First Indies: Franchise T20 league gets underway in Trinidad

India always had a middling relationship with the Caribbean Premier League–a connection that hasn’t strayed much further than Shah Rukh Khan acquiring the Trinbago Knight Riders via Red Chillies Entertainment in 2015 and the owners of Kings XI Punjab buying St. Lucia Zouks earlier this year. This, of course, is mainly because of the lack of Indian players in the CPL’s franchises; and also because of the odd hours, IST-wise, the matches are played at.

But that connection is set to get a whole lot stronger over the course of the next few weeks, if the organisers of the seventh edition of the tournament have their way. Not only are they assured Indian eyeballs because the CPL is the first franchise-based cricket league to return in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, but the CPL is also scheduling a bulk of their two daily matches to coincide with the television prime-time in India. On weekdays, the first match will start at 10 am in Trinidad (7:30 pm IST) while the second is at 5:30 pm to keep the Caribbean audiences happy as well. Matches on Saturday and Sunday, however, will have 10 am and 2:15 pm (11:45 pm IST) starts.

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And then there is the important matter of being first movers as far as the apt scheduling is concerned. Beginning on August 18 and running until September 10, the CPL is set to whet the appetite of India’s cricket-starved masses for the Indian Premier League, which begins September 19 in the UAE. Thus, in short, the CPL is reprogramming itself to be a dress rehearsal to the IPL that also ripens the forms of the foreign players heading to the UAE. “It’s about setting the right tone. Our aim is to run a successful and safe tournament,” says Pete Russell, COO of CPL in a video chat. “We want to make sure everyone arrives and leaves safely. And in between we want to put some top-class cricket which everyone is starved of.”

This time around, the challenge for Russell is bigger than putting on a great show on the cricket field. “We have a responsibility towards CPL but we also have a responsibility to other leagues, like the IPL. To prove and show that ‘Look, we hosted an international tournament, with international players coming from many thousands of miles away and we did it safely, professionally and with great content’,” he says. “For those players going down to the IPL, this gives them a nice warm-up. It’s good for everyone. And the dates work perfectly for us and the IPL,” he adds.

The CPL is also hoping to show how one ought to add flavour to a cricket match in an empty stadium. Pre-recorded background buzz and soundtracks, enhanced onscreen engagements with AI techniques and innovative cheerleading are some of the measures adopted to get the television audience hooked to their TVs–in the Caribbean, in India (Star Sports are the broadcasters while FanCode will stream it) or anywhere in the cricket world. “We have spent a lot of time looking at exactly how we enhance this as a TV product. And let’s be honest, it is wholly a TV product this year,” says Russell. “There will be a soundtrack that will be played in the same way as in the English Premier League. There will be some background noise. There will be a lot of in-stadium activation, which will bring to life the spirit and vibe of the Caribbean. One of the key features we have is our cheerleaders, and getting them to celebrate on screen.”

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With 552 confirmed cases till Sunday, Trinidad & Tobago will play closed-door hosts at the Queen’s Park Oval in Port of Spain and the Brian Lara Stadium (in Tarouba). Despite the relatively low caseload in the Caribbean, the organisers are trying to ensure every precaution is taken. Players and support staff of all six franchises are put up in one hotel in the heart of Port of Spain. These players are already living in separate socially distanced ‘clusters’ and ‘households’ of their two-week quarantine. They have now had two tests since arrival, all of which have been negative. According to a CPL statement, if any member shows signs of the virus during the tournament, all members of that cluster will be expected to self-isolate for 14 days.

All this required some extraordinary planning. And just flying in players from different countries—many of them coronavirus hotspots—was a big part of it. “The obvious challenge was getting people from 22 different countries to fly to the Caribbean. We have to continue to be mindful about protecting the local population wherever we are going,” says Russell. Barbados was used as a hub for the New York leg of the commute, and St Lucia for the UK leg. Once everyone reached the hubs, they were transported to a Trinidad that had closed its borders, where the CPL needed special government dispensation to fly in three chartered planes.

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Repeated testing will be essential, especially for the huge coterie of players headed to the UAE after the CPL to join their IPL franchises. “I’m going through America and I’ll park up in the (airport) lounge in the corner somewhere. It’s one of the risks we’ve got to think about,” New Zealand spinner Mitchell Santner, playing for Barbados Tridents and Chennai Super Kings, told last month. “They’ve put an extensive booklet together about what happens in each circumstance which has been good, and a bit of clarity around where we’re staying,” Santner added. “It seems like they’ve got it under control.”

Did the owners of Knight Riders and Zouks make any special demands, given their IPL connection? “Obviously most of their interests are in the IPL and we absolutely respect that. But they have been very supportive of the CPL,” says Russell. The cost of staging a tournament of such magnitude is expectedly burdensome. But Russell said the stakeholders are braced for it. “I think it’s worth it. Not just for the tournament, but for West Indies cricket,” says Russell.

West Indies led the way in the resumption of international cricket by agreeing to travel to England last month. And if everything goes according to plan, they will also be laying down the marker for the first post-virus IPL, while also making inroads into cricket’s widest market along the way.

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