NEW DELHI: Choking smog stopped play in the third Test between India and Sri Lanka in New Delhi on Sunday, with players wearing face masks as air quality dropped to hazardous levels in the heavily polluted capital.
Many of Sri Lanka’s fielders took the extraordinary step of wearing face masks when they returned from lunch on the second day after smog visibly worsened.
The Press Trust of India said it was the first time in the 140-year history of Test cricket that an international side had taken to the field in face masks.
The US embassy website Sunday showed concentrations of the smallest and most harmful airborne pollutants in Delhi hit 384 — 15 times the World Health Organization maximum — before returning to levels considered just “unhealthy”.
Play was halted for around 20 minutes at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium as Sri Lanka complained about the smog and the umpires consulted the match referee, team doctors and physiotherapists.
Play resumed but the visitors protested twice more, and pacemen Lahiru Gamage and Suranga Lakmal returned to the pavilion, leaving the Sri Lankans running short of fielders.
This prompted Indian skipper Virat Kohli to declare his first innings on 536 for seven to get the Sri Lankan fielders off the ground.
The islanders were booed by Indian fans as their opening batsmen walked to the crease.
Play is routinely suspended due to poor weather, low visibility, lightning or rain, but a stoppage as a result of pollution is almost unheard of.
“It is definitely a first of its kind,” said one commentator on the official television broadcast.
Indian sports commentator Ayaz Memon said the dramatic scenes sent an “unedifying message about Delhi’s pollution” and urged authorities to combat the scourge.
– Health risk –
India’s powerful cricket board was less than impressed and said it would write to its Sri Lankan counterparts about the incident.
“If 20,000 people in the stands did not have problem and the Indian team did not face any issue, I wonder why Sri Lankan team made a big fuss?” said CK Khanna, acting president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
Many Indian fans echoed similar frustrations online, accusing the touring side of being melodramatic.
Earlier in the day Indian bowler Kuldeep Yadav was also seen sporting a pollution mask as he brought drinks to teammates on the field.
Delhi has been ranked among the world’s most polluted capital cities, with air quality worsening in winter as cooler air traps pollutants near the ground.
Doctors last month declared a public health emergency in the capital as pollution soared to 40 times the level deemed safe by the WHO, shutting down schools for days.
But that did not stop more than 30,000 runners competing in the Delhi half-marathon last month, despite dire health warnings from doctors who called for the race to be postponed.
Doctors warn that competitive exercise during severe pollution can trigger asthma attacks, worsen lung conditions and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Other top-level sporting events in Delhi, such as international cricket and golf tournaments, have attracted less attention despite the hazardous levels of pollution.
Authorities in Delhi have in recent years closed power plants temporarily and experimented with taking some cars off the road but the measures have had little effect.