At around 12:07 pm on Sunday, the 20,000-odd spectators at the Feroze Shah Kotla witnessed an odd sight. The Sri Lankan team walked out to field with a majority of them wearing face masks.

It was an odd sight, not because Delhities had never witnessed the scene before – they have, everyday. Rather, it was odd because never before had we witnessed such a scene at an international sports venue in the capital.

Things took a stranger turn a little later as play was held up for almost 15 minutes. The Sri Lankans, it seemed, didn’t want to play – the smog... the pollution was proving to be too much for their lungs. One of their fast bowler’s Suranga Lakmal had thrown up in the morning session and gone off the field. The other, Lahiru Gamage, wasn’t fairing too well himself.

It took a while but after a lot of discussion, play continued. As Sri Lankan skipper Dinesh Chandimal was putting his point across to the umpires, the Indian skipper – who was looking good for a triple ton – should have had some sympathy for them. He had recently made a plea to people of the city.

Play started again. But then Gamage went off. Lakmal came on, bowled five balls and simply walked off the ground. He had had enough. More discussion and debate ensued before Dilruwan Perera came on to finish the over.

In between, India lost wickets – Kohli didn’t get to his triple century and coach Ravi Shastri marched onto the ground... asking the umpires to get on with things. The breaks also led to a lot of rather ridiculous chatter that the Sri Lankans were indulging in gamesmanship; that the masks were just an excuse to slow down the play and disturb the concentration of Indian batsmen.

It was silly because the pollution problem in real. It was sillier though for the acting BCCI president CK Khanna to say: “If 20,000 people in the stands did not have a problem and the Indian team did not face any issue, I wonder why the Sri Lankan team made a big fuss. I will need to talk to the secretary and ask him to write to the Sri Lanka cricket.”

Dire in Delhi

The people of Delhi have been raising a fuss about the pollution for the longest time – that the politicians don’t seem to be able to anything concrete about it is another issue altogether. For Khanna to say that the people did not have a problem reeks of a very entitled kind of ignorance.

If the Sri Lankan’s did have a problem, they were very much within their rights to stop play altogether. Yes, Kohli played in the same conditions for two days. Yes, there were people in the stands braving the conditions. But to expect Sri Lankans, who are almost never used to this kind of air quality, to carry on is a classic case of false equivalence.

It is the responsibility of the host association to provide a safe venue and the BCCI, by choosing Delhi, has failed in that regard.

Sri Lankan coach Nic Pothas, who came in for the press conference at the end of the day, shed more light on the what really happened.

“In most conditions you want to play cricket. We just wanted some clarity on condition of players. Lakmal was vomiting in dressing room. The umpires were very clear about playing on.”

The recently-concluded U-17 World Cup also had to tackle the pollution issue when all of India’s games in the tournament were transferred to the capital. FIFA U-17 World Cup director Javier Ceppi weighed in on the debate on his twitter handle:

Health first

Given what Sri Lanka have experienced in the city, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to the BCCI if other countries also decided to not play in Delhi. The pollution levels never seem to go below hazardous levels and it is frankly foolhardy to expect athletes to risk their health for no reason. Even today, when the AQI index in the vicinity of the stadium was around 200, many were saying that this is so much better than usual.

But honestly, better than usual isn’t good enough. 200 is better than 999 but it still isn’t the kind of air that one must be playing sport in.

Ceppi’s comment also shows why Delhi needs to stop harbouring any hopes of hosting international events in the future until it gets its act together. It should be struck off the international events hosting list by the Indian government. It may seem harsh but pollution isn’t going to go away in a year or two. Several action plans have been suggested over the years and it’s time they are put into play.

The bigger issue for India, though, should not just be international events. Delhi has a population of almost 18.6 million – is it right for the government to expect it’s citizens to get ‘used’ to these conditions?

The BCCI and the Delhi government should use this opportunity as a wake-up call to set things right and for once, not hide behind the mask of ignorance. The only masks truly needed today were the ones the Sri Lankans wore.