The IPL must end immediately—its continuance amid India’s COVID crisis is grotesque

The final of the IPL is scheduled for 30 May, at the newly-christened Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad. Epidemiologists predict that the second wave will hit its peak in May, with the daily number of cases and deaths likely to far exceed the current numbers. It would be entirely in line with Modi’s Nero-esque record of tone-deaf brazenness to let the spectacle go on, even as corpses pile up ever higher. SAM PANTHAKY / AFP / Getty Images
01 May, 2021

On 26 April, Pradeep Magazine, one of the country’s most respected and independent-minded cricket journalists, wrote on Twitter: “The silence of Indian cricketers is too loud. Are they waiting for a cut and paste advisory from the top?” Magazine’s observation was unfailingly accurate. The collective void of silence from Indian cricketers in the midst of a raging pandemic has been the mirror opposite of the alacrity with which they waded into the issue of the farmers’ protests in February—a subject most of them did not even fully grasp—posting farcical, imitative tweets at the behest of the current regime. Meanwhile, India’s millionaire cricketers have continued to accumulate fortunes through their participation in the Indian Premier League, whose success has been built on the untiring devotion of the world’s largest cricket-watching public, even as that public is literally gasping for breath.

For observers of both Indian cricket and the trajectory of Indian society and state under Narendra Modi, the silence of Indian cricketers—even as this second wave of the coronavirus ravages the country—is not surprising. Ace survivors never break the law of omertà in a mafia state. The Indian cricketer, largely reared in the self-serving ethos of the Indian middle class and having risen to the top in the uncertain shadow of vindictive and politically powerful cricket administrators, remains a particularly meek breed.

The silence of these otherwise individualistic superstars in this case has everything to do with the identity of the de facto boss of Indian cricket: Jay Shah, the undistinguished progeny of the second-most powerful man in the land. Despite having no prior notable involvement in the game, Jay Shah was airlifted into one of the most important positions in cricket by sole virtue of being the son of the union home minister. (Sourav Ganguly, officially the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, is little more than an inconsequential figurehead.)

Contrast the muted voices of Indian cricketers with the wave of empathy pouring in from the rest of the cricketing world. In an emotional video shared last month, the former Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Akhtar articulated his anguish at the alarming situation in India. “Its a Pandemic, we are all in it together,” the caption alongside the video said. “Must become each other’s support.” Babar Azam, the current captain of the Pakistan team, also tweeted with a concern thus far not seen in his Indian counterpart, Virat Kohli. “Prayers with the people of India in these catastrophic times,” Azam wrote on Twitter. “It’s time to show solidarity and pray together...Together we can do it.” 

Within the Indian Premier League, the lead has come from current and former Australian players currently playing and commentating in the tournament. Shaped in a very different cricketing and social environment, foreign players have been far more alert to the unreality of the crisis in India.  Pat Cummins, the Australian vice-captain who plays for the Kolkata Knight Riders, made the first acknowledgement of the catastrophe unfolding outside the league’s bio-bubble. On 26 April, Cummins contributed $50,000 for COVID relief, noting in his statement that it was “specifically to purchase oxygen supplies for India’s hospitals.” The next day, the former Australian cricketer Brett Lee followed suit with a contribution of one bitcoin, roughly equivalent to about Rs 40 lakh. 

Through nearly the whole of April, the Indian cricketers—barring participating in some routine public-relations exercises for the IPL emphasising health-safety protocols during the pandemic—have remained unmoved. The Indian players, whatever their private thoughts and at this point those are of little consequence, have in effect become agents of the indifference and apathy emblematic of the Modi regime. By participating in the IPL while studiously choosing to ignore the world outside it, they are functioning as little more than puppets in a circus whose continuance helps deflect attention from questions of accountability for the government. Modi and Shah would rather have the country tune into the IPL than have them spend even more time turning their gaze towards the apocalyptic images of death and destruction that are the direct result of their incompetence and hubris.

As the devastation of the pandemic grew, the Indian to have most prominently shown a sense of active consideration from within the IPL bubble is Wasim Jaffer, currently a coach with the Punjab Kings. (Jaffer was recently the victim of a communal dog-whistle attack by the Uttarakhand Cricket Association—a misdemeanour that faced no censure from the BCCI.) Like dozens of other influential citizens, Jaffer opened up his popular Twitter account to regularly amplify SOS calls for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds. It may not feel like much but, given the ocean of indifference that is Indian cricket at the moment, Jaffer’s actions still stand out.

There is no shortage of suggestions on what the BCCI could have done to appear more sensitive to the citizens battling for their lives across the land. The BCCI, one of the world’s wealthiest sports bodies, could easily offer its stadiums sprinkled all over the country—at least the ones not in use in the IPL—for conversion as makeshift hospitals. The owners of the franchises could have sponsored relief and medical equipment towards the cities they claim to represent. Given the huge eyeballs that the IPL attracts, that asset should have been employed to direct the viewers’ attention towards the charities and non-governmental organisations currently helping the country fight the pandemic. 

Had the BCCI done any of these things, it could have perhaps bolstered its case that the IPL offers a much-needed psychological respite for a struggling nation. Instead, the entire Indian cricketing ecosystem has shown not a shred of empathy and solidarity for their fellow citizens, even as the IPL marches on in its uncaring, plutocratic bubble. Even the barest minimum of ceremonial gestures, such as the wearing of black armbands or a minute of silence before the game, have been conspicuously absent. The Indian cricket fan, on this evidence, is a supplicant and easily replaceable consumer, not a co-participant and stakeholder in the game.

The way shown by Cummins and Lee, and more significantly, a growing public backlash that threatens the continuation of the league, has led to belated announcements from both players and teams, pledging donations and relief. In the last week of April, the Rajasthan Royals and the Delhi Capitals pledged Rs 7.5 crore and Rs 1.5 crore, respectively, for COVID relief, and the Punjab Kings announced an initiative to help provide oxygen concentrators. On 30 April, Jaydev Unadkat and Shikhar Dhawan became the first Indian cricketers to pledge donations towards the fight against COVID-19—more are likely to follow.

But these actions now seem egregiously late in the day. The fact that something as obvious as a COVID relief fund, where teams and players would regularly contribute and urge fans to do so as well, was not constituted at the beginning of the tournament is a better marker of the IPL’s notions of public-spiritedness.

The bio-bubble under which the IPL operates commands enormous medical infrastructure: testing facilities, ambulances and doctors on standby. The Feroz Shah Kotla stadium in Delhi is less than a kilometre away from the Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Hospital, where ordinary citizens in a parallel world desperately scrape for cylinders and hospital beds. “A match in Delhi at this point of time is completely inappropriate and insensitive,” the senior cricket journalist Sharda Ugra recently told NDTV. Ugra drew on the stark imagery of “the cremation grounds lit up at the same time as the floodlights.”

Another critique of the tournament, perhaps unintended, came from the Australian cricketer Andrew Tye, who signed up to play for the Rajasthan Royals but left the IPL to return home. “Looking at it from an Indian point of view,” Tye told the Australian media, “how are these companies and franchises and the government spending so much money on the IPL when there are people not being able to get accepted into hospital?”

The final of the IPL is scheduled for 30 May, at that monument to vanity and self-aggrandisement, the newly-christened Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad. Epidemiologists predict that the second wave will hit its peak in May, with the daily number of cases and deaths likely to far exceed even the catastrophically high numbers we are seeing at the moment. It would be entirely in line with Modi’s Nero-esque record of tone-deaf brazenness to let the spectacle go on, even as corpses pile up ever higher.

The continuance of the IPL in the midst of this vast national tragedy is nothing short of grotesque. “Some day it will be written that IPL was being played in Delhi, with extensive dedicated ambulance, testing and healthcare facilities,” the senior journalist Sushant Singh tweeted, “while bodies were being cremated in public parks and parking grounds, and there was a 20 hour wait at crematoriums.”

Sport, in its essence, is a celebration of life and its possibilities. That is precisely why, in times of monumental calamity and death, its mere presence becomes not only dissonant, but downright disrespectful. The millions of suffering citizens and fans need to exert their enormous power and insist that the tournament be called off immediately. The IPL’s existence at this moment is not just a moral affront, but the further legitimisation of a Darwinian social order.