On 27 November 2020, a one-day international cricket match between India and Australia, at the Sydney Cricket Ground, was briefly halted by two protestors who invaded the pitch. Soon identified as Ben Burdett and Joshua Winestock, the two men were dressed in T-shirts, which read “Stop Adani,” and “Stop Coal #StopAdani Take Action” on the back. Each of them carried a placard with the State Bank of India’s logo over the words, “No $1BN ADANI LOAN.” The incident seemed to have caught everyone by surprise, including the SCG’s stadium security, and the spectators, commentators and players. Simultaneously, a crowd of about 50 protestors demonstrated outside the stadium and the Indian consulates in Canberra and Melbourne. Both men managed to remain on the ground for several minutes before being escorted off. They now face a possible fine of 5,000 Australian dollars and a ban from the stadium’s grounds.
The protests were the latest face of a nearly ten-year long campaign to stop the India-based Adani group from building a coal-mining project in the ecologically sensitive Galilee Basin in northern Australia. The Adani project would release vast quantities of carbon emissions, endanger the Great Barrier Reef and dispossess multiple indigenous communities from their land. In addition, the mining project has faced financial constraints since inception. The coal mine had been rejected for funding by at least 89 potential financiers, including the top banks of the world, before plans of SBI coming to the rescue surfaced.
The mine’s Australian detractors say that the SBI’s rescue loan makes Adani’s actions in Australia relevant to an Indian audience too. The SBI’s loan has faced controversy over charges of crony capitalism ever since it was granted shortly on the heels of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Gautam Adani’s visit to Australia in 2014, to attend the G20 conference in Brisbane. A media release by the Galilee Blockade—one of several environmental groups opposing the mine—stated, “Millions of Indian taxpayers who are watching the first game of the Indian cricket tour have a right to know that the State Bank of India is considering handing their taxes to a billionaire’s climate wrecking coal mine.”
Despite the gravity of the ecological impact of the mine, cricketing authorities, commentators, and spectators on social media were not thrilled by the mingling of protests with the solemn and apolitical pursuit of international sport. Much consternation has been expressed over the response time of ground security, and the consequent breaching of the COVID-19 bubble under which the game was organised. This line of criticism is aptly summed up by the headline of an article covering the protest in Sportskeeda, an Indian sports-news platform, which read, “We don’t need no gross pitch invasion.” The article bemoans “dragging activism to a cricket pitch, where it clearly does not belong, in service of a ‘politically driven agenda’.”
This criticism strengthens an already pervasive perception about the orthogonal relations between politics and sport, and any disruption of which is considered a “gross” perversion liable for punishment. This narrative has repeated itself countless times in the history of sporting protests, which goes back centuries, and each time it has been belied upon closer investigation by the very authorities who seem to swear by it. Nevertheless, it has persisted in history because this narrative serves the interests of the powerful and the authoritarian, much like it continues to do today, for the Adani group and the Australian and Indian governments. Such criticism is also never expressed when sportspeople take stances that align with the political narratives of those in power.