Cricket, COVID and other IPL ailments

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A tweet from India cricket chief Sourav Ganguly’s account, evidently for a sponsor with no imagination when it comes to name or ad copy or reading the room, intruded upon a stream of desperate cries for oxygen, hospital beds, remdesivir and empathy.  

It was tactless. Inopportune in its delivery and opportunistic in its message. (Ganguly probably thought so too, because he deleted it.) And given the 3.5lakh people testing positive for the coronavirus every day in India, the uncounted thousands losing their lives to it and the millions wading through a hellscape to find help any help just so they and loved ones can breathe and maybe live – this tweet was just plain offensive.

What it wasn’t was a surprise. This post by the public face of Indian cricket was exactly in keeping with everything Indian cricket and the IPL has stood for in recent times.

From the indifferent to the mercenary, Indian cricket has run the gamut when required to reckon with its role in society and its responsibilities to its own fans and players. And never has this been more stark as in the 14th edition of the IPL taking place amid the unfolding horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic in India.   

Sport is good. Cricket (and I speak of cricket for that is what I know best) is joy. Especially in times like this, when reasons for laughter and celebration are so few. Coping mechanisms – even the silly ones, especially the silly ones – be it doomscrolling or kickboxing or sitting in front of the TV at 7pm every evening to watch a game of bat and ball by men in very shiny outfits, should be without judgement.

So this isn’t about halting the IPL. If the protocols hold, if the tournament isn’t taking considerable resources away from others that need it and if the players are willing, the league has its financial and social benefits.

But even as I write this, R Ashwin of Delhi Capitals has said he’s “taking a break” from the IPL to support his family as they deal with COVID. In the hours to come, perhaps there will be more exits and IPL 2021 may become untenable.

If it does go on, however, the IPL and Indian cricket needs to urgently examine how it can do its job without being so tone deaf to the grim events outside its bubble. If it doesn’t go on, it still needs to answer to what it stands for. The problem isn’t the biomedical bubbles that exist, but the reality bubbles that do too.  

How can I help, Wasim Jaffer, one of the rare voices speaking out, asked on social media.

Well, asking was a good place to start. The ideas have come in, for individual players, for teams and the BCCI itself: Individual donations, vaccination drives in their cities, a commitment from teams to vaccinating less fortunate people working in these bubbles, amplifying requests for help, converting stadiums to care centres, using their massive audiences for good … But more than anything, having, and then showing, empathy. And maybe even taking a step back.

People – many of them cricket fans – are hurting and scared and anxious, and need to know that they aren’t alone in their despair and anger. That cricketers they admire are as moved. That the ‘families’ they build online and in stadiums when they’re cheering together aren’t abandoning them to their grief.  

Some journalists have said there is among players a fear of reprisal from the government for speaking up. It helps explain why they would rather parrot propaganda tweets against a Swedish teen and a Barbadian popstar and ignore communal attacks on their colleague, rather than offer any authentic solidarity to a country on its knees. But it doesn’t excuse these choices.

Even Olympic Gold Medal winner Abhinav Bindra pretty much said so.

David Hussey, who is on the support staff for KKR, explained that in private, the teams are having conversations about the situation around them and acknowledging their own privileged positions. Which makes the contrast with the public communication coming out of the IPL so bizarre.

As of April 26 morning, if one were to follow the official IPL and team channels on TV and digital media, you’d never guess the scale of disaster in India right now. Foreign players are leaving for “personal reasons”, not because they are rightly terrified of an out-of-control pandemic and their mental health is at stake.   

Part of the problem is that much of Indian cricket communication just doesn’t have the vocabulary required to deal with tough situations like this. For something whose whole point is winning and losing, cricket does a terrible job of talking about real loss. Not the loss on a scorecard, or those tears of slumped men and women on a cricket pitch – but of the loss of life, of opportunities and a better future, of purpose. Of those left out. Even the stories of failures we write are in the context of them being overcome and the success they lead up to, not of the despair of being at the very lowest.

The public-facing side of sport, which is social media and broadcast, is all about the bantz and the lolz and the sponsor obligations. It’s ‘how can we get on top of this meme’ and slo-mo video with dramatic music and gifs and slick graphics and fire-emoji-fire-emoji. Sports media taps into emotion, but the superficial ones, the low-hanging fruit. Brand communication that adds to a conversation, to a community, to answer the question ‘what do we stand for’ remains a rarity.

And so, to pivot communication to the real things that matter becomes a challenge. In recent days, while Indian football clubs have been able to do this, cricket has struggled.

In the face of this criticism, things might be changing. Perhaps this is the tipping point. Perhaps there will be more players who look at Ashwin and Jaffer and find the will to speak their truth, without it being sanitised to the point of vacuousness by a publicist. Perhaps this is a bubble that will finally burst.

But if not, when the final of the IPL takes place in the world’s largest cricket stadium, named after the Prime Minister at the helm of this health disaster, the tournament will mean only as much as the empty seats there.