In December 2002, Sourav Ganguly and Harbhajan Singh were fined by New Zealand’s ministry of agriculture for arriving in the country with dirty shoes. The then India captain and his premier off-spinner had been hit with instant fines of $100 for their undeclared dirty footwear. Europe had witnessed an outbreak of foot and mouth and mad cow disease at the turn of the century. The remnants had reached the Southern Hemisphere also, and New Zealand became very sensitive to bio security.
India is about 12 times bigger than New Zealand. It has a population of 1.3 billion compared to New Zealand’s 4.69 million. According to a World Bank report last year— Taking on inequality—India had nearly 224 million people below the $1.90-a-day poverty line. Bio security is a luxury in this country. We are used to living with pollution, giving a hoot to its health effects. But even by our deplorable standards, Delhi was menacingly bad, as India and Sri Lanka played a Test match there.
Day Two of the Test match at Feroz Shah Kotla was like no other in the history of the game. Two Sri Lankan fast bowlers left the field and reportedly vomited in the dressing-room. Five Sri Lankan cricketers entered the field post-lunch, wearing anti-pollution masks. Eventually, the visitors didn’t have enough fit players to field. For the first time in Test cricket’s history, a match had to be stopped, 22 minutes, for pollution.
“It (the pollution level) got extremely high at one point. We had players coming in and vomiting. There were oxygen cylinders in the dressing-room. It was not normal for players to suffer in that way while playing the game,” Sri Lanka coach Nic Pothas had said.
The air quality index for Delhi last Sunday read 365; out of a maximum of 500. It was 331 last Saturday—‘death by breath’… Unfortunately, a section of the Indian cricket set-up was in denial mode.
A BCCI member, prisoner of ignorance, aimed a jibe at the Sri Lankan cricketers who threw up on the field. But that was at least unofficial. The Indian team bowling coach Bharat Arun’s refusal to be sympathetic towards the Sri Lankan bowlers was a little surprising. “Why should we? We are focused on what we have to do, and what we need to do in the Test match. I don’t think we need to be thinking about what the opposition does. It’s their lookout, and their problem to keep their bowlers fit,” he said.
Mohammed Shami, too, tried to play down the issue, when he came at the press conference after the third day’s play. “Yes, pollution is an aspect that we seriously need to think about. But what was being portrayed (by the Sri Lankans), it wasn’t to that extent.” Shami felt uneasy next day and vomited on the field.
The Indian Medical Association (IMA) letter to the Indian cricket board was sharp and to the point. “Rain and poor light are taken into consideration when determining suitable playing conditions. We suggest that atmospheric pollution should now also be included in the assessing criteria for a match,” IMA president KK Aggarwal was quoted as saying in the letter. He went to the extent of saying Delhi’s air-quality might trigger something that could be potentially life-threatening.
As per the World Health Organisation, an air quality index between 151 and 200 is considered safe for breathing. Just think how dangerous the Delhi air was at 365. Sri Lanka have rightly taken the matter to the International Cricket Council (ICC), receiving a positive response from cricket’s global body.
Of late, air pollution has been a major health concern in Delhi in winter. Two Ranji Trophy matches—Bengal versus Gujarat and Tripura versus Hyderabad—had to be called off last season because of smog cover. In November this year, the government declared a public health emergency, with schools closing down for a week. Earlier, the FIFA decided to move the U-17 World Cup matches out of Delhi post-Diwali.
All these take us to a question, why did the BCCI schedule a Test match in Delhi during this time of the year? International fixtures are allotted to different state associations on rotation. But in this case, common sense should have prevailed. “Pollution has been spoken about for years, but not just in one walk of life. These are sensitive matters, and there are agencies and structures that deal with this. Scheduling of matches in Delhi during this time of the year will be considered. We do check the weather before hosting matches in places like Delhi, the NCR, and western UP,” the BCCI’s acting secretary, Amitabh Choudhary, told reporters a few days back. But it was too late, the damage was done.
The Sri Lankan team manager Asanka Gurusinha has urged the ICC to deploy air-quality metres in the future. The parent body must act. The Delhi Test served a wake-up call.