When live images from the Arun Jaitley Stadium were shown for the first time during the broadcast of the first Twenty20 International between India and Bangladesh, former India cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar was telling viewers tuning in that the visibility had improved, that you could see clearly for 80-90 metres behind him, that – even though all the talk in the build-up had been about the less-than-ideal conditions in Delhi – he was glad that was just a T20 that was being played in the evening.

“The players in the Indian team like Shikhar Dhawan, Rishabh Pant [Delhi players] would have been asked for their opinion, and I am sure they would have given their thumbs up, that is why this game is going ahead. They are used to playing in these conditions, we have even played Ranji Trophy in Delhi like this before...,” Manjrekar said, doing his best to sound convincing to the audience that it was alright for players and fans to be out there on what was the worst day of pollution in the city.

Alarmed by the dipping air quality, the state government had ordered shutting down of schools till November 5 but students were present in large numbers to watch their cricketing heroes in action. There were a few wearing anti-pollution masks but the number was insignificant compared to the ones who didn’t feel it necessary to use them, reported PTI.

Concentrations of fine particles (2.5 microns or less in diameter) in the air hit the highest level of this season on Sunday, India’s state-run System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research said. The air quality index for PM 2.5 hit 810 early in the day, well beyond the “hazardous” zone, according to the US embassy in Delhi, which independently monitors pollution levels. The recommended World Health Organisation safe daily maximum is a reading of 25.

Despite this Sunday being the worst day of the year, and despite protests from environmentalists in the lead up to the tournament, a game of cricket was played without a care in the world.

The broadcasters were trying to idealise the situation on the day, as the players and coaches did that in the lead up. Bangladesh coach Russell Domingo said “it was only three hours” without having a thought for the long shifts that everyone but the players and staff need to put in for a match to go ahead without a glitch.

During all this, there was nothing done by the International Cricket Council to step in and prevent the match from happening except a brief source-based tweet that match referee Ranjan Madugalle was considering suspending the match. But even that was citing poor visibility and not the severe pollution levels.

What does the ICC rulebook say?

ICC and playing conditions have a bizarre relationship. Just before this match on Sunday, down in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia and Pakistan took a full 20-minute break between the innings despite plenty of minutes lost due to rain. And in the end there was no result possible because the hosts innings ended a few deliveries short for it to be considered a full match.

The two contrasting situations on Sunday made one thing clear: the governing body needs better playing conditions than just saying “umpires will decide”.

Here’s what the playing conditions handbook for ICC says currently:

2.7.1 It is solely for the umpires together to decide whether either conditions of ground, weather or light or exceptional circumstances mean that it would be dangerous or unreasonable for play to take place. 

Conditions shall not be regarded as either dangerous or unreasonable merely because they are not ideal. 

The fact that the grass and the ball are wet does not warrant the ground conditions being regarded as unreasonable or dangerous. 

2.7.2 Conditions shall be regarded as dangerous if there is actual and foreseeable risk to the safety of any player or umpire. 

2.7.3 Conditions shall be regarded as unreasonable if, although posing no risk to safety, it would not be sensible for play to proceed.


2.8.8 The safety of all persons within the ground is of paramount importance to the ICC. In the event that of any threatening circumstance, whether actual or perceived (including for example weather, pitch invasions, act of God, etc.), then the umpires, on the advice of the ICC Match Referee, should suspend play  (....)

Even going by that vague description, the umpires and referee should have stepped in on Sunday and said play should not have gone ahead. But ignoring that for a second, the only scientific method that the ICC stipulates for currently is the use of light meters to gauge visibility. Making use of technology that is available, the umpires make a logical decision when it is dangerous for play to continue.

How hard must it be to do the same for pollutant levels? The scientific instruments are already installed, the readings readily available from the authorities or the internet... why not add stipulations that play should not continue if the AQI reading is not good enough?

Bad light, poor outfield affects only the players. The conditions we saw in Delhi affect not just the men in the middle, but thousands of fans who turned up (many of them kids)... what is the message the game is sending out by saying “oh, look, it’s close to a full-house in these horrendous conditions.: how great is cricket!” and patting the fans on the back while letting toxic air fill their lungs?

This happened in 2017 when Sri Lankan players wore masks for a Test match that was played in Delhi. Some criticised the visiting players for not being brave enough to suck up and continue, while others hoped at least pollution affecting cricket will bring some sort of corrective measures in the city. But here we are, two years later... the pollution is worse, the urge to rationalise playing a game of cricket in these conditions still strong.

Sourav Ganguly took to Twitter to thank players for braving these tough conditions but if the BCCI and ICC continue to turn a blind eye to this problem, and not address it, it’s a crying shame.

(With PTI and AFP inputs)