Did Nero really play the fiddle while Rome was burning? The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), and the Indian cricket team certainly seem to be. When New Delhi is choking they are, indeed, playing a game of cricket.
The BCCI is yet to acknowledge the smog, the smoky poisonous air, and the declaration of a public health emergency by the Environment Pollution - Prevention and Control - Authority (EPCA) in New Delhi, as a serious hazard. The Board has shown once again that it has no regard for the players as well as the thousands who would throng the Feroz Shah Kotla (some have been referring to the cricket ground as Arun Jaitley Stadium) to watch India, led by Rohit Sharma, take on Bangladesh in the opening T20I match of the series on November 3.
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The Air Quality Index (AQI) in the capital has been hovering around the 500-600 mark the past couple of days, in the severe plus category as per AQI table definitions. It hit 999 (out of scale) this morning, mere hours before the match. Prolonged exposure to the poisonous air could cause serious health hazards, say medical practitioners, while the Delhi government has shut all educational institutions till November 5. Campaigns have also been initiated by different bodies, urging people to stay indoors, keeping themselves shielded at all times.
Enter the Men in Blue.
They trained at the Kotla, broad chested, thumping even, wearing no masks. India’s batting coach Vikram Rathour was quoted as saying that his players are used to the conditions. Excuse me, sir! We are not talking about dew or moisture here. We are talking about PM 2.5 particles and nano pollutants that can make even the fittest sick. Of course, the Indian cricket team players are alpha fit these days. And, that was portrayed in how they brushed aside pollution fears by training with no masks on.
The visiting Bangladesh have less fit lungs than the Indians. This much was obvious from the way they wore masks while training. But neither the cricketers nor the coach were keen to comment anything negative about the air quality and its hazards. Their coach, Russell Domingo, spoke about players having “scratchy eyes and sore throats” but insisted, rather callously, that “no one is dying”.
Masks, scratchy eyes and sore throats apart, one can’t blame the Bangladesh players for keeping mum. After all, the money-spinning tour of India is at stake and anything negative could kill Bangladesh Cricket Board’s chance to earn revenue that could keep them afloat for many months hence.
The narrative is about money, obviously. With the tour programmes fixed, and the venues decided well in advance, BCCI president Sourav Ganguly, even while acknowledging the pollution issue, washed his hands off the rescheduling bait by saying it is too late now. The sponsors, the broadcaster demands, among other factors, would have weighed in heavily too.
The pertinent point, however, is why the Board scheduled a match in the first place when winter in the Delhi-NCR is always known to make the capital region a toxic gas chamber. In 2017, the visiting Sri Lankan side and the Indian cricket team were subjected to the poison during the Test match in Kotla. On the second day of the match, Lankan fast bowlers collapsed with nausea and were provided oxygen for recovery. The poor visitors were coming from a country with substantially better quality of air and were not “acclimatized” enough for the testing conditions in Delhi.
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One can’t prime the lungs for pollution, the Board should understand. The near fatal incident during the Test match against the Lankans should have been a lesson for the BCCI and they should have stayed away from scheduling another match in Delhi when the pollution levels are high.
Beyond the scheduling oversight, BCCI’s lack of sensitivity to a serious problem facing some of the biggest cities in India, is appalling. The Board is a sporting body, no doubt, but it does have some social responsibilities. The BCCI governs cricket, a sport that is entrenched in India’s socio-political fabric. The kind of reach the Indian cricket team and the BCCI have among the Indian masses is unprecedented.
In an ideal scenario, the Board would use its reach and clout among the people to highlight the ills of pollution. What better way to do that than to abandon or reschedule the match to a safer venue, bringing the news of the health hazard into the conscience of a larger audience across the country. India is vast with its people enjoying exclusive existence in their states, pockets and spheres. One thing that cuts across those spheres is cricket and an abandoned cricket match would have directed the collective cognisance of the country towards the larger problem of pollution in India.
Sri Lanka cricket team players wore pollution masks during the Test against Indian cricket team at the Kotla in 2017. On Day 2 of the Test, their fast bowlers collapsed, struggling in the poisonous air.
Then again, why would the Board care? The BCCI has shown once again that it should not be expected to look beyond the limited responsibilities it executes being the strongest body in a globally insignificant sport.
This is also a big moment for the Indian cricket team players, whose health is at stake here too. Virat Kohli, who has skipped the series, had appealed to the people of Delhi via his Instagram account, giving out a sermon on how to tackle pollution. At some point or the other, many other players have spoken about pollution in their social media ecosystems.
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But, when it comes to walking the talk, none of them seems to have the gall to stand up and act. Acting skipper Rohit, it has been reported, gave assurance to Ganguly that the team is ready to play despite the conditions.
Granted that being contracted players, it is not that simple to say no to the all powerful BCCI when the Board wants you to play. However, players walking into the middle wearing pollution masks would be a big enough symbol that would highlight what’s wrong in the picture. Indian cricket team players are used to such displays of symbolism. Earlier in the year, they had walked out wearing Nike camouflage caps to show solidarity to the slain soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir.
While the players find it motivating to go on a public display of nationalism featuring the armed forces, it is unfortunate to see that they don’t find the fight against pollution a worthy enough cause to be brought out into public domain using their extensive sphere of influence. That is a national cause too, albeit not exactly the nationalistic cause that has been pedalled these days by the ruling majority.
The governing body and its callous attitude towards everything beyond its immediate and vested priorities is also abhorrent. At this juncture, one can only wish the players, and the spectators in the stands of Kotla all the best, hoping the four hours of exposure on Sunday don’t leave them scarred for life, even as the rest of us wonder what breathing clean air means.
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