Invisible risks and unwritten rules: why the climate crisis is one of cricket’s biggest tests

·4 min read
Hazy conditions at the Kotla Stadium in Delhi during the India Sri Lanka Test December 2017. (Ankit Bhardwaj)
Hazy conditions at the Kotla Stadium in Delhi during the India Sri Lanka Test December 2017. (Ankit Bhardwaj)

By Lottie Limb

When he arrived at the Delhi ground for the second day’s play between India and Sri Lanka in December 2017, Ankit Bhardwaj got some strange stares.

He was wearing a pollution mask.

Excited for his first taste of test match cricket, Ankit’s job as a climate researcher made it impossible for him to ignore the haze.

His mask offered protection in conditions where the concentration of PM2.5 (harmful ultrafine particulate matter) was more than double acceptable levels.

From the cheap seats he watched as the Sri Lankan fast bowlers vomited on the side of the field. The match stuttered on with regular interruptions.

Ankit recalled: “There was a lot of commentary about strong Indian lungs. For me, interested in air pollution and climate change, my ears perked a little.”

Air pollution in Delhi is a four-part problem: a deadly mixture of coal-burning power plants; transport emissions; waste and biomass burning; and the scorching of crops after harvest.

Diwali’s firecrackers add another layer of smog to the land-locked city each November.

The finer the emission particles, the deeper they penetrate into our lungs inhibiting the uptake of oxygen over time and causing damaging health problems for children.

A pioneering report into the impacts of climate change on cricket Hit For Six (2019) calls on the International Cricket Council (ICC) to set up a climate disaster fund to support communities in vulnerable regions.

From air pollution in India, to sea-level rise in Bangladesh, storms in the West Indies and drought in South Africa, cricket-playing nations in the global south are on the frontlines of the climate emergency.

Doug Toyne, a 16-year-old grade cricket umpire in Canberra had to apply hastily-written rules during the Australian bushfires last season.

He described how the air was like nothing he’d seen before: “Every summer there’d be a few days a year where you can sort of smell it, maybe it looks a bit hazy, but this year it was thick, the sky was brown-orange every day.”

Guidance from Cricket ACT (Canberra) struggled to keep up. Air quality guidelines sent to Doug on January 9 stated that when air quality fell below a certain level all junior matches were to be postponed, whereas at senior level it was only “recommended” calling off games, making his calls tricky to enforce.

During the Sydney test between Australia and New Zealand that month, there was a general feeling that cricket didn’t really matter. Players wore black armbands to honour the emergency services. Plans for Australian PM Scott Morrison to do a commentary stint were dropped.

The ICC is yet to set up either reactive or proactive funding. Marketing and communications general manager Claire Furlong explained: “We are in the process of developing a new global strategy for the game and this includes a holistic approach to social impact and as such our climate action plan will be part of this.”

Tanya Aldred, a leading writer and advocate for climate action, said: “The massive question is that you can’t, in our world, continue to consume and consume at an increasing rate, whether that’s stuff or sport.”

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) had begun putting together a sustainability plan, but with cricket clubs fighting to survive the coronavirus lockdown measures, it is unclear what money will remain in the coffers for climate mitigation.

Tanya believes there should be fewer competitions, because “tinkering around the edges” with plastic reduction and other greener initiatives within an ever-busier schedule will be at best a “nil sum game.”

“I thought there was a real possibility for something to link green space, mental health, cricket and the environment. Something that cricket can celebrate because it has all these little oases of green within major cities.”

In Ankit’s words: “Cricket is deeply attuned to the weather and climate - its culture depends on a symbiotic relationship with it. So if big institutions like the BCCI [Board of Control for Cricket in India] make the case that cricket and climate are one and together, I think that can potentially motivate a lot more people.”

With centralised action, cricket around the world can make its role in the next chapter of human and environmental history a positive one.