A few self-evident truths. Yes, the Indian Premier League (IPL) is a game-changer, entertainment-engine, employment-generator, distraction-device, balm-dispenser, and these days, it appears also neighbourhood watch. So how can this be construed as a demand to cancel, suspend, postpone, curtail, or trim the ongoing season?
At the moment, the IPL is safe from such gut-wrenching choices because its cast-iron bio-bubble on the surface of Mars effectively shields it from the sattar saalon main joh nahin hua public health crisis in independent India. Or as the Iceland Cricket Twitter handle described it the, “humanitarian catastrophe” unfolding in India “behind the million-dollar glitz and glamour of the IPL.”
Never mind Mars, the IPL is actually taking place in a galaxy far, far away. Until Sunday, 25 April, the single acknowledgement of India’s COVID tsunami used to come in the form of commentators either reading out messages or speaking in their own words. But not too many.
It was as if Indian cricket’s panjandrums have decided that the IPL’s viewer-fans should be overdosed on a cocktail of uppers: Top-volume commentary, the amped artificial surround sound of crowds (a TV innovation born out of the pandemic) filmy beats, and relentless sponsor mentions, at least one an over. To take the viewer’s mind off the bad stuff.
Along with its many other roles offering sporting contest and cricketainment plus wealth and employment generation, the IPL has now manfully also taken on the task of national mood-elevator and mass-gathering-prevention machine.
Is this not contribution enough, dammit?
Most profuse apologies to all hurt sentiments, but no.
Indian cricket prides itself of being the biggest and powerful pan-Indian cultural phenomenon, outstripping even cinema (on count of the fact that there are no new film releases during the IPL). As India’s lone world standard global sporting brand, its energy and organisation saluted. For such an important an entity to be detached from what is happening in the country it belongs to and generates its wealth from is either deliberate omission or callous abandon. You choose.
It is not possible that no one in the 1,200-plus people involved in the IPL, players, coaches, staff, broadcasters, ground crew, transport personnel would not have been personally affected by the pandemic or won’t notice a fully-equipped ambulance on standby during games.
During the pandemic, many individuals and organisations inside Indian cricket – scorers, umpires, former players – have stepped in and helped groundstaff and each other. Some state associations have paid out full wages to employees, offering support during lockdown and the months after. In Bengaluru, for example, when matches resumed, one umpire handed over his match fee to every colleague at the other end with no other source of income. The Twitter feeds of R Ashwin, Wasim Jaffer, Irfan Pathan, Harbhajan Singh were particularly responsive to the crisis, Harbhajan setting up a mobile testing lab in Pune, which can test 1,500 people a day promising results in four hours.
But at the very top of Indian cricket, what the IPL coverage reflects is an absence of any word or deed. As on 4 pm on the afternoon of 26 April, there was not a mention on the 14.5m strong Team India Twitter handle @BCCI or the 6.2m @IPL.
It is not known whether domestic players had been paid their match fees for the 2019-20 season or any compensation promised verbally over 2020-21 had reached its beneficiaries. Even if it has vanished into the PM Cares blackhole, it is obvious that Australian cricketer Pat Cummins’ $50,000 donation comes from anguish and compassion.
As many as 2,04,832 Indians lost their lives due to COVID, that’s over 2 lakh households drowned in grief, over 37,000 since the IPL began on 9 April. With their passing, around 8,00,000 or more Indians are coping with the loss of loved ones. That’s more than a million of us. How many among them would have been or are cricket fans? Who lined up to cram into stands to watch matches all around the country. Players across ages from street, maidan, and club. Men and women who grew up as Indian boys and girls with Kapil Dev or Sachin Tendulkar or Virat Kohli on their walls?
On 24 April, Mid-Day newspaper reported the deaths of Subash and Indrajit Kanulkar, a cricket-playing father-son duo in Mumbai’s club and junior cricket.
The sport they loved has chosen to put them and other Indians damaged by the COVID pandemic into the ‘bad news’ box and hidden it from sight. Because it’s not good for morale.
It is possible that national morale would be moved and inspired if it saw the behemoth that is Indian cricket and the IPL, with its troika of affluence, influence, and superstardom, reach out to ordinary Indians in some way.
We’ll take anything – token gestures or acts of significance. Black bands, moments of silence, a running ticker with helpline numbers on the screen, fund-raisers to support front line workers or mental health initiatives, fund ambulances, buy medical supplies, anything that can help someone anywhere. City-centric projects, either where the eight franchises belong or in each of the six cities where the 2021 IPL is played. Why not continue with last season’s COVID Warriors segment? Something more than a mere photo op handing out a fat cheque to political VVIPs.
Think of this as a message being sent into outer space. From an India trapped in the COVID pandemic to the Indian Premier League: Do you read me?
(This copy has been updated to reflect the latest COVID-19 numbers.)
(Sharda Ugra spent three decades reporting sport for tabloid, broadsheet, news magazine and website. She now lives in Bengaluru and writes whatsoever she pleases.)