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Is playing cricket in COVID really a welcome distraction?

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29th April, 2021

There are many reasons to argue the IPL should not cancel its 2021 season despite an unfolding COVID-19 tragedy in India.

The tournament is not making the pandemic any worse. Players, coaches and officials are already within their biosecure bubbles away from the general population.

The showpiece event also employs many people in India, from ground and transport staff to media.

But the third reason, the one proponents for continuation say is key, is that the IPL is providing a valuable distraction for people during an intensely difficult time.

In an email to players this week the Board of Control for Cricket in India tapped into this notion.

“When you all walk out on to the field, you are bringing hope to millions of people who have tuned in. If, even for a minute, you can bring a smile on someone’s face, then you have done well,” interim chief executive Hemang Amin wrote.

Generic cricket ball

(Steven Paston – EMPICS/Getty Images)

It is similar rhetoric to that used when the 2019-20 bushfires ravaged Australia. While much of the east coast was on fire or covered in smoke, those in power noted that cricket could provide a valuable distraction, albeit to much criticism.

“Going to be a great summer of cricket, and for our firefighters and fire-impacted communities, I’m sure our boys will give them something to cheer for,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison tweeted.


But there was a hollow feeling during that year’s New Year Test against New Zealand, played among lingering smoke at the SCG. There was a sense that the cricket didn’t really matter at the time, even for the majority who were not directly impacted by the fires.

Contrast that with India, where cricket journalist Bharat Sundaresan said the COVID tragedy has now impacted everyone.

“I don’t think there’s any Indian anywhere right now who doesn’t know someone personally who’s been affected by it, is about to be affected by it or has succumbed to it. It’s that bad,” he told SEN Radio this week.

He said he had lost a friend, an aunt and a friend’s father.

Let’s be clear: if there was a health concern about the IPL — which is still a distinct possibility in the coming weeks — it would surely be cancelled. But at this stage, there isn’t.

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“Technically if you look at it, the IPL doesn’t contribute or take away from the (fight against the) pandemic, it’s not like it’s taking away from the healthcare or that there’s more money spent on the IPL,” Sundaresan said.

So the only grounds on which it should be cancelled is whether it is ‘appropriate’ to continue.

The judgement on that is apparently split down the middle.

Some who have lost parents, siblings or friends might think that playing and celebrating cricket during a period of such intense national tragedy is perverse.

But there are others who may have experienced the same tragedy who might need it each evening as a mental release.

During a period when they cannot grieve as they might want to, it could help just getting by.


But surely there is a limit to the ‘positive distraction’ argument?

AFL football was a welcome distractor during the months of lockdown for Melburnians, but for the majority of them this was to distract from things like financial anxieties or even boredom, not death.

Had the city experienced the same level of mortality that, say, Mumbai is experiencing at the moment, it is inconceivable it would have continued.

Perhaps the IPL could have avoided the ill will had it properly addressed the pandemic from the outset and spoken openly about it.

Sundaresan argued that while TV coverage of each game reiterates the ‘stay home, stay safe, sanitise hands’ messages, it has barely acknowledged the devastation being felt around the country.


“As a distraction and escape from reality, there’s nothing better than cricket for most Indians, so that is helping,” Sundaresan said. “But why it’s being held up for so much criticism is because of how ridiculous it looks when you have fake crowd noises – they are almost pretending there is no white elephant.

“You cannot just close your eyes and pretend this isn’t happening. I think that is what’s frustrating people more than the fact the IPL is still going on.”

While it is hard and almost inappropriate for us in Australia to declare whether the IPL should be cancelled or not, the argument that it is a healthy distraction can surely last for so long if the devastation continues.