Is IPL Living In Its Own Bubble?

Sports

Is IPL Living In Its Own Bubble?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

I want to control the sobs but even before I realise it, I’m wiping the tears rolling down my face. I try to shake off yet another disturbing news about the pandemic I have had to hear today. I wash my face, take a deep breath and get down to some work. Currently, I’m working on the Indian Premier League.

Couple of days of oscillating between fighting back tears to beaming at the laptop and welcoming viewers for a discussion on one of the matches, and it struck me. I now know what Will in The Stranger Things would have felt like, stuck between the real world where things were seemingly normal and the upside down where nothing really was. I feel like I have been straddling two worlds over the last week. One where a pandemic is wreaking havoc across the country and the other where a bio-secure environment is keeping cricketers from all over the world safe so that they can win a tournament.

If any year drilled into our minds the significance of preserving mental health, it was 2020.

Wait. Don’t get me wrong. That simplistic comparison may seem all too harsh, but can’t you sense a complete disconnect when you think about it: two situations unfolding in the same cities where deaths are mounting, in one country where oxygen is running out. I know what many are going to tell me. Life must go on. The show, as they say, must go on. And I guess there is some truth to that too.

If any year drilled into our minds the significance of preserving mental health, it was 2020. It took one heartbreaking suicide to tell us that mental illness wasn’t just something we needed to acknowledge but accept. And maybe the IPL provides a comforting, mind-numbing distraction to those who cannot bear to hear of another relative in critical condition, a neighbour’s young daughter losing her battle with the coronavirus, or a colleague burying his mother alone. It’s a distraction for those overwhelmed by news of lack of medicines and tweets begging for help to find a bed for a parent.

But here’s the thing: that reasoning seems just as simplistic too.

In the era of physical isolation, does a sporting event that brings people together need to mentally isolate itself from issues that matter?

I have known sport to be a great leveller, a humble teacher, a medium that brings people together. And so it becomes all the more imperative for its many custodians, those invested in it, to do that much more to preserve the spirit and whatever it stands for, every single time. As most players go on with the game, one example comes to mind instantly. Last year, I remember choking back tears as I watched one of the greats of the game, Michael Holding break down on “live” television as he spoke about the rampant racism that he had to fight during his playing days.

I cannot forget the moment cricketers kneeled to show their support to the Black Lives Matter movement that was raging outside the stadium gates. When play resumed with the coverage of the England-West Indies series, everyone involved realised that whatever was happening outside the stadium held a far bigger consequence and knew that they needed to play their part in making those watching aware. They read the room. They caught the pulse. Why then, can’t the IPL?

In the era of physical isolation, does a sporting event that brings people together need to mentally isolate itself from issues that matter? We realise that cricketers and anyone else involved in the running of the league, from the production crew, cricket boards, commentators, players to the stadium staff have been affected by the pandemic in some way or the other. It would be nice to, in fact see, that cricketers – our god-like heroes – are humane and just as overwhelmed by the raging pandemic as you and I.

It would be nice to, in fact see, that cricketers – our god-like heroes – are humane and just as overwhelmed by the raging pandemic as you and I.

Why can’t such a massive tournament pause for a moment to show some solidarity. It takes a minute’s silence, a minor acknowledgement here, a financial aid there. We have Australia’s Pat Cummins step up and make a donation today. What we need are many more gestures such as this that could tone down the tone-deafness of the tournament. I guess it’s as easy to put up glitzy banners all around the stadium in order to cover up the empty stands for better TV viewing, as put up blinders and go about your business with no heed to what’s happening outside.

Journalist Sharda Ugra’s story on the cricketers in Bhutan is both eye-opening and inspiring. One of the youngest cricketing countries, Bhutan had big plans to take the sport to the next level – reach out to more schools and build their grassroots programme. Until the pandemic brought everything to a grinding halt. What did the cricketers do? What did the board do? They stepped in to support all frontline workers who were battling COVID-19. Cricketers – past and present, women and men – doubled up as cooks, patrol officers, nurses, volunteers, and drivers to help fight, what they believed, was a war on their hands. Truly an impassioned story that moved me. Back in India, the silence is deafening.

The last few days have been tough – as the country gasps for breath. The grim reality seems to have affected a few players in the bubble. A couple of Australian cricketers have decided to pull out of the IPL and head back home. With lockdowns inevitable in their home cities, the thought of being locked out of their country indefinitely isn’t comforting.

Former cricketers, including an Australian who led his IPL side to victory during one of its early editions, has come out questioning why this tournament was going on amid what clearly is a massive national crisis. The latest to pull out has been India cricketer and member of Delhi Capitals, R Ashwin. He tweeted that he felt it was important to be with his family in their fight against COVID-19. I know what that feeling to rush back home is like.

Last year, while I was holed up in the biosecure bubble in UAE, while covering the Indian Premier League, my father and partner both contracted the virus. It was torturous carrying on. Come second wave and the year 2021, that stress and anxiety seems almost pale in comparison to the horrors that are unfolding around us right now. Even as I write this piece, I know I have to prepare for another match, another discussion: Why did this team lose? What a great knock that was! What is most impressive about this bowling spell? Maybe somewhere that sense of guilt is translating itself into an apologetic tone which is becoming impossible to hide. I probably, like many others, feel caught in between two different realities.

I guess there’s no other way of dealing with the crisis, other than spreading the word – sharing every Instagram story asking for plasma donors or retweeting every tweet about Remdesivir. I only wish every common man out there with a few thousand followers was joined by a cricketer with the clout to influence millions. Yes, I get it that they are doing their job, which is to play cricket. But some are more than just cricketers. They are icons, role models, and a radio silence on their social media platforms seems insensitive.

In the quest to keep the economy afloat, secure jobs, keep the commercials intact, have we all somewhere forgotten the very essence of sport?

Kolkata Knight Riders owner Shah Rukh Khan on Saturday put out a tweet promoting a sponsor. The first response to that came from a follower who pointed out that “KKR promotions and help for covid can co-exist”. It’s that simple right? Social media has been at it for weeks now – amplifying SOS calls, compiling google docs with helpful information – yet those involved in the IPL are lagging behind. Yes, franchises like the Delhi team have launched initiatives, assuring fans that they are not immune to their suffering. It was only on Sunday for the first time that the IPL used the toss segment to acknowledge the deadly second wave. Commentators and players joined in urging everyone to stay safe through the telecast. One can only hope it’s not too little too late.

I am neither against the game, nor the tournament. In the quest to keep the economy afloat, secure jobs, keep the commercials intact, have we all somewhere forgotten the very essence of sport? The essence that makes it humane. I wonder if more can be done by those involved. Whether it is through positive intent in their broadcast or extending financial support from their earnings. Can sensitivity not precede sensationalism? Can empathy precede entertainment? Isn’t it time to burst that bubble?

 

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