A smoky haze lingers over the whole city. Forget stars in the night sky, you can’t even see the top of some of the taller buildings – wherever you are standing. No matter which part of the metropolis you are in, the air is thick with smog and the visibility is really poor. Going to work seems like passing through a warzone minus the physical destruction that is usually found in a place of conflict. To the residents, the sun seems to have taken a long sabbatical as the dense fog hanging over the city’s air chokes every living being inside its limits creating a vicious cycle of pollution. All this while, cricket – not necessarily the most athletic of all sports – is seeing players wearing masks while vomiting inside the dressing room. It’s the Feroz Shah Kotla – in December 2017.
Almost 2 years after Sri Lanka braved up to the horror air quality in Delhi for 5 days, another neighbour Bangladesh are scheduled to play a T20I at the Feroz Shah Kotla on Sunday under the same, if not worse, polluted air. On Thursday, the pollution levels in the nation’s capital were again over ‘hazardous’ levels and are slated to remain so for the next few days. Just before the recently concluded Delhi half-marathon, doctors advised citizens to restrict their outdoor activities and said runners must be made aware of the risks they are taking.
Calls from all quarters have grown over concerns of holding the T20I under such unforgiving conditions. Given the ordeal the Sri Lankan players went through in 2017, such calls are not unwarranted. 2 years ago, fast bowlers Lahiru Gamage and Suranga Lakmal complained of respiratory problems and in the end puked inside the Kotla dressing room. Later, all-rounder Dhananjaya de Silva also vomited. These were definitely not ‘normal’ situations, according to then Lankan coach Nic Pothas.
However, 2 years since that episode, not too much seems to have changed in the BCCI and DDCA’s attitude towards handling the Delhi pollution issue. Such a lackluster approach should also be credited in large amounts to the conservative attitude on display when the Lankan players fell ill. While Indian captain Virat Kohli and the rest of the management blamed the opposition for ‘stalling the game’, the crowd at the stadium infamously poked fun at the visitors with chants of ‘loser’ accompanied by boos. Then BCCI acting president CK Khanna had said that the Lankan players created an ‘unnecessary fuss’ as the 20,000-odd spectators had no problems breathing. Not a bad assessment coming from someone sitting in air-conditioned offices! It seemed like no one in the Indian cricket establishment seemed to care that Lakmal and Co. were coming from a country where the air quality readings are generally below 50! Sadly, not much seems to have changed now.
“…Does Delhi deserve any sporting event of International standard at all?” asked former India captain Bishan Singh Bedi recently. Cricketer-turned-politician Gautam Gambhir too expressed his concern over the pollution levels in the capital while suggesting that “…pollution is a far serious issue than having a game of cricket or any other sports matches in Delhi”.
Delhi: Three Bangladeshi players practice while wearing masks, ahead of the 1st T20i against India on November 3 at the Arun Jaitley Stadium. #IndvsBan pic.twitter.com/eAObQmV7GC
Even though concerns have been raised from those outside the BCCI, the body itself seems immune to talks about the unfavourable playing conditions in Delhi during the winters.
New BCCI head and former India captain Sourav Ganguly is unfazed by the poor air quality and has confirmed that the match will go ahead as planned. However, to be fair to Ganguly, he did say on Thursday that the BCCI “will have to be a little bit more practical” while scheduling matches “in the northern part of India during the winter”. It remains to be seen what actual changes are brought on under Ganguly in his short tenure.
Later, Indian captain for the upcoming T20I series Rohit Sharma too sounded confident of the conditions after landing in Delhi saying: “We didn’t have any problem when we played the Test match here (against Sri Lanka). We are not aware of the exact discussion and I haven’t had any problem”.
Even if the match finishes without any health scares, the issue of Delhi’s air being fit to play cricket will continue to dominate discourse in the country whenever a game is scheduled to be played in the city in the winter season. If there is one thing the BCCI should have taken away from the whole 2017 episode was that players’ well-being must be paramount in all conditions. If it is normal for a team to cancel a tour of another country based on security concerns, the day is not far away when teams could start weighing the risks of playing in a highly polluted city. Judging by the progressive deterioration in Delhi’s air quality, the most polluted city in the world is set to dominate all such discussions in the near future. BCCI not hosting matches in such unhealthy conditions could be an unpopular move but will necessarily be a step in the right direction.
As Bedi pointed out in his tweet, the time has come to ask whether pollution-ridden cities like Delhi deserve to be hosting international sporting events. Maybe, ostracizing the city from such events is the last straw in the never-ending quest to shake it off its inaction in tackling the pollution. This is not just a sporting issue anymore. It is a matter of human rights. Players and athletes – Indians or otherwise – deserve to breathe in clean air and it is the duty of the authorities to see to it that they don’t end up vomiting their guts out while playing a game they have played all their life. Maybe, now the time is right to draw a line saying that with the benefits of hosting a game of cricket also comes the responsibility to organize it in conditions deemed fit to play the sport. What to do?
First of all, the Indian team and BCCI need to at least acknowledge that playing in a polluted Delhi is not game anymore. Living in denial by not accepting the effects of the polluted air on players is not going to help anybody. Unless and until they accept that the pollution is harmful to cricketers, nothing is going to be done in this regard and the issue will continue to remain a way to poke fun at cricketers falling sick while playing.
The fans, on their part, must also stop trivializing issues such as pollution and climate change and start questioning the authorities why they are unable to provide them with the most basic of human needs – clean air.
The government of Delhi, DDCA and the BCCI will have to make some tough calls soon if they are to keep having international cricket in the capital. Whether there will be any steps taken to tackle the Delhi menace is mostly speculative and borders on wishful thinking. But the Bangladesh cricketers don’t even have that luxury.
Already reeling under the crisis of losing their greatest-ever player Shakib al Hasan, just a few days ago from the start of the tour, Bangladesh are surely going to be tested by the severe air quality in Delhi along with an Indian team who have their eyes set on next year’s T20 World Cup. Bangladesh wicketkeeper-batsman Litton Das has already been seen training while wearing a mask in Delhi. Maybe more, and not just within the Bangladesh team, will sport such masks on November 3 and show the world that enough is enough.