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Will air pollution mask international cricket’s prospects in Kathmandu? 

Air pollution in Kathmandu is making every effort to undo the progress in cricket and harm the cricket economy. Can any one of us let that happen? 

On May 1, during the third T20 match of West Indies A side’s historic tour of Nepal some of the West Indian players put on masks during the game, indicating heightened air pollution levels. The incident was covered by the conventional media and widely shared in the social media. As per IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company, the air quality index (AQI)—an index which reports daily air quality—was 152 around the Tribhuvan University cricket ground meaning it was unhealthy. At that level, any individual can begin to experience adverse health effects. Fortunately, the spirited performances of our players during the five-match series that ended on May 4 compelled us to talk about cricket and not air pollution. 

Although the air pollution level in Kathmandu is unfortunate and deplorable, I have chosen to use “fortunately” earlier out of my love for cricket and concerns over Kathmandu’s formidable contention as a destination for international cricket tournaments. Meanwhile, May 6 to 10 is also the air quality awareness week which includes World Asthma Day on May 7. While poor air quality is and should be everyone’s concern from the health aspect, its potential impact on our nation’s cricketing aspirations should be equally concerning to the cricket fanatic nation. Therefore, I draw your attention to the relationship between cricket and air pollution especially in South Asian context.

Sri Lanka’s tour of India in 2017 

Day 2 of the third test match between Sri Lanka and India played at Arun Jaitley Stadium in Delhi during Sri Lanka tour of India in December 2017 was arguably the first time in the history of International cricket that hazardous air pollution levels led to disruption of an international cricket match. The game was halted twice for a total of about 20 minutes in the post lunch session after Sri Lanka players on the field reported health issues such as vomiting and breathlessness. There were also reports of oxygen cylinders being used in the dressing room. At a point in time, the visiting Sri Lankan test team was down to 10 men because of a lack of healthy players to take the field. The AQI around the stadium that day was 338. AQI between 301 and 400 is considered hazardous with a potential to trigger a health warning of emergency conditions. As strange as it may sound, the then acting President of Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) called the visiting Sri Lankan team’s act “a big fuss”. 

Cricket World Cup 2023

The issue of air pollution in cricket once again surfaced during the 50 over version of the Men’s cricket World Cup held in India last year. On November 6,2023 the match between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka was played in New Delhi despite genuine concerns of poor air quality by both the teams with the International Cricket Council (ICC). New Delhi’s AQI that day was at 411 which is considered ‘very hazardous’. Although both the teams had canceled their practice sessions for the match and members of Bangladesh team who had asthma chose to remain at the hotel, the match went ahead in the same venue. Moreover, at that time the schools in New Delhi were closed for the entire week citing hazardous air pollution levels. India is a cricketing giant and BCCI a financial superpower. Hence, one can plausibly assume that neither of the two teams could not have dared to disrupt the original plans of the tournament.

Let’s start taking small actions from our end: Avoid open burning of organic and inorganic waste and discourage others from doing it, walk or cycle to office some days, and routinely maintain our fossil fuel driven vehicles. 

Meanwhile, a satellite-based atmospheric data analysis conducted by Reuters found that out of the total 47 matches played during the 2023 World Cup 20 matches were played in unhealthy air (PM 2.5: 55 – 150 µg/m³) and only two matches were played in healthy air (PM 2.5: 0- 12 µg/m³). This suggests that not just the Sri Lanka and Bangladesh game but the entire tournament was shrouded in air pollution. Furthermore, the same satellite-based atmospheric data analysis of all World Cup cricket matched played between 1983 and 2019 revealed that air quality at the venues in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh “have been worse compared to other venues in previous tournaments”.

Yes, we can

As mentioned earlier, the financial might of India especially in cricket might have prevented any major criticisms or resulted in inaction. Nevertheless, such conditions are a reputational risk for an associate cricketing nation like Nepal which aims to attract major regional and global cricketing tournaments in future. Undoubtedly, such tournaments strengthen Nepal’s cricket infrastructure, advertise its ability to host international events, but beyond that it promotes Nepal as an international sporting destination, fosters sports tourism and inevitably contributes to economic growth. However, air pollution in Kathmandu is making every effort to undo the progress in cricket and harm the cricket economy. Can any one of us let that happen? I am sure the answer is a resounding ‘NO’.

If that is indeed unacceptable then let’s start taking small actions from our end: Avoid open burning of organic and inorganic waste and discourage others from doing it, walk or cycle to office some days, and routinely maintain our fossil fuel driven vehicles. As you are reading this, you might have instantly begun thinking, what will this do? This is exactly the same doubt that you and I might have had on Nepal cricket about 10 or 15 years ago. What’s the use of investing in Nepal cricket? Are we going to be able to challenge sides like India and Pakistan or make a mark in world cricket?

But as of today, Nepal Men’s cricket team has already played against India and Pakistan and taken the flight to the United States to participate in the T20 World Cup, second time since 2014, with a belief that we can upset test playing nations. This is not magic but consolidation of minuscule efforts and investments in Nepal cricket.

The writer can be reached at [email protected]