal to four sets last year.

This January, Thiem replicated the run at the Melbourne Park, losing the Australian Open final to Novak Djokovic in five sets after vanquishing Nadal in the quarters. He was expected to carry his form into the Indian Wells title defence and pose a fiercer challenge to Nadal at Roland Garros. Then Indian Wells became the first big tennis cancellation, and French Open unilaterally rescheduled itself a week after US Open in September.

Chalk Thiem's coronation up to the long list of 'what ifs'. Will Rafael Nadal be able to extend his French Open record to 13 titles? Could Serena Williams recalibrate and make another run at the elusive 24th Grand Slam? Will Roger Federer — currently out due to a knee surgery — now choose to play his second French Open in five years, or will he stay loyal to the coinciding Laver Cup?

In addition to a public health crisis, the pandemic has also been a class crisis in many cases. In sport, it's evident in the struggles of the lower-league clubs in football and the millions of pounds a relegated/promoted team stands to lose/gain. Another such status quo crisis could be manifesting in the anyway top-heavy world of professional tennis. While the Federers, Djokovics and Nadals can afford to come through with generous donations, several outside of the top 50 don't know where the next cheque will come from. The bigwigs can use home gyms (or private academies) to train and keep nutritionists employed; others, such as world No. 93 and former 25th-ranked Vasek Pospisil, are binging on pasta and doing burpees in their apartments.

Hopes of watching Federer compete at his last Olympics have also been dashed. "This would be my 5th Olympic Games, I hope I will be healthy unlike Rio! Can’t wait Tokyo (sic)," the 38-year-old, who has spoken of his dream to achieve the golden slam (four majors and an Olympic singles gold), had tweeted last year.

Nadal (34) is getting up there in years as well, and both have had to take timeouts to prolong their careers. In theory, inactivity can also provide significant time to recover. But it might not be as simple if we're to believe another GOAT.

LeBron's Lakers doing it for Kobe?

LeBron James promised to continue Kobe Bryant's legacy.

"Heartbroken" over the death of Kobe Bryant this January, LeBron James promised to continue his fellow NBA and LA Lakers legend's legacy. True to his word, James had been averaging 25.7 points, 10.6 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game at the time of the NBA suspension on March 11.

Lakers was atop the Western Conference tables, and while the battle for Los Angeles was on the cards against Clippers, it was the head-to-head clash between marquee players James and Kawhi Leonard that had fans salivating.

The current hiatus means the league is looking at play-in tournament or shortened playoffs as options. James however believes a shortened regular-season finale is necessary before the playoff bracket.

"One thing you can't just do is go straight to the playoffs," James said on the Road Trippin' podcast this week. "Because it discredits the 60-plus games that guys had fighting for that position."

More importantly, James highlighted the importance of rhythm and the adverse effects of "rest" on his body.

"When you've been building six months of conditioning and preparation and then [(it's gone), the narrative that I don't like (is), 'Well, now guys get so much rest' or, like, 'LeBron, he's 35, he's got so many minutes on his body, now he gets so much rest'. It's actually the opposite for me because my body, when we stopped playing, was asking me, like, 'What the hell are you doing? My body was like, 'Hey man, what the hell is going on? It's March 13th, you're getting ready for the playoffs, why are you shutting down right now?'"

The generational tussle cut short

Hamilton runs out of the contract with Mercedes at the end of the season.

By now, we should have been two GPs into Lewis Hamilton's quest for fourth-straight, and seventh overall world championship. Stopping him from trying to match Michael Schumacher's haul would be 22-year-olds Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc; beating the 34-year-old Hamilton would have made either of the two the new poster boy, holding the young guns off would have cemented the Brit as an all-time great.

Instead, the first eight races have been cancelled or postponed. That's more than one third of what was to be the longest season of Formula 1. That includes debutant Vietnam, who signed a $60mn per year deal in a bid to emulate Singapore's glitzy night race and fill the void left by Malaysia. For F1, Vietnam GP was even more important after the failures in Korea and India.

Current CEO Chase Carey said earlier this week that he still hoped to pull off a calendar of up to 18 events. Former chief Bernie Ecclestone however would've chosen to abandon the season entirely.

"I'd have to say we're going to close down talk of having any races this year. That's the only thing you could do safely for everybody so nobody starts making silly arrangements which may not be able to happen," Ecclestone told reporters. "I hope they do. They could run three or four races at the beginning of next year and still count to the 2020 championship. The problem is where are you going to have them where the teams can go and the promoter wants to run a race. It's all very well making the calendar, which you can do while you wait. The big problem is getting the promoters to want to run the race."

A cancelled season however opens up a different can of worms. 2020 is the final year under current regulations and covenants, with a slew of political and regulatory changes to be introduced in 2021. Next year's driver market also brings up possibilities of exits and new blood. Not to forget, Hamilton himself runs out of the contract with Mercedes at the end of the season.