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IPL 2021: We Have Replaced Steel in Our Moral Compass With Gold; How Can it Point North?

It is a profound lack of moral sense and responsibility that brought us here. The simple maxim, “Do unto others…,” was sacrificed at the altar of this government’s relentless ambition. People can see an echo of that ruthless self-promotion in the IPL, in its grudging and token acknowledgement of the carnage all around it.
Virat Kohli with mask on during IPL 2021 amidst Covid-19 second wave

Even as India reels under a deadly second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Indian Premier League (IPL) continues in a bubble of its own, with its players and administrators seemingly oblivious to the calamity unfolding around them (Pic: Twitter, Financial Express).

At the time of writing, Virat Kohli’s last tweet was an exchange with Pep Guardiola in service of a sportswear brand he endorses. In the meantime, former India Test player and Ranji Trophy legend Wasim Jaffer has offered to use his Twitter presence to amplify Covid-19 SOS calls online. Sunil Chhetri, the captain of India’s men’s football team, has handed over his Twitter account to a journalist to similarly amplify efforts to connect people and provide them with support. Together, Jaffer and Chhetri have just under two million followers. Kohli has just under 42 million. The magnitude of the difference he could make is staggering. That he chooses not to, is either selfishness or cowardice.

Almost all of India is reeling, with its healthcare infrastructure in shambles, and its funeral grounds overwhelmed. The Indian Premier League (IPL), meanwhile, continues in its biosecure bubble, with its players and administrators seemingly oblivious to the calamity unfolding around them. Calls to halt the tournament have escalated in recent days, spurred on by this contrast. Predictably enough, defences of the IPL have also emerged.

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“It is misguided moral outrage to call for an end to the IPL amid the pandemic,” argues a recent editorial in the Indian Express. Were the tournament a drain on vital resources like oxygen or life-saving drugs, it goes on to say, or if running it posed a threat to public health, an argument to halt it might plausibly be made. Since neither is true in the case of the Indian Premier League, it concludes, it should be allowed to continue. To argue otherwise, to “… grudge a few hours of escape to people under stress is to be a killjoy bent on planting a flag on the moral high ground.”

The editorial marshals all the major arguments made in recent days in favour of the IPL continuing amidst the horror unfolding in Indian cities. It is an accountant’s argument that tries to show that scarce resources are not being stretched further by the tournament. What about Covid-19 tests? In a recent email, the interim CEO of the BCCI, Hemang Amin, assured nervous overseas players that the biosecure bubble within which they play is being tightened. Everyone within the bubble is now tested every two days instead of five. The IPL has recently moved to Delhi, where these tests are scarce, and when they can be found, results don’t arrive for days – a sometimes-lethal delay as hospitalization often requires a positive test.

Even if we believe the implausible claim that the tournament is not a drain on vital resources (what about the much-vaunted ICU-on-wheels ambulance IPL matches have on stand-by?), what role does Indian cricket see for itself? In a world where teenagers are banding together online to try to bridge the abyss left by an absent state, where young men and women are dying trying to get aid to the suffering, where crematorium workers labour endlessly with no protective gear, has the IPL thought about how it can use its massive resources to make a difference? 

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Mr. Amin produced what I’m sure he thought was a rousing finish to his email, “While you are professionals and will play to win, this time you are also playing for something much more important… humanity.” This is the second argument routinely made by the publicists justifying the 2021 edition of this multi-billion-rupee enterprise: this is sport as public service, cricket as a balm for a beleaguered people. 

This doesn’t ring true coming from an organisation as historically venal as the BCCI. It also asks us to ignore the evidence of our own eyes. The hollow men who run Indian cricket want their audience to look but not to see. But we have seen. Anyone who has watched a match will have noticed that every part of the game that could be sold to advertisers has been sold. Every six is branded an Unacademy Cracking Six. Where there used to be one Man of the Match, there are now several post-match prizes: each named for a major sponsor. The IPL isn’t offering people respite, it’s milking a captive audience, imprisoned indoors by the pandemic, for advertising money.

If you’re unconvinced, it is worth asking yourself why the English Premier League didn’t provoke a similar clamour for its shutdown? Part of it has to do with the fact that the EPL is about football, and is not pitched as a carnival. 

But the bigger difference has been the conduct of its players. At the height of the pandemic in England, Marcus Rashford stood up to the government and demanded that the publicly funded meals children were provided during term time be extended into the holidays, to help out low-income parents in a Covid-struck economy. The power of his example forced the government into an embarrassing U-turn, and, more importantly, guaranteed food for the children of these low-income parents. 

Perhaps it’s fair to say that he is an exceptional young man, what about the rest of them? Well, they got together and pooled a percentage of their salaries and directed it towards Covid relief. The amounts varied from superstar to journeyman, but that didn’t matter. The gesture was important.

The comparison with Indian cricketers is embarrassing. We have seen the stars of Indian cricket use their Twitter accounts to parrot the government’s partisan line on the farmers’ protests. We have seen them stay silent when their former teammate, Wasim Jaffer, was slandered for being Muslim. Their past actions give meaning to their present silence. Now, by their silence, they speak for the government. That is one reason why there are calls for the suspension of the IPL; because Indian cricket has chosen to be this government’s sock puppet.

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The final argument made in support of the IPL targets the tournament’s critics head on. They are accused of shrill moralism. Try to imagine a society entirely without moral sense. But, of course, you don’t have to; you can see it around you in the corpses burning in public parks, in the senseless deaths swamping this country and the callous indifference that caused them. 

It is a profound lack of moral sense and responsibility that brought us here. The simple maxim, “Do unto others…,” was sacrificed at the altar of this government’s relentless ambition. People can see an echo of that ruthless self-promotion in the IPL, in its grudging and token acknowledgement of the carnage all around it. It is the absence of moral sense that prevents defenders of the IPL from seeing the horror of playing in bio-secure bubbles in cities where the dead are being burnt on pavements because crematoriums have run out of pyres. 

When the Australian fast bowler Andrew Tye asked, “… how are these companies and franchises spending so much money, and the government, on the IPL when there’s people not being able to get accepted into hospital?” he came across as naïve. It took an outsider to ask the obvious question because so many of us have become inured to indecency. We have replaced the steel in our moral compass with gold and we wonder why it doesn’t point North. 

(Raghu Kesavan writes about politics, sport and culture. He tweets at @raghukesavan1)  

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