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Monday, September 28, 2020

IPL is not a mental COVID-19 vaccine

Expecting IPL to lift spirits flagging in pandemic is as much about over-estimation of cricket’s healing power as it is about under-estimating this crisis.

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi | Updated: June 11, 2020 9:26:19 am
resumption of sports, IPL coronavirus, cricket coronavirus, global happiness index, coronavirus pandemic Considering the modern-day reality of commerce being the engine that drives sports, the push to switch on the stadium floodlights is expected. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Who could have imagined that tracking the resumption of sports around the world would also make one wiser about the ups and downs of the global happiness index. Politicians, officials, sportspersons and assorted influencers, without the help of science or surveys, have predicted the sprouting of smiles once stadiums get unlocked. They point to the floodlights at the end of the pandemic tunnel as they talk up the magical power of sports to dilute the tragedies unfolding at over-crowded hospitals and under-utilised workplaces.

So here’s the smile schedule. In England, the country with the worst COVID-19 death count at over 40,000, the collective mood is rumoured to change in the next couple of weeks. According to their Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, the resumption of the Premier League later this month would “lift the spirits of the nation”. Germany might be still grappling with close to 1,80,000 positive cases but since May 15, when Bundesliga returned after the corona break, a wave of optimism has, allegedly, swept the nation. That is if one is to believe Germany’s football chief.

Meanwhile, in India, that mass mood-swing, if some important cricket voices are to be believed, will come towards the end of this year when the much-delayed Indian Premier League is likely to blast off. And if you trust some top BCCI office-bearers, a cricketer-turned-MP, some franchise owners and many opinion-makers, that’s when cricket will send the spirit of this hurting, anxious nation soaring. Considering the present overwhelming pall of gloom over the unbending corona curve, that would need some effort. Poor old cricket, it is in for some heavy-lifting that seems way beyond its weight category.

If cricket had legs they would have folded under the burden of this unexpected additional responsibility. Since Independence, the load on this national pastime has exponentially increased. Over the years, cricket in India has been tasked with varied duties. It’s expected to be the country’s unifier, brand ambassador, top entertainer, medium for frequent wars without guns with neighbours and a powerless pawn in tricky diplomatic negotiations. And now, they want it to go into a bio-secure bubble and become a corona warrior too.

This is as much about the over-estimation of cricket’s healing power as it is about under-estimating this once-in-a-century crisis that is responsible for close to 4,00,000 plus deaths. Can cheerleaders with pom-poms, high-decibel ever-smiling commentators, Bravo’s dance moves, Dhoni’s final-ball six distract you enough to forget stories of the 1,200 km-journey of the bicycle girl from Darbhanga, or the Ghanaian footballer’s 73-days-long ordeal outside Mumbai airport or the ultimate sacrifice of the nameless nurses on the frontline? Not really. An evening of T20 cricket can’t even lessen the dread of bumping into some asymptomatic super spreader at the milk booth next morning.

Even if you tried, the sight of empty stands, umpires in gloves, socially distanced batsmen and bowlers suspiciously handling the sanitised balls will keep reminding cricket fans of the lurking virus beyond the closed stadium gates.

It needs to be called out: The IPL, at best, is a healthy distraction after a bad day at the office, an ice-breaker in awkward situations and the consensus background score at spirited get-togethers. Let the devil in coloured clothing get its due. The IPL is more real than reality television and has better drama than daily soaps and that makes it the best prime-time television option. Nothing less, nothing more — it is no mental COVID-19 vaccine; not even a placebo.

Those who float this theory about sports being a Prozac pill or the ultimate elixir also talk about history. They flip back the pages and go as far back as post-war 1948 London Olympics, the austere post-war games that saw the English fill the stands to the brim — albeit after fascism had been summarily beaten. There is no denying that sports did bring war-fatigued England back to life.

British archives have diligently preserved pictures of folks with sunken cheeks and lean profiles, the tell-tale signs of food rationing and large-scale unemployment, beaming in joy applauding extraordinary athletic feats.

They go further back to the Great Depression of the 1930s and talk about Seabiscuit and Don Bradman. If the unprecedented success of the underdog racehorse and working-class batting hero motivates economically-crippled countries to rise and walk again, why can’t sports do an inspirational encore again?

It can’t since the grim uncertainty of the pandemic is way different from the post-War optimism in England or the “we can overcome” mood during the Depression. It’s an unfair comparison between apples, oranges and a “hand grenade with a loose pin”.

Those mouthing the “sports to lift the spirits of the nation” can also be blamed for hijacking the voice of the fans. So far, we haven’t seen supporters in Mumbai Indians jerseys clanging the Wankhede gates, goading the BCCI to restart IPL so that their mood can change and they can happily turn their back to the virus. Forget dharna, there hasn’t even been a hashtag “IPL can beat COVID” trending on Twitter.

Considering the modern-day reality of commerce being the engine that drives sports, the push to switch on the stadium floodlights is expected. The argument about the IPL providing thousands of jobs — though riddled with risks, riders and disclaimers — has more strength than the lame “mood change” logic. Firing from the shoulders of the country’s millions of cricket fans, without taking their opinion, is a dubious move that deserves a red card. This IPL’s pandemic season should be seen with the same scepticism that is reserved for the resumption of business activities at a time when the virus is still on the loose.

The nation’s spirit can’t soar when you are toggling your mobile phone between score updates on the cricket apps and keeping an eye on those diagnosed COVID-19 positive in a 500-metre radius on Aarogya Setu.

This article first appeared in the print edition on June 11 under the title “Cricket is no Corona Warrior.”

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