Hanuma Vihari to Sunil Chhetri — Indian sportspersons are finally showing up during crisis

Indian cricketers Ravichandran Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari | Twitter: @ashwinravi99

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2021 has been a strange year for India’s sportspersons, from continued uncertainty over their tournaments and livelihoods due to the Covid-19 pandemic, to the isolation of bio-bubbles when they do actually get to play.

Amid all this, there has also been heightened public scrutiny over what these sportspersons say and do on social media platforms during times of crisis. We’ve already seen prominent cricketers like Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane get mercilessly, and deservedly, mocked for their copy-paste #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether tweets in response to pop star Rihanna and climate change activist Greta Thunberg’s remarks on the farmers’ protests.

Before the Indian Premier League’s bio-bubble proved to be not all that ‘bio-secure’, I pointed out how our sportspersons needed to follow Australian cricketer Pat Cummins’ lead in not only acknowledging the realities of the pandemic, but also doing their best to contribute to relief efforts.

Also read: IPL took ‘show must go on’ too seriously. But even bio-bubbles can’t keep away Covid reality

How much is enough?

In the weeks since then, several IPL players did come through and donate, such as Rahane, Shikhar Dhawan and the Pandya brothers. Kohli and actor Anushka Sharma had launched a Covid relief fundraiser, putting up an initial Rs 2 crore, but were criticised for not doing enough, given their rumoured annual earnings and net worth.

Such criticisms are more than fair given the seriousness of the crisis and the moral responsibility of sportspersons and celebrities to give back to the people who supported them as fans throughout their careers.

‘Virushka’ would do well to take a leaf from Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford’s playbook. The 23-year-old, who worked tirelessly on alleviating the problem of childhood poverty and lack of access to essential resources in the United Kingdom, caught the attention of the British government and helped raise over 20 million pounds — far beyond the earnings he has made thus far from his young football career.

Also read: IPL or Netflix, both are entertainment. Virtue signalling is anti-sport

The success stories

It is counter-productive to only dwell on where India’s sportspersons have gone wrong, or how they are only putting forward ‘chump change’ after public pressure. What will continue to help people is to share the stories of and direct our resources towards those who are already at the forefront of Covid relief efforts.

Of the current Indian men’s cricket ecosystem, one of the most active players in terms of using their social media platform for Covid relief with the resources available to them is Test batsman Hanuma Vihari. From his hotel room in Birmingham, where he’s been playing county cricket for Warwickshire, Vihari has been using his network to give people suffering from Covid access to hospital beds, oxygen cylinders etc.

A cursory look at his Twitter shows a line of patient information and timely updates on resource availability. There was much said in the media about Vihari’s “heroic” Test-saving innings at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January, but any sane cricket fan will tell you that his Covid relief efforts far outweigh that.

The number of emergency calls made by Vihari is heartbreaking because it reveals how people, especially the less privileged, have been hit by this pandemic. However, it is also commendable that someone like Vihari, who could easily go about playing county cricket and solely prioritise his Test career without much concern for those back home, is going above and beyond to aid society in times of crisis.

When you move away from cricket and towards sports like football, you can find even more cases of players trying to help. A month after recovering from Covid-19, Sunil Chhetri has been amplifying SOS calls and handed over his Twitter account to various “real-life heroes”, including a Bangalore-based journalist conducting relief work on the ground.

In some cases, these efforts to improve society have not just come in the form of Covid relief efforts, but also in keeping citizens informed about other important issues plaguing India. My introduction to understanding the ongoing controversy in the Lakshadweep Islands, for instance, came not from any local journalist or media house, but from a detailed Twitter thread made by East Bengal footballer C.K. Vineeth.

Also read: These are the 3 Lakshadweep draft laws that have triggered controversy

More and more sportspersons need to have a greater self-awareness of the platform available to them and the amount of influence they can wield. But fans and members of the general public also need to understand that any public pressure and scrutiny on those staying silent or not doing enough must also be accompanied with championing efforts of the lesser-known but still influential members of the country’s growing sports industry.

Views are personal. 

(Edited by Fiza Jha)

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