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Indian Premier League Suspends Cricket Tournament Amid COVID-19 Crisis

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Every year, sports fans in India wait eagerly for the months of April and May to watch the country's beloved cricket tournament, the Indian Premier League, or IPL. But this year, the IPL became shrouded in controversy for continuing games despite a devastating COVID-19 surge. Now some of the players have the virus, as NPR's Sushmita Pathak reports.

SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: Until recently, this is what TV sounded like in India every evening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's just how CSK would want to start the final over...

PATHAK: Star cricketers playing in empty stadiums because of the pandemic. That crowd noise is actually fake - from previous games. The IPL tournament organizers put players and staff in a bio bubble, a special arrangement to limit contact with the outside world and keep players safe from the virus. It's similar to what the NBA did last year. Outside the IPL bubble, though, things were unraveling quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Breaking news coming in this morning, where India has broken all previous records of the highest single-day rise in cases.

PATHAK: The coronavirus was raging through India, people struggling to find hospital beds and oxygen, mass cremations taking place in several cities. But just a few miles from those burning fires, the IPL continued.

KARUNYA KESHAV: Was it sensitive to be playing cricket when there was such a disaster, such a crisis happening in the rest of India?

PATHAK: That's the question cricket writer Karunya Keshav and many others have been asking. The cheerful cricket matches seemed tone deaf. Some newspapers boycotted the tournament. The games did include frequent public service announcements like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: If you can, stay at home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: If you do have to go out, remember to wear your mask.

PATHAK: But Keshav says the IPL, which is among the world's richest sports tournaments, could have done much more for COVID relief, even something symbolic, she says, like players wearing black armbands to show solidarity with those who are suffering.

KESHAV: There was a feeling that maybe there wasn't really any empathy coming from the team, from the organizers.

PATHAK: There were also concerns that the tournament was putting a strain on resources that were already in short supply. Sohini Mitter was running around looking for coronavirus tests for her elderly parents in Mumbai. Meanwhile, IPL players were getting tested almost daily.

SOHINI MITTER: It all felt like something very unfair was happening.

PATHAK: Both her parents tested positive. Her mom was hospitalized, and her dad was in isolation at home.

MITTER: There was this haunting loneliness in the house. He was in his own room. I would just leave food outside his room.

PATHAK: Mitter says throughout the day, her dad would just lie in bed. He didn't feel like doing anything. But when the cricket match came on in the evening, she says his mood changed.

MITTER: The impact of those four hours of distraction could be seen in, you know, his body language, his eating. He would go to sleep a much more calm person than he would be in the morning.

PATHAK: So Mitter says for selfish reasons, she wanted the cricket matches to go on. For weeks, organizers justified continuing the tournament by saying cricket could be a positive force during this national crisis. The debate finally ended last week when the IPL's bio bubble burst. Several players tested positive, and the tournament was suspended indefinitely. Mitter says it was the right thing to do, but she worries about her dad.

MITTER: He doesn't know what to do this evening because there's no IPL.

PATHAK: Maybe the sports channel will air videos of old matches, she says. For NPR News, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Hyderabad, India. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.