To play or not to play? Cricket matches despite toxic air raise questions on pollution guidelines

World Cup match on November 6 in Delhi went ahead despite ‘severe’ air for four days in a row

By Nandita Banerji
Published: Tuesday 07 November 2023
The Cricket World Cup 2023 match between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka was held at the Arun Jaitley Stadium in New Delhi on November 6, 2023. Photo: ICC / X (formerly Twitter)__

The Cricket World Cup 2023 match between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka was held at the Arun Jaitley Stadium in New Delhi on November 6, 2023 despite talks of the match being called off due to hazardous air quality in the national capital. The average air quality index (AQI) for the 24 hours ending at 4 pm on November 6 was 421, making it the national capital’s fourth consecutive ‘severe’ AQI day. 

While the Sri Lankan cricket team cancelled a training session over the toxic air quality, according to news reports, the match was played at the stadium located in a pollution hotspot. 

According to the International Cricket Council (ICC) guidelines on air quality, as well as a pulmonologist whom the organisers have been consulting, an AQI reading of below 200 is considered safe for play in most cases, reported sports news website Espncricinfo. The AQI reading in the vicinity of the ground was over 400 on the afternoon of November 5.

Media outlets reported that asthmatic members of the Bangladesh cricket team stayed indoors and Sri Lankan players wore masks ahead of the latest match. 

“Air quality is affecting both teams. And it's not ideal, but we have no choice. We have to play in the conditions in front of us,” Bangladesh coach Chandika Hathurasingha was quoted by news website ZeeNews.

Till now, five matches have taken place in Delhi and there are no more matches scheduled in the national capital for the ongoing World Cup. Matches have also taken place in other cities with high pollution levels, like Lucknow, Bangalore and Mumbai. Test captain for England Ben Stokes was also witnessed using an inhaler during training ahead of the game against Sri Lanka in Bangalore.

This is not the first time the air quality in the city has played a role in determining whether matches should be held. The effect of hazardous air on sporting events first grabbed headlines in December 2017, when Sri Lanka played a test match wearing masks on the field. A haze of smog reduced visibility on the ground and players reported effects like nausea.

The question of not hosting international cricket matches in metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata again came up in 2019, when an international T-20 match between India and Bangladesh on November 3, 2023 at the Arun Jaitley Stadium. 

ICC had set standards for air pollution, meaning matches could potentially be cancelled if air quality worsened. After images of Sri Lankan players wearing masks in 2017 came out, the council issued a statement, saying they had taken note of the conditions in which the test match was played. 

“We have already referred this issue to our medical committee so that guidelines and standards can be set to deal with such issues in the future,” the ICC stated.

However, a 2019 story by Down To Earth (DTE) pointed out that these guidelines were not being followed. 

While cricket matches have fans who have a religious zeal for the sport unlike any other in the country, there are several other factors behind matches being played in the metro city despite the health hazards to both cricketers and attendees. The biggest issue is that of the sponsoring companies, which invest large sums of money in the branding of matches and its players, the DTE report added.

While ICC has rules in place for weather conditions like rain, the issue of air pollution affecting the sport has emerged for the first time. ICC said it was monitoring Delhi’s air quality and took seriously “the wellbeing of all participants” ahead of the match, reported news website Mint.  

The 2019 report by DTE also mentioned that the Board of Control for Cricket in India announced that in future, Delhi may be deprived of hosting international matches during November and December.

It also quoted former Uttar Pradesh Ranji player Vishwajit Singh as saying, “There is so much money in Indian cricket that it will weaken even a big issue like pollution. Although the ICC has announced the formulation of pollution standards, it remains to be seen how far it will be able to prepare the correct standards by freeing itself from the dominance of the Indian Cricket Board in world cricket. Air pollution certainly affects sports, but it is not possible for cricket to stop in India due to pollution. After all it has settled in the veins of Indians.”

The stadium in Delhi is also located near ITO, one of the pollution hotspots in the city. While visiting countries may not be in a position to refuse to play a match, they may ask for change in venue from Arun Jaitley Stadium to another in the outskirts or even in Greater Noida, DTE has previously pointed out. 

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