In defence of letting the IPL show go on

Those outraging against the cricket tournament are essentially telling the public that keeping away from recreation is the only way to respect the dead. It’s dubious moralising.

ByAnand Vardhan
In defence of letting the IPL show go on
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On November 26, 1995, the fifth ODI between the visiting New Zealand and India played at Nagpur witnessed a tragedy during the lunch break. Minutes after Nathan Astle and Martin Crowe had powered the Kiwi side to an imposing total, the parapet in the east stand of the Vidarbha Cricket Association stadium collapsed. At least eight spectators lost their lives on the spot and five succumbed in hospital. The match, however, went on, and New Zealand won.

As a schoolboy who had watched the match, I learned about the tragedy only the next day, from newspapers. Those days the sports page of the Patna edition of the Times of India carried letters from readers every week. I wrote a trite one expressing indignation at how the match had been allowed to go on even after the mishap had claimed lives in the stadium. In a maudlin tone I even asked how Sunil Gavaskar, considered to be the conscience-keeper of Indian cricket, could escape not mentioning the tragedy in his commentary on the match. The adolescent sentimentality of the letter didn’t stop the newspaper from selecting it as the letter of the week.

It later emerged, including in the 1996 Wisden almanac, that the players had not been informed of the incident. That, however, is not the case with cricketers insulated in bio-bubbles and playing in IPL matches in vacant stadiums in different Indian cities: they are aware of the mounting death toll from the Covid pandemic.

The tournament started a tad before the ferocity of the second wave of the pandemic became widely known, but it’s continuing even when the disaster is known to all. A section of public opinion sees this decision to go ahead with the league as insensitivity, even obscenity on part of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. A newspaper even suspended its coverage of the tournament, objecting to its incongruous timing amid the raging pandemic in the country.

Despite dragging moral questions into the timing of a sporting event, such objections are self-righteously misleading on many counts.

First, such objections try to impose a protocol of public engagement with the crisis and the scheduling of individual choices of recreation or moments of distraction. This isn’t a mutually exclusive exercise in the either/or mould that the outrage suggests. The outrage actually descends into a form of grief-shaming and locates callousness in the staging of the matches as well as large sections of people watching it on TV or online across the country. In the garb of berating commercialisation of the sport, the critics are telling the people how distancing from any form of distraction or recreation is the only way of respecting the dead or acknowledging the gravity of the crisis.

That’s a naïve understanding of public psyche as well as dubious moralising. Even those sensitive to the crisis can engage with it in numerous ways, including intermittent spells of recreation. Invoking a misplaced guilt about it is unimaginative. Even in villages in hinterland India, one can see the evenings of IPL season – thousands of mobile phones lit with live images of the match and eyes glued to screens. In seeking their moments of purposeless joy, people in no way can be said to be unmoved by sufferings around them or in distant parts of the country. Interestingly, in recommending shows, movies, web series and other forms of visual entertainment for binge watching while being indoor during pandemic, objections aren’t raised about incongruity. In fact, the viewership numbers for OTT platforms have been considerably higher during lockdowns.

Second, these concerns would have cut some ice if the tournament posed danger to people’s safety. With bio-bubbles for everyone participating and the stadiums empty, the precautionary norms have been taken care of. Even the question of wastage of medical resources doesn’t arise because of the nature of the event. Moreover, being a private sporting board-run event, it can’t be equated with repositories of public resources, and hence, the issue of diversion of public resources isn’t relevant. In fact, if one looks at it from another prism, the whole IPL season could be seen as a guarantor of economic activities aligned to it or drawing their sustenance from it – keeping people associated with it in business, retaining their jobs or gainful employment.

Third, in the initial days of the current season, there were some valid concerns about tone-deafness in the conduct of players as well as in TV broadcasters. The moments of acknowledging the scourge of pandemic were missing, However, recent days have seen the pandemic registering its presence in the responses. One obvious case was the Delhi Capitals team donating Rs 1.5 crore to NGOs in Delhi for the purchase of essential supplies in the fight against the pandemic. Earlier Australian fast bowler Pat Cummins, who plays for Kolkata Knight Riders, made a donation to the PM Cares Fund. More recently, the Indian pacer Jaydev Unadkat, who plays for Rajasthan Royals, pledged 10 percent of his IPL salary for the purchase of essential medical resources for those fighting the pandemic.

In the pre-match and post-match shows the broadcasters are now making a point of mentioning the pandemic in a show of solidarity with the fight against the deadly virus. Moreover, the fact that the last few days saw three Australian players and one Indian player pulling out of the league due to pandemic-related concerns or in support of family members suffering from the disease indicates what the governing body of the league and the franchise teams are saying: players can take their own calls on proceeding with the tournament.

Fourth, in defining public sensitivity, a degree of virtue-signalling creeps in. It unthinkingly relegates a set of professional commitments as frivolous while arrogating to itself the role of arbiters of public interest. Those opposing cricket tournaments don’t remember that for a generation of budding crickets a loss of one year is proportionately higher than in other professions. This is because of the simple fact that sportspersons generally become a spent force or retire by late their 30s, a phase when careers in other walks of life take shape or even peak. While opinion makers and journalists pontificate about the crisis, they are all gainfully employed. One can’t grief-shame another set of professionals to do away with their shot at making a living and career.

But there could be cricketing arguments for scheduling or rescheduling tournaments to avoid overkill or fatigue, as I argued recently. That, however, shouldn’t be confused with citing non-cricketing factors for revising the schedule.

In all likelihood, I wouldn’t write the letter to the newspaper I wrote almost 26 years ago. Now it would read as cringeworthy and look misplaced. It’s time that a crisis, and those dealing with it in their own ways, isn’t made hostage to virtue-signalling and measured by grief-shaming protocols.

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