They were in pristine white flannels and shirts. To fight off the unseasonal morning chill New Delhi has been experiencing, some wore sweaters over their shirts — off-white with black or blue V shaped stripes around the neck. The sweaters are stark reminders. They look like the ones Indian players wear during ‘warm English summers’, as they suffer the swinging conditions that leave their technique and temperament in tatters.
This setting looked eerie though. An uneven ground with patches of grass gave it some semblance of a playground. A single pitch for net sessions in one corner gave it an academy feel. The space outside the community hall of a Delhi Development Authority (DDA) residential block in Vasant Kunj, South Delhi, is the training ground for 10 to 13 aspiring cricketers. The miniature Virat Kohlis — who else do the kids look up to these days — were in the midst of a fielding drill. Circled around their coach, they were using their formative reflexes to catch the ball hit towards them by their trainer, who was expecting a crisp return throw.
It is a scene we have witnessed many times during our morning walk or jog. Cricket, after all, is played everywhere in India. This morning, though, in context of the Coronavirus crisis — a full blown pandemic at the moment — young children, oblivious, potentially exposing themselves to the danger, were not an assuring or comforting sight. “Dangerous,” I exclaimed to my partner as we walked past this session. I tried to reason, and pointed out how training centres have shut down across the country. My father, who runs a martial arts and karate dojo in Kochi, Kerala, has shut operations for a month, observing due diligence, without undue panic.
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I do understand that grinding down life to a standstill is not what anyone would want, especially since the numbers hint that Covid-19 is still under control in India. However, please think again. The numbers are of reported cases, and though I pray that unreported instances are less, we know how things work in India, don't we? The limited number of testing labs, and difficulties to bring samples from all possible infections in for testing, makes the statistic skewed. The nature of this strain of Coronavirus is such that containment, and there by flattening of the curve of its spread, is only possible by being a little finicky about everything. Without panicking, one may add.
The school authorities have not given holidays for the children to indulge in sport or any group activity for that matter. The schools are shut for a reason, and 10-year-olds, fancy hand sanitizers notwithstanding, are not supposed to pass around a cricket ball, laced in sweat, saliva even, turning the training ground into a breeding ground for the virus that has put a chokehold on the world, and tightening its grip as we speak.
I almost shouted at the coach at the playground — Stop acting like the BCCI, please!
Cricket, till a day back, was arrogance personified in defying the global sports trend of going into shutdown. While the world witnessed quarantines, games behind closed doors and cancelled tournaments, races and championships, cricket, arguing the Coronavirus had not reached the 10-and-a-half playing nations, went about its business. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) went ahead with the Indian cricket team’s series against South Africa, and insisted the 2020 Indian Premier League (IPL) is on schedule.
It was a matter of time, though, before things caught up with the game. However, it can rather easily be inferred that the cognisance of the crisis by the Indian cricket establishment has not happened because of a newly formed understanding of the problem. It came about because the government stepped in with its own restrictions and directives.
Now we do understand that the BCCI, at times, acts above and beyond democracy, transparency and other instruments of accountability. But a ban on visas for all foreign nationals till April 15 — which would mean no foriegn players in the mix if the IPL started at the end of March as scheduled — was a bouncer they could not evade.
Out came the emergency response: start of the IPL postponed to April 15. The postponement had its own vested interest. This would ensure the teams would play the IPL (possibly behind closed doors) and would play with full rosters, including the expensive foriegn stars. It stems from the hope that the government will lift the visa restrictions by then. The Board has seemingly, and conveniently, forgotten that things are not exactly in the government's hands either.
Going by BCCI’s track record on public and player safety — the T20 it organised in New Delhi against Bangladesh last year when the city was choking under an early winter smog blanket being a recent and classic example — it is safe to assume that business interests were paramount in the postponement. It, surely, would not be the sudden onset of an heightened sense of social responsibility.
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The state governments, however, stepped up their efforts to contain the contagion and one of the measures implemented was to immediately stop any sort of public gathering. The Delhi government issued an order that it will not allow any IPL matches to be staged in the capital. It is a move that will hurt the Delhi Capitals franchise. Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu governments are expected to follow suit. The BCCI is now in a quandary. A face-saving (it should have ideally been preemptive) cancellation of the IPL is on the cards. The Board began with the scrapping of the series against South Africa.
And hopefully, it will use the resources and star power at its disposal to spread awareness on the Coronavirus crisis, rather than using its resolve and clout to stage the league. As of now, the BCCI is still in the ‘dekhte hein’ mode. The IPL governing council, the franchise owners and stakeholders met on March 14, and as per reports, the main agenda of the meeting was to discuss scenarios (eight has been tabled apparently). Needless to say, the scenarios revolved around alternate venues, truncated leagues and the likes. The bone of contention, apparently, was the number of matches in the league. The owners want a full set of matches, the BCCI was keen on a truncated competition.
“Allow us a week and then we will figure out how things go around the world and decide,” BCCI president Sourav Ganguly was quoted in the media after the meeting. “We will reassess the situation every week.” Dekhte hein, Dada.
The BCCI will, obviously, take a financial hit, but the unprecedented crisis has shaken almost all global enterprises and remaining immune is almost impossible.The BCCI’s coffers are surely deep enough to withstand a cancelled tournament or two.
In any case, if there is one thing we know it is that Indian cricket is about spectacle not sport. A prime example can be found from the handling of the Ranji Trophy final, between Saurashtra and Bengal in Rajkot. Since the game had begun exactly four days before BCCI’s moment of epiphany regarding the seriousness of the Coronavirus crisis, the match was open to the public, barring the final day, March 13. But truthfully, closing it off wouldn’t have made a difference. The unfortunate fact is that there are not many takers for Ranji or First Class cricket in India.
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India’s religious disposition towards cricket is centred around the national team. As a population we are pure atheists and aversionists when it comes to Ranji Trophy. This is true not just for the average fans, but for the scores of cricket writers, experts, TV panelists — the pundits. Everybody understands international cricket. No one understands Ranji cricket.
It is a phenomenon that would surprise Australian and English fans, for whom the domestic game is centred around county cricket. The Ranji Trophy has been forced into quarantine for years now. Fans and experts alike keep their distance, preferring instead to focus on the shorter more explosive formats with the glitz and the glamour.
All things said and done, some of the boys in whites I saw this morning might end up playing Ranji some day. I would wish so too, while reminding them as well as everyone around that these are unprecedented times, and the occasion calls for a temporary quarantine of a used and abused sporting adage. The Game Must Not Go On!
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