IPL 2021: With India reeling under COVID-19, a T20 spectacle just doesn’t feel right
The BCCI have announced that the league will go on irrespective, but it is time they start considering the relevance of it all. It might still be alright, but it doesn't feel that way.
New Delhi: Adam Gilchrist tweeted it. Ravichandran Ashwin led it, and a bunch of Australian cricketers followed it. Before you decide to call it yet another piece trashing the money-spinning Indian Premier League (IPL), here’s the explanation. It’s not the IPL, it is the spectacle. It is the cringe-inducing commerce, the perfunctory mask-wearing reminders, the inexorable march of capitalism, the orchestrated optimism, the bubble within the bio-secure bubble, the tone-deaf lot gesticulating wildly in virtual guest box, the dancing commentators, the pervading callousness, the lazy logic of it being a delightful distraction. Most of all, it is the thundering silence of the superstars, but we shall discuss it later.
I have nothing against the IPL, I really don’t. I watch almost all matches, and enjoy quite a few. In my younger years, I even went to a sports bar to enjoy an IPL match over a pint (just that I couldn’t enjoy either). I would go so far as to suggest that in many ways, IPL has given a sense of job security to a number of sports journalists in these uncertain times, although there is no empirical evidence for or against the argument. Sure, the IPL is a small-scale industry, a parallel economy, if you will, that supports multiple livelihoods; that the bio-secure bubble is perhaps the best in business, the testing is immaculate and accurate, the protocols are adhered to diligently and intelligently.
I would be taking a break from this years IPL from tomorrow. My family and extended family are putting up a fight against #COVID19 and I want to support them during these tough times. I expect to return to play if things go in the right direction. Thank you @DelhiCapitals 🙏🙏
— Stay home stay safe! Take your vaccine🇮🇳 (@ashwinravi99) April 25, 2021
But, here’s the thing: It is so perfect that it almost mocks the simultaneous imperfections of the times we are in. In an odd sort of way, the happy faces and their unconcerned excellence against the backdrop of crumbling healthcare and piling bodies is jarring. It reeks of vacuous insensitivity and a degree of nonchalance that almost feels criminal. It mocks the India that exists outside the team hotels and host stadiums – the millions who can’t afford tests and hospitals, who are gasping for oxygen and jostling for cremations.
Here’s another reason why all of this appears an odious circus, and this happens to be a pet peeve of this writer: What does it take our cricketing superstars to speak up? Of course, there is the fear of repercussions by a vindictive government and social-media backlash, but sporting success, built on convictions and character, ought to embolden people, not reduce them to voiceless entertainers. As Abhinav Bindra, country’s only individual gold medallist at the Olympics, wrote in The Indian Express, the superstar cricketers cannot stay in a bubble.
Not long back, India’s sporting galaxy, seething at pop star Rihanna’s concerns for the protesting farmers and under obvious instructions from the powers that be, led an embarrassing ‘internal matter’ charade. Sachin Tendulkar, the most reticent of them all, joined the queue too. For many, it was a definitive submission of an icon; a master of cricket field reduced to a shaking, whimpering tool. Two days back, on his birthday, Tendulkar tweeted a video thanking his 35.5 million followers for their wishes. He ended with a request to donate plasma – a noble plea, no doubt – but without a word on the mess that the country is in.
The same day, New York Times’ front page carried a story detailing India’s COVID-19 crisis. The lead image, captured by Atul Loke, is a memorably chilling picture of mass pyres at an East Delhi crematorium. Tendulkar could have used the medium and the opportunity to say something, or at the very least, appeal to the government to save lives; he chose not to. The very day, Pakistan’s pace legend Shoaib Akhtar tweeted twice on India’s plight, including a video message urging his government to pull all stops in helping India. No Indian cricketer, active or retired, has even acknowledged the gesture at the time of writing. This, in an age when athletes across the globe are regularly rattling establishments, appears even more craven.
India is really struggling with Covid-19. Global support needed. Health care system is crashing. Its a Pandemic, we are all in it together. Must become each other's support.
Full video: https://t.co/XmNp5oTBQ2#IndiaNeedsOxygen #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/vX1FCSlQjs
— Shoaib Akhtar (@shoaib100mph) April 23, 2021
On 22 April, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) announced a ban on podium protests at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing. Soon, World Players Association promised legal support to the athletes who wish to exercise their choice to protest, while Britain’s gold-winning track cyclist Callum Skinner defiantly said that the governing body cannot stop athletes from protesting if they want to.
It would be preposterous for an Indian athlete to do something similar, but what’s stopping their social media teams from amplifying verified information and SOS calls? Perhaps the fear is that it would willy-nilly translate to a governance failure at large, which may antagonise the government itself, but for the nation's most loved superstars to virtually abandon the ship when the daily new cases in the country have breached the three-lakh barrier for fifth day running, makes for terrible optics. What separates us from those we revere are not the superficialities of talent, success, and wealth. Heroes stand out for their peculiar brilliance and spark. In a COVID-rattled country, heroes have come wearing monotone PPE kits, not multicolour franchise attire.
Here are some more cold numbers. India have recorded 27,424 deaths since IPL started on 9 April. This is not to cast any innuendo or aspersions on the league, but to reiterate that not once has an active cricketer, barring Ashwin, tweeted or spoken on the deaths. They didn’t speak when college campuses were raided and students mercilessly beaten up for no fault of theirs, not when countless migrants walked home last year, not when one of their own was targeted over his religion. To expect them to so much as hint at governance failure is surely expecting too much. It says a lot when it took a Pat Cummins to donate $50,000 "specifically to purchase oxygen supplies."
The BCCI have announced that the league will go on irrespective, but it is time they start considering the relevance of it all. In two days’ time, the IPL caravan will land in New Delhi’s Arun Jaitley Stadium, right in the heart of a collapsing capital. For the sake of perspective, the National Shooting Championships, scheduled to be held this month in the city, were postponed last month. The India Open badminton, a qualifying event for Tokyo Olympics and scheduled to be held in the city next month, has been put off till further notice. Not too long back, the city’s chief minister was virtually begging the Prime Minister for oxygen. The city, quite literally, is holding on to its every breath.
If this is an attempt to bring positivity to people’s lives, it is an exercise in shoddiness and insensitivity. It is deeply instructive that, as Cummins mentioned, "the Indian Government is of the view that playing the IPL while the population is in lockdown provides a few hours of joy and respite each day at an otherwise difficult time for the country." Try selling the IPL/positivity to someone who has lost a loved one. It might still be alright, but it doesn’t feel that way.
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