The months of November and December are among the prime stretch of New Delhi’s sporting calendar but a blanket of smog is playing havoc with everything from Test cricket to India’s national shooting event in the world’s most polluted capital city.
At a time when schoolchildren are being told to only play indoors, Delhi is staging a Test match between India and South Africa and also hosted a crunch tie on Thursday night in football’s Indian Super League (ISL).
For spectators and even cameramen, the matches have turned at times into a spot-the-ball contest while experts warn the standard of competition on the field suffers as a result. “It’s terrible out here,” a TV cameraman, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP at the cricket match.
“It’s a struggle to fix the lights on our cameras because the light is really bad, thanks to the smog, especially in the mornings. Sometimes we can’t even see the other side of the ground.
“It makes our job very difficult. Also, it’s not pleasant to be breathing in all this toxic air.”
A reading on Friday on the US embassy website showed the concentration of PM 2.5 particulate matter, harmful microscopic particles that penetrate deep in the lungs, at a “very unhealthy” level and said “prolonged or heavy exertion” should be avoided.
That’s not possible for cricketers or footballers such as former Liverpool full-back John Arne Riise who played for the Delhi Dynamos in Thursday’s ISL showdown against the Kerala Blasters.
Ankit Gupta, a Delhi-based sports injuries specialist, said pollution is a particular challenge to foreign players such as Riise, born in the pristine surroundings of central Norway. “Those who hail from areas where the air is clean and fresh need to be extra careful, although staying indoors all the time can’t be an option,” Gupta told AFP.
While Gupta said the impact on cricket was not so bad as smog levels dip in the day-time, he added that “it can’t be easy during night games when the pollution is high”.
Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla cricket ground lies on the edge of the old city, one of the most polluted areas in the capital.
When Australia lost to India there in 1996, the defeat was widely blamed on the polluted air that made it difficult for bowlers like Glenn McGrath and Paul Reiffel to breathe normally.
Batting great Sunil Gavaskar, now a television commentator, acknowledged pollution was a concern. “Fast bowlers find it hard to bowl long spells in the morning when the smog is there,” he told AFP. “Batsmen also do not take many three runs because they get out of breath. Then as the sun comes out it becomes easier.
“Since it is a universal concern, the ICC (International Cricket Council) will have to take into account the wellbeing of players and umpires. I hope they will be looking into it sooner than later.”
It’s hardly surprising then that last Sunday’s annual Delhi Half Marathon included runners in facemasks while the finish line was shrouded in haze.
“There was so much smog in the morning that I would have fallen ill had I run without a mask,” one runner, Sanjay Suri, told The Times of India.
If running out of puff is the main concern of athletes, competitors at the ongoing national shooting championships at Delhi’s Karni Singh ranges have an even more fundamental problem.
“If you can’t see the clay flying, you can’t shoot it,” trap shooter Morad Ali Khan, a gold medallist at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, told the Indian Express.
“When you’re in a plane flying over Europe and you look down, you can see everything. It’s clear. When you fly over Delhi you can’t see much. So visibility is a problem.”
While some shooting events are held inside, others such as Trap, Double Trap and Skeet contests have to be outdoors.
Some of the world’s top tennis players, including Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, are due in Delhi next week to take part in the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL).
They at least can rest easy that the matches will be held indoors.