Despite a devastating Covid-19 second wave killing thousands of people every day in India, the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament is playing on.
The lucrative IPL, which runs until May 30, is a two month festival of cricket, attracting huge contracts for the world’s best players.
International competition all but stops during the glitzy event which is currently being held behind closed doors as India scrambles to deal with the surge in cases.
According to Forbes, the IPL is the sixth most valuable sports league in the world, behind the NFL, the Champions League and European football’s four biggest domestic leagues.
Pat Cummins, who was the most expensive foreign buy in IPL’s 2020 auction, issued a statement on Monday which reflected the debate about whether it’s right to continue.
“I’m advised that the Indian government is of the view that playing the IPL while the population is in lockdown provides a few hours of joy and respite each day at an otherwise difficult time for the country,” Cummins wrote in a statement on Twitter.
IPL organizers told Reuters on Sunday that they remain confident that the biosecure bubbles around the teams means the players are safe to compete.
“IPL provides a much-needed distraction for all from the doom and gloom around us,” an IPL official told Reuters.
“Yes, cases have surged in venues like Delhi, but we have two standby venues in Hyderabad and Indore and we’d use them if needed.”
Neither India’s Board of Control for Cricket (BCCI) nor the IPL were available for comment when contacted by CNN.
A country on its knees
India is currently a nation in crisis. It’s healthcare system has been crippled. Hospitals in Delhi are running out of oxygen and ICU beds, leaving patients left waiting outside for care.
On Monday, the country reported 352,991 new cases and 2,812 virus-related deaths, marking the world’s highest daily caseload for the fifth consecutive day. Experts say the real toll exceeds the official figures.
And critics are now questioning how appropriate it is to hold the IPL tournament in a country currently on its knees.
“It doesn’t make me feel good. I’ve seen a lot of lives being lost,” Oswald Dsouza, 55, a passionate cricket fan from Bangalore, told CNN Sport.
“On one side, you have people losing their precious lives and on the other you’re talking about entertainment and commercial cricket.
“Yes, I also love the IPL but lives do matter at the end of the day. What’s the point with going on with IPL when we have so many lives lost.”
He added: “Why take the chance? Why risk cricket players’ lives? I’m sure the money is there and the big bucks is there in the IPL but lives are very important. They could sacrifice one season.”
A number of foreign and domestic players have already stepped away this season, with Australian trio Adam Zampa, Kane Richardson and Andrew Tye among the first to return home citing personal reasons.
The Delhi Capitals star Ravi Ashwin also withdrew from the league, writing on Twitter that he was taking a break in order to support his family.
“My family and extended family are putting up a fight against #COVID19 and I want to support them during these tough times,” he wrote.
“I expect to return to play if things go in the right direction.”
Meanwhile Cummins has called on IPL players to help fund medical supplies, notably oxygen supplies, to those who need it most.
“I encourage my fellow IPL players — and anyone else around the world who has been touched by India’s passion and generosity – to contribute. I will kick it off with $50,000,” Cummins wrote on Twitter.
Newspapers boycott IPL
India’s central government has come under fierce criticism within the country for its handling of the outbreak.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi only addressed the nation on the crisis for the first time last week, having held political rallies and largely downplayed the second wave’s urgency in the weeks before. He has since said his administration will set up 551 oxygen generation plants.
Canceling the season because of the pandemic would certainly have financial repercussions for India.
The IPL’s current broadcast deal was worth $2.5 billion. The league provides jobs for thousands of people and with India’s 1.2 billion population, the country’s love of cricket is a huge money spinner.
However, the New Indian Express, a newspaper based in Chennai, has decided to stop its IPL coverage with immediate effect until a “semblance of normalcy is restored.”
“In such a tragic time, we find it incongruous that the festival of cricket is on in India, with layers of bio bubbles creating protection,” read a message from the paper’s editor.
“This is commercialism gone crass. The problem is not with the game but its timing. Cricket, too, must accept that we are passing through an unprecedented crisis.”
Supporters of the IPL playing might well point to European football’s ability to continue amid the pandemic as reason to continue with the country’s favorite sport.
But with several Delhi hospitals on Monday tweeting out SOS messages saying they were running out of oxygen and crematoriums becoming an assembly line of death and misery, the optics of a lucrative cricket tournament playing on arguably don’t look great.
Twenty matches have been played in the current edition of the IPL with all games so far being played in Chennai and Mumbai.
The tournament continues this week with 16 games set to be played in the nation’s capital Delhi and Ahmedabad.
India is also set to host the T20 World Cup in October this year.