With more than 550 runs in four innings so far, Virat Kohli’s domination of the Sri Lankan bowlers in the current series against the island nation has been near complete. But on a day the Indian cricket captain scored a sublime double hundred, the image that will linger in many people’s minds is likely to be that of Kohli throwing his bat in a tantrum while the Sri Lankan players remonstrated with the umpires over carrying on with the game at Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi’s smog-laden air. On Sunday, Sri Lankan fast bowler Lahiru Gamage complained of breathlessness, several of his teammates had to rush to the dressing room to use oxygen cylinders, and play was suspended more than three times. This was the first time in the 140-year history of test cricket that players wore masks on the field.
While this was another terrible advertisement for Delhi’s toxic air, the churlishness of the country’s cricketing establishment added to the miasma. Kohli, the Indian coach, Ravi Shastri, and BCCI’s acting president, C.K. Khanna, have accused the Sri Lankan players of creating “unnecessary fuss”.
Just a few weeks before cricketers from the island nation arrived in the country, air quality levels in the capital were 10-15 times poorer than normal standards. FIFA, had, in fact, kept the capital’s air quality in mind while framing the schedule for the under-17 football World Cup that India hosted in October. On Sunday, Javier Ceppi, the director of the tournament, tweeted: “You can’t host sports events in Delhi from Diwali till the end of Feb”. The fact that last year, Delhi’s foul air forced the BCCI to cancel two Ranji trophy matches shows that the board is well aware of the hazards of playing cricket in conditions described by the WHO as equivalent to smoking 30 cigarettes a day. But India’s cricket governing body not only erred in scheduling the Delhi match, its criticism of the Sri Lankan cricketers has shown it to be a bad sport.
In September, Delhi was ranked by the WHO as the second most polluted among the world’s big cities. Last month, Costa Rica’s Ambassador Mariela Cruz Alvarez was forced to move to Bengaluru because she found the capital’s air, “unbreathable”. Comparable bad press in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics led to Beijing instituting far-reaching measures to clean up its air. While it would not be proper to stretch the Delhi-Beijing comparison too far — the two cities have different political regimes — India’s capital could do well to emulate its Chinese counterpart in one respect: Invest in public transport. But can India’s policy-makers see the links between the grim sight at Kotla with the data that shows that Delhi metro lost 3 lakh daily commuters after the fares were increased in October?