Sohini Mitter is a huge cricket fan. Normally, she would never miss the Indian Premier League (IPL), a glamorous, action-packed cricket tournament held every year during the months of April and May — and one of the biggest in the world. But this year, Mitter had other things on her mind.
"My parents' illness coincided with the IPL," Mitter told NPR.
Both her parents became sick during India's deadly COVID-19 outbreak. For weeks, India has been confirming more new cases than anywhere else in the world and thousands of daily deaths. Desperate Indians have been turning to social media to procure oxygen cylinders and antiviral drugs. Hospitals in many cities are having to send away patients because there is no space and people have been dying without getting care.
But throughout April, the IPL, a star-studded festival of cricket, continued — sometimes less than half a mile from hospitals where desperate scenes from India's COVID crisis were unfolding. Critics called it unethical, but fans said it kept them sane. Organizers said the games were cheering people up during a tough time. They defended their decision to keep them going — until one by one, the players started testing positive.
Isolated from the virus ... and from reality
This year's IPL kicked off on April 9. Every evening that month, star players from India and more than half a dozen other countries squared off on the cricket pitch in their colorful jerseys. The games were held in six cities across India, in empty stadiums due to the pandemic. Audio engineers modified the broadcast with fake crowd cheers and boos for TV audiences. Cricket commentary was interspersed with public service announcements about masks and social distancing. To keep players safe from the virus, the tournament organizers put cricketers and staff in a bio-secure bubble, a special arrangement to limit contact with the outside world, similar to what the National Basketball Association did last year in Florida.
But to many Indians, it felt like the tournament was isolated not just from the virus but from reality, too.
"It was just as if [the IPL was] literally in a different bubble from whatever was happening in the country," Mitter says.
Online, Indians' opinions were split over whether the IPL was inappropriate or a blessing.
"If you look at it from the scale of tragedy unfolding & the prevailing medical emergency across India, it's heartless to hv a sporting event mocking at all of us every evening. However, commercially they want to milk every bit by behaving like an ostrich. #Unconscionable #Apathy," wrote @TheRahulMetra.
"Personally, I don't begrudge the IPL for going on. I think it is still useful in helping people have some sense of normalcy every evening - and if only to keep them at home and sane. However, I totally understand & support players pulling out; might have done so myself too," wrote @ZeeMohamed.
"Was it sensitive to be playing cricket when there was such a disaster, such a crisis happening in the rest of India?" says Karunya Keshav, co-author of a book on cricket.
Through much of April, as the extent of India's crisis got clearer, there was very little public acknowledgement of the crisis from the IPL's organizers, teams or players, Keshav says. While ordinary Indians were using social platforms like Twitter and Instagram to share pleas for medicines and oxygen to help COVID-19 patients, the IPL stuck to discussing cricket. Teams' social media feeds were devoid of any COVID messaging. Some posts were criticized for being offensive. Shah Rukh Khan, a Bollywood actor who owns one of the IPL teams, the Kolkata Knight Riders, posted a celebratory tweet on April 24 about a new sponsor. Soon after, it triggered an online backlash from Indians who said the IPL could put its huge social media following to better use by amplifying requests for help.
The PSAs during matches about masks and social distancing were going on — but they felt inadequate, Keshav says. The backlash grew as the organizers failed to pledge any help for COVID relief and continued to hold matches in cities like Ahmedabad and New Delhi, where the outbreak was among the most severe.
"There was a feeling [among the public] that there wasn't really any empathy coming from the teams and the organizers," she says, adding that the players could have at least done something symbolic, like wearing black armbands to show solidarity with those who were suffering.
Some newspapers boycotted the tournament. "In such a tragic time, we find it incongruous that the festival of cricket is on in India," an April 25 note from the editor of the New Indian Express said. "This is commercialism gone crass."
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), a regulatory body that oversees the IPL, fended off calls to cancel the tournament by saying it was serving as a positive force during a crisis.
"When you all walk out onto the field, you are bringing hope to millions of people who have tuned in," the BCCI's interim CEO wrote to players in an internal email in late April. "While you are professionals and will play to win, this time you are also playing for something much more important ... humanity."
'It all felt like something very unfair was happening'
Beyond the optics, there were deeper concerns that the IPL was putting a strain on resources already in short supply. While Indian citizens were scrambling to find ambulances to take their relatives to the hospital, IPL organizers had an ambulance on standby outside stadiums. Like many desperate Indians, Mitter had to run around for days in Mumbai to find coronavirus tests for her sick parents, who are both in their late 60s. IPL players, on the other hand, were getting tested almost daily.
"It all felt like something very unfair was happening compared to what the on-ground situation for the common man was," Mitter says.
The IPL brand is valued at more than $6 billion, making it one of the richest sports tournaments in the world. To maintain the bio-bubble, the players and staff had separate check-in counters at airports when they traveled between matches. Organizers arranged state-of-the-art healthcare facilities for players, including the option to airlift them to safety.
Many cricket fans, and even one IPL player, questioned whether the tournament was doing enough for COVID-19 relief.
"How are these companies and franchises spending so much money, and the government, on the IPL when there's people not being able to get accepted into hospitals?" Andrew Tye, who plays for the Rajasthan Royals team, told the media in his native Australia, after he decided to pull out of the tournament for "personal reasons." Another Indian player withdrew to care for family members affected by COVID-19.
As criticism of the IPL mounted, a rare acknowledgement of the controversy from inside the tournament came on April 26. Australian Pat Cummins, of the Kolkata Knight Riders squad, shared a note on social media announcing a COVID-19 donation of $50,000.
"As players, we are privileged to have a platform that allows us to reach millions of people that we can use for good," Cummins wrote, urging his fellow cricketers to contribute.
'Bring in some positivity and cheer'
Back in Mumbai, Mitter finally found coronavirus tests for her parents, and they both tested positive. Her mom was hospitalized and her dad was isolating at home.
"There was this haunting loneliness in the house because nobody was allowed to visit," says Mitter. "[My dad] was in his own room, I would just leave food outside his room."
Mitter says throughout the day her dad would just lay on his bed. He didn't feel like doing anything. But when the cricket match came on in the evening, his mood would change.
"The impact of those four hours of distraction could be seen in his body language, his eating," she says. "He would go to sleep a much more calm person than he would be in the morning."
That's when Mitter started feeling differently about the tournament.
"For selfish reasons I wanted the IPL to go on," she says. "Because at least every day for four hours I could see my dad leading a normal life."
But eventually, the coronavirus managed to penetrate even the IPL's sophisticated bio-bubble. Several players tested positive and on May 4, nearly halfway through the tournament, the organizers suspended it indefinitely. Almost a whole month's worth of games, including the final scheduled for May 30, were scrapped.
"We have tried to bring in some positivity and cheer, however, it is imperative that the tournament is now suspended and everyone goes back to their families and loved ones in these trying times," the organizers said in a press release.
Since then, several individual players and almost all eight teams have announced financial contributions to COVID-19 funds or say they're teaming up with nonprofits to help raise money for oxygen and other vital supplies.
"It is our moral responsibility to join this fight and help the country during these tough times," the Punjab Kings team said in its fundraiser announcement. "The battle against the virus may be tough, but together, we shall overcome this."
Mitter says suspending the games was the right thing to do but she worries about her dad. "He doesn't know what to do with his evenings because there's no IPL," she says. Maybe the sports channel will air videos of old matches, she says.