The Indian Premier League has provoked outrage for playing through the country’s brutal Covid-19 wave, drawing accusations of “crass” conduct and diverting vital resources from fighting the public health emergency.
Several players including Ravichandran Ashwin, India’s premier off-spinner, and three Australians pulled out of the cricket tournament this week over concerns about India’s rising caseload.
Infections soared to a world record 386,000 on Friday, along with 3,500 reported deaths, which experts believe is a significant undercount.
Matches in the IPL, the money-spinning cricket league that attracts the world’s top talent, have continued to be held in the capital New Delhi and Ahmedabad. The cities are among the country’s hardest hit, facing acute shortages of oxygen, tests, ambulances and hospital beds, with patients dying for want of treatment.
By contrast, IPL players and staff in those cities have been confined to “biosecure” bubbles, tested regularly and have access to emergency medical assistance that critics argued should be used to support the overwhelmed health services. Games have been played without spectators.
The New Indian Express newspaper said this week it would suspend coverage of the tournament, which it called “commercialism gone crass”. In an editorial, it wrote that “the wails of ambulances are drowning the sound of leather meeting the sweet spot of the willow”.
Australian fast-bowler Andrew Tye, among those who pulled out of the tournament, said he was concerned about getting stuck overseas by a possible flight ban, which Canberra has since imposed.
He added that he empathised with the tournament’s critics, telling Australia’s SEN radio: “Looking at it from an Indian point of view, how are these companies and franchises and the government spending so much money on the IPL when there are people not being able to get accepted into hospital?”
Gary Lineker, the former England footballer and broadcaster, wrote on Twitter that “it seems so terribly wrong for [the IPL] to continue given the Covid catastrophe that’s currently occurring in India. People are dying faster than runs are being scored for crying out loud.”
Since its launch in 2008, the IPL has revolutionised cricket with its fast-paced version of the sport. The tournament, which started this month and ends on May 30, is usually one of the most lucrative events of the year for brands and organisers.
Supporters have countered that the IPL plays a valuable role. Disney-owned broadcaster Star added public-service messaging to its coverage encouraging viewers to follow pandemic guidelines such as wearing masks. “It’s such a good platform for the government to communicate to the masses,” said an executive involved in the tournament.
Pat Cummins, another Australian fast bowler, donated $50,000 to a relief fund set up by Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister. “Playing every night for three, four hours hopefully contributes to people staying home,” he said. “We can help them get through each day.”
Amid concern about an exodus of foreign players, the governing Board of Control for Cricket in India vowed to get them all home at the end of the season despite countries imposing travel bans on India.
Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said that there was no special arrangement to repatriate IPL players.
Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, said the tournament could allow authorities “to show a certain degree of normalcy” through the crisis.
India’s cricket authorities have close ties with the ruling establishment. BCCI secretary Jay Shah is the son of Amit Shah, the home minister and Narendra Modi’s right-hand man.
Singh said the tournament should be held in another country, such as the United Arab Emirates, which hosted the IPL last year. “If you were to hold it in the UAE you would not be causing this diversion of resources,” he said.