Gideon Haigh, in The Weekend Australian, 23/24 April 2021, where the title runs: “Forget About India’s Covid Chaos, There’s Cricket to be Played”
In the Indian city of Nashik on Wednesday, 22 COVID patients in a hospital ward perished when the oxygen tanker on which their ventilators depended sprung a leak. Perhaps you saw the footage — scores of workers running ineffectually in all directions through swirling clouds of vapour, representative of the chaos and futility enveloping India as its second, steepling pandemic wave bears down.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the state of Maharastra, at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium, 22 extravagantly rewarded cricketers, including Pat Cummins, were playing in an Indian Premier League match, Kolkata Knight Riders versus Chennai Super Kings.
Hey, don’t worry. Our Pat is fine. So are the 200 players in the IPL, including 13 other Aussies. They are cocooned in impermeable bio-bubbles, ferried from place to place by charter flights through special terminals, tended by minions in masks, shields and hazmat suits. The other day Chris Lynn even posted photographs of himself surfing, with the caption: “Winning the morning over here in Chennai.”
But some victories are pyrrhic, and I wonder if this is one. When more than 300,000 people are coming down with COVID a day — and that is almost certainly a gross underestimate — how much satisfaction is obtainable from your own comfort and safety? For sure, no country does extremes of private wealth and public squalor like India. But right now, it’s outdoing itself.
Reckon Australia’s vaccine stumble-out has made ScoMo look a bit of a dill? Check out the performance of NaMo — Narendra Modi, the dismal demagogue who rules India. Until recently he’d been hosting election rallies and encouraging huge Hindu festivals, heedless of the obviously deteriorating situation, amplified by his sycophantic media dupes.
Indians are now being punished for his government’s failure to use the lull between waves to consolidate its gains by securing vaccine, oxygen and hospital beds. Intensive care units are swarmed. Crematoriums are operating round the clock. A “double mutant” strain of COVID has been identified that may be more infectious and prone to escape the immune system.
An economic shock also looms. A Pew Research Centre survey recently concluded that the first wave of COVID pushed no fewer than 32 million people out of India’s previously burgeoning middle-class; the impact of this second wave may well be greater.
Cricket? It’s played its part in making the bad worse. Last month, at the suitably monstrous stadium in Ahmedabad named for Modi, thousands of unmasked fans were watching internationals between India and England. Not until the very end were masks required of spectators at the veterans’ Road Safety Series in Ragpur, in the state of Chhattisgarh, won by Sachin Tendulkar’s Indian Legends XI on 21 March.
Last week, the Gujarat High Court described a massive understatement of COVID figures in Ahmedabad, and a grim video circulated of truckloads of bodies being hauled from the mortuary in Ragpur. One wonders whether India’s summer tour of Australia would have gone on had these conditions pertained at the time.
Should the IPL continue? It’s arguable that the damage is done. Cancelling it would do little to stop COVID. There would still be a pandemic; just a pandemic without cricket. The hotels would be empty; the 700 staff involved in putting the broadcast to air would be unoccupied; Fox Cricket would be showing more one-day internationals from the 1990s. Yay.
But let’s at least be frank about it. The show must go on mainly because for it not to would cost the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the IPL franchises and the players hundreds of millions of dollars.
And for hundreds of millions of dollars, people will do just about anything (viz the European Super League). It’s like Ringo Starr said when he was asked why he had starred in The Magic Christian: “People will swim through shit for a buck.”
The IPL could, like last year’s edition, have been held in the UAE, where the COVID situation is a great deal less intense, and almost the entire population has been vaccinated. But the BCCI had to make a point of its capabilities, partly in order to justify having demanded the right to stage the T20 World Cup later this year, partly to maintain alignment with the BJP whose egregious proxies now run the BCCI.
So now there’s the question of seemliness. At what point does cricket’s posture of normality become too difficult to reconcile with the general abnormality? 400,000 cases a day? Or 500,000? A quarter of a million deaths? Or half a million?
At what point — to use a concept that the plutocrats and whiz kids would understand — does it do damage to the brand? The brand of cricket, I mean, as well as IPL.
The BCCI has from time to time exhibited a sense of understanding there is a wider world outside its narrow purposes. In fact, it rather enjoys a bit of a propaganda gesture.
Two years ago, the BCCI cancelled the IPL’s opening ceremony and donated the proceeds to victims of the Pulawama attack — the suicide bombing of a military convoy in disputed Kashmir. It was part of an exhibition of solidarity with the armed forces, which also involved MS Dhoni’s Indian team wearing camouflage caps into the field in a one-day international against Australia in Ranchi.
This time around, cricket has done nothing, just gone on raking its millions while its fans die, having earlier contributed to the incipient crisis. In doing so it’s neglecting what some might call its social licence to operate — that is, the ongoing approval of its community and stakeholders essential to a business’s continuance.
The time is ripe for, at the very least, a substantial charitable gesture towards the suffering millions, and an end to the sickening pretence that all cricket need do is keep itself safe and profitable, because nothing must impinge on the annual celebration of corporate power. Cricket’s credibility in India is leaking. And leaks can end disastrously.