It is a matter of astonishing shame that we are sending bowlers to vomit and fielders to collapse out at the Kotla in the midst of severe pollution
It cannot be that cricket is uniquely unresponsive to changes in its environment, but sometimes, as our collective meltdown about the Delhi match demonstrates, it does seem to make idiots out of us all. If you don’t know what it’s like to breathe in Delhi at this time of the year, please be assured that the severity of the problem goes well beyond the jokes in the ‘Delhi is ridiculous’ portion of Mumbai small talk.
The situation in places such as Mohali and Kanpur — and particularly in Lahore across the border — is worse still, and will probably render these test venues exceptionally unfit to host matches over the next few winters. Yet sceptics and macho cricket cheerleaders seem not to understand why we should rethink match schedules just because of the weather. Reader, this is a matter of stunning, fat-headed obtuseness among aficionados of a sport where minute changes in temperature or wind speed can change the swing of a ball or its speed in the outfield, and thus determine the outcome of whole passages of play.
We should know by now that cricket’s geography is uniquely vulnerable to our ongoing disfigurement of the environment. Australia’s outback is burning, putting pressure on its inhabited areas. Bangladesh’s vulnerability to floods and cyclones cannot be waved away with sweet photos of small boys chasing down balls in drenched paddy fields. For the last two years, activists in Maharashtra have been asking serious questions about hosting the resourceintensive IPL in a state hit by severe drought.
Existential danger isn’t just in the near future: it’s our present, as we saw just months previously when the island of Barbuda, part of the Caribbean nation that produced Viv Richards and Curtly Ambrose, was flattened out of existence by a hurricane. So yes: smog in the capital city of the ICC’s biggest member nation is a serious issue, and it is a matter of astonishing shame that we are sending bowlers to vomit and fielders to collapse out at the Kotla nonetheless.
How can we prove, to the hecklers in the stands and to our mandarins, that taking climate responsiveness seriously is not a climb-down from our pursuit of stoic excellence? No other game offers a blueprint, but in other places, at least, a narrative has emerged. In 2007, the United States’ Sports Illustrated magazine put out an issue sounding the alarm about global warming and how it would affect sports played in the US and around the world. On its cover, the baseball star Dontrelle Willis stood knee-deep in water, to illustrate what rising sea levels would do to sports in sensitive coastal areas.
The story underscored two important things: that how we play sports can affect our climate resources; and that as irrevocable changes occur to our environment, the way we play sports will change forever. Our annual athletic schedules are “among the last of the semi-pagan calendars” we keep to, as the science writer Bill McKibben said, and we are losing our grip on them.
In the decade since that cover was published, many studies have sounded warning klaxons about how sports and the climate can mutilate one another in coming years. We have learned, for example, that in another 50 years, at least half the cities to host the Winter Olympics in the past will no longer be cold enough for Alpine sports. As recently as 2014, Russia was making and preserving artificial snow for the Sochi games, and not just because of a natural shortfall in volume. At one point in the tournament, temperatures edged over 61degrees Fahrenheit, a big jump over Sochi’s historic average February temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
We already know that big tournaments reshape their environments very dramatically. We also know that for all our forgetful optimism about the benefits they supposedly bring to host cities, few have left behind safer, more equitable or more beautiful infrastructure for the future. (Perversely, the sped-up completion of the Delhi metro for the 2010 Commonwealth Games might be one of the few exceptions to this rule.)
It’s time for us, as fans, to recognise this as a state of affairs caused by untenable privilege. Elite sports can be protected from their surroundings in a myriad of ways, supported by all the ingenuity and capital the world can offer. And yet, water bottles are melting at the Australian Open and the 2022 World Cup is going to be played out in an unpredictable Qatar winter. We can’t afford to be hypocrites about this: if we use sport as a measure of our prosperity — as Indians continually, tiresomely do with men’s cricket — we must be ready to accept that our cricketers are very expensive canaries in this coal mine burning up around us.
■ SUPRIYA NAIR The halfway line: on the intersection of sports and life
■ How we play sports can affect our climate resources; and as irrevocable changes occur to our environment, the way we play sports will change forever
■ Write to Supriya Nair at punemirror.feedback @gmail.com