The Sri Lankans, struggling with the smog during the Delhi Test, were well within their rights to say they couldn’t go on. It's a shame they were booed. © BCCI

The Sri Lankans, struggling with the smog during the Delhi Test, were well within their rights to say they couldn’t go on. It’s a shame they were booed. © BCCI

“To put it simply, it’s a gas chamber here,” wrote my former colleague Manoj Narayan on November 8, 2016, while still with Wisden India and given the task of covering a Ranji Trophy match between Bengal and Gujarat at the Feroz Shah Kotla when the pollution levels were at an all-time high. Or low, depending on how you look at it. The match didn’t take place.

The Hyderabad v Tripura match, scheduled in another part of the national capital, the Karnail Singh Stadium, didn’t happen either. Because it was a gas chamber out there. According to Manoj’s report, the level of PM10 on that day was 876 µg/m3 (safe limit 100) and PM2.5 680 (safe limit 60). He sent us a photograph of Manoj Tiwary and Ashok Dinda, senior Bengal players, walking out of the Kotla with pollution masks on.

Michael Chopra, the former English footballer who was with Kerala Blasters at the time, told him, “I have been quite unwell for the last couple of days and the pollution is just making it worse.”

Let’s keep these things in mind when we think about what happened on Sunday, the second day of the ongoing India v Sri Lanka Test at the Kotla.

There were various stoppages in play, a couple of the Sri Lankan cricketers felt sick, some of them went off, and many of the rest of the players came out to field wearing pollution masks. As did Kuldeep Yadav, the Indian 12th man, at one stage. There were discussions and delays aplenty. Ravi Shastri was seen striding out and gesticulating with the umpires, and Nic Pothas did much the same. At some stage, seeing where things were headed, Virat Kohli, recently out for 243, chose to call off the Indian innings. If you can’t field in this ‘gas chamber’, he seemed to suggest, why not bat? Let the show go on, it must.

Only a few days ago, Kohli put out a Twitter video, urging Delhifolk to recognise the dangers they were facing, saying, “A lot of people are debating as to what’s causing it, but what are we actually doing about it?” He knows what it’s like out there. Call me alarmist, but it feels apocalyptic.

Later, Pothas said, “Obviously, it is well documented that Delhi has high levels of pollution. They had got extremely high at one point, we had players coming in at one point and vomiting. There were oxygen cylinders in the dressing room. It is not normal for players to suffer in that way while playing the game. From our point of view, it has to be stated that it is a very, very unique case.”

It was, is, a very unique case. In a unique capital city where everyone, including children, are forced to live in one of the unhealthiest conditions the world can offer. Yes, it comes and goes. Yes, now is among the worst times in terms of the ‘smog’. Yes, locals live, work, go to school, etc. But, and I’m no expert on the matter, it can’t be right for people to spend four-five-six hours exerting themselves physically in circumstances such as this. I checked. The numbers were not as high as last year when the two Ranji games were abandoned, but they were bad enough. And, importantly, they were much, much, much higher than what it was in Colombo at exactly the same time. On PM2.5, Colombo read 45 at 1.30pm IST. In Delhi, at the same time, it was 262. (Even this morning, as I send this off, my air quality app suggests that Delhi is ‘hazardous’. I live in merely ‘unhealthy’ conditions in Bangalore, it appears.)

Were Lakmal and Gamage faking it? I don’t know. But I do know that Javier Ceppi, director of the Under-17 World Cup held in India recently, said, “You can’t host sport events in Delhi from Diwali till end of February, at least. It is a fact. We had to accommodate our schedule to avoid it and others should also think about athletes’ health first.”

Now, I think the Sri Lankans were well within their rights to say they couldn’t go on. The people of Delhi too, of course, even if they don’t actually have the option of leaving. Dinesh Chandimal & Co, understandably, did their best to explore the options they had.

Therefore, I thought the booing of the cricketers by the crowd at the Kotla was poor. A shame. As was the statement from CK Khanna, the acting president of the BCCI – not always a paragon of good sense – who told reporters at some point during the day, “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 (BCCI) secretary and ask him to write to Sri Lanka Cricket.”

One can only hope someone will dissuade Mr Khanna. More than 20,000 people in India have suffered because of terror attacks on our shores but we don’t travel to Pakistan to play cricket fearing the exact same thing. When non-Asian teams express concerns about travelling to terror-hit areas, we side with them. And, hey, that’s fair enough.

A PM2.5 level of 200-odd is better than a PM2.5 level of 500 or 600, as Delhi has recorded often in the past, but it’s well past the safe limit. If I, who comes from a relatively cleaner country, feel sick in yours, it’s not “a big fuss”. You, as part of the BCCI in whatever – acting or otherwise – capacity, should respect that. And, unless things improve drastically, stop planning to host games – international, domestic, schools, whatever – at this time of the year. It’s not a bomb that will kill you on the spot, but it will harm your lungs. Why should our guests risk it to earn their lakhs?

In 2016, the Ranji Trophy match between Bengal and Gujarat at the Feroz Shah Kotla was called off because of the smog and pollution levels. © Wisden India

In 2016, the Ranji Trophy match between Bengal and Gujarat at the Feroz Shah Kotla was called off because of the smog and pollution levels. © Wisden India

As for the people of Delhi, I can understand the frustration. But there are other ways of dealing with that. I’m pretty sure the people of Chennai didn’t chant the Tamil equivalent of ‘hori bol’ when Dean Jones was throwing up and looking ready to collapse during that tied Test of 1986 like Calcuttans did when Roshan Mahanama sank to the ground during the World Cup semifinal of 1996. It’s another matter that the Eden Gardens crowd did much worse as the game wore on to its terrible conclusion but they did shout the chant accompanying a dead body as it is carried to the crematorium. These are shameful episodes that will remain in the flesh memory of Eden Gardens and Feroz Shah Kotla for years to come. They should anyway.

After the day’s play, B Arun said, “Virat batted close to two days, he didn’t need a mask.” And he didn’t do much better when he said, “They (Sri Lanka) wanted to probably stress upon pollution and their focus was totally different.” Toeing the bosses’ line, perhaps, the same Arun who was Hyderabad coach when their game against Tripura didn’t take place last year.

Nautanki, a report on Aaj Tak, the premier Hindi news channel, called it. Drama. Was it? I can’t dispute it. Simply because I don’t know, and no one – the Delhi crowd, CK Khanna, Aaj Tak – does either. Were the pollution levels what the experts said they were? Yes. Can that be disputed?

Were Lakmal and Gamage faking it? I don’t know. But I do know that Javier Ceppi, director of the Under-17 World Cup held in India recently, said, “You can’t host sport events in Delhi from Diwali till end of February, at least. It is a fact. We had to accommodate our schedule to avoid it and others should also think about athletes’ health first.”

Last week, Kohli, MS Dhoni and Shastri went to meet Vinod Rai, one of the two surviving members of the Committee of Administrators overseeing matters at the BCCI, to discuss two crucial issues: Player remunerations and excessive cricket. I wish they also had a chat about playing cricket in New Delhi during the early winter months. Maybe they can now. I don’t see the Englishmen or Australians being half as accommodating as the Sri Lankans were.