Two Sri Lankan fast bowlers left the field following breathing difficulties due to “poor air quality”, there were two stoppages of play, and the visitors didn’t have enough fit players to field in the post-lunch session — five of them entered the field wearing anti-pollution masks. Day Two of the third Test between India and Sri Lanka at the Feroz Shah Kotla in the national capital was like no other in the history of Test cricket.
“It (the pollution level) got extremely high at one point, we had players coming in at one point and vomiting. There were oxygen cylinders in the dressing room. It is not normal for players to suffer in that way while playing the game. From our point of view, it has to be stated that it is a very, very unique case,” said Sri Lanka coach Nic Pothas.
Three overs and four balls into the session, the stocky pacemen Lahiru Gamage stuttered in his followthrough after his third ball of the 123rd over in India’s innings, and hunkered down in the middle of the pitch, gesturing to his alarmed colleagues that he was struggling to breathe.
The Sri Lankan medical staff dashed to his side, and skipper Dinesh Chandimal ran to Nigel Llong, the umpire at the bowler’s end, and animatedly told him that his men were finding it increasingly difficult to breathe. But Llong and fellow umpire Joel Wilson tried to calm him. After a 17-minute negotiation, Chandimal reluctantly signalled at Gamage, still kneeling on the ground, to resume his over.
The discussion, coach Pothas later said, wasn’t about stopping the game, but regarding the players’ safety. “Under most circumstances, we want to play cricket. We just wanted to have some clarity on the safety of players. You could see the two fast bowlers, fast bowling is an intense job, they were struggling. When it became unsafe, that is when the conversation started,” he said.
All this while, Virat Kohli and Ravichandran Ashwin stood watching. Kohli then spread himself on the field, stretching his back which was under some strain in the first session. It must have puzzled the Sunday crowd, too, with their swelling hopes of Kohli scoring a triple century. At one point, they mistook the interruption as a delaying tactic by Sri Lanka.
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Initially, they must have presumed it was because of the fading light — it’s the batsmen who generally complain of bad light and it wasn’t unplayably dark, either. Never would they have imagined that it was the toxic Delhi air that had put the game on hold. Subsequently, they began jeering the Lankans.
The air quality at that time, according to the Air Quality Index, was around 240, which by the pollution control board’s criteria, is “hazardous for strenuous physical activities”.
Immediately upon resumption, Ashwin perished. Midway through his next over, Gamage’s breathing troubles aggravated and he returned to the pavilion, with Suranga Lakmal completing the over.
Chandimal again walked up to Llong, though the latter disengaged him. The over after, shortly after Kohli’s exit — lbw to Chinaman bowler Lakshan Sandakan — Lakmal aborted his spell and returned to the pavilion. Then, there was another round of deliberations, this time also featuring the visitors’ manager Asanka Gurusinha and India head coach Ravi Shastri, who spoke independently to the umpires.
Shastri, according to India’s bowling coach Bharat Arun, told the umpires that “it was an unnecessary break and we wanted to get on with the game”.
The match resumed after five minutes, but lasted five more balls of Sandakan’s left-arm wrist spin. As soon as Wriddhiman Saha late-cut him for a four, Chandimal stormed towards umpire Wilson and complained that his field was under-manned — only ten on the field, including himself, with opener Sadira Samarawickrama already out due to a concussion, and the two-seamers and batsman Dhananjaya de Silva being attended by the medical staff.
Another round of discussion ensued, this time involving Pothas on the field, too. But before the match was delayed further, Kohli declared India’s innings at 536 for 7. Sri Lanka were 131 for 3 at close.
The air seemingly didn’t affect the Indians as much as it did the Sri Lankans. Apart from reserve player Kuldeep Yadav, who ferried water and energy drinks, and Rohit Sharma in the dressing room, no other player wore a mask on the field. Their pace bowlers, too, seemed completely unhindered.
Coach Arun said, “It’s surprising because Virat Kohli, who batted for two days, didn’t feel anything like that.” Striking a dismissive note, Arun said that “pollution is something that’s there everywhere in the country,” before adding that he “felt the Sri Lankans were deliberately delaying the proceedings”.
It was also a peculiar dilemma for the umpires and the match referee, the former Australian batsman David Boon, as there is no provision in the MCC manual to deal with pollution.
“They are not in a position of envy, because it’s an abnormal case. There’s no precedent of the match being stopped due to pollution. In the circumstances, they handled the case well,” said Pothas.
It, though, wasn’t the first time in India that a cricket match was imperilled or entirely abandoned due to poor air quality. Two Ranji fixtures — between Gujarat and Bengal, and Tripura and Hyderabad — were abandoned in November last year.
The host city, in both cases? Delhi.