As we all settle in to watch our next IPL match, here’s something to think about: How will scorching temperatures shape the future of our national sport? Spoiler alert: domed stadiums haven’t worked in a sport that’s all about weather conditions.
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Researched by: Rachel John
The (very warm) future of sport
There have only been a handful of studies on how climate change will impact sports. The latest was published in 2020—and its predictions were dire across the board:
Winter sports: will be the worst affected—due to higher temperatures and melting snow. Of the 19 available Olympic venues, only 10 will still be reliable winter sports hosts in 2050, and just six in 2080. And even these will have to rely on artificial snow—as Beijing did in 2022. It has, in fact, become a requirement, as one expert notes: “They’re not going to give an Olympic bid to [a venue] that doesn’t have snow-making along every course that needs it.”
Water sports: The study also found that 18% of wave breaks along the California coast will be lost to surfers by 2050. In fact, almost two-thirds of Southern Cal beaches will be gone by the end of the century.
Seaside venues: Everywhere and for every sport are in peril. This includes one in six golf courses that are part of the British Open Championship. They will be flooded by the end of the century. The Monstrose course in Scotland—which dates back to 1592—has already sacrificed its third tee.
Others in risk include big arenas in the US—including the football stadiums of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Arenas of New York city teams—the Giants, Jets and the Mets—will be completely flooded every year by 2050. In the UK, 23 football stadiums will either be fully or partly flooded.
The future of cricket: The pitch
A 2019 study titled ‘The Game Changer’ predicts that cricket will be the hardest hit among all major pitch sports. The reason: “Cricket is defined almost entirely by the climatic conditions. If they change, so does the essence of the game.”
The weather matters: The outcome of a cricket match often depends on the weather. It is easier to bat when it’s sunny and dry. But increased humidity makes it easier to swing the ball—and make batters unhappy. Rain can also change the way a pitch behaves.
Much of cricket strategy is based on accurately assessing the behaviour of the pitch. Some experts point out that India lost a key World Cup match to New Zealand in 2019 because of moisture in the air:
The air was moist and there were clouds and rain in Manchester. Moisture content reduces cohesion and makes the pitch weak. A pitch with just 30-35% clay, for example, becomes less cohesive when it rains, which favours swing and seam bowlers. In contrast, a pitch with more than 40% clay dries out in the hot sun, making it stronger and bouncier and favouring pacers.
The climate change effect: Hotter, drier weather will make cricket a batters paradise–but a nightmare for bowlers. An English cricket executive says:
English weather can change numerous times in a four or five day match. Climate change will amplify these changes. Over time we will also see changes to soil-moisture levels, and higher temperatures will bring drier air, then drier pitches and a drier outfield, changing all features of the game.
Groundskeepers say erratic weather also attracts pests and disease—which can threaten the pitch:
We have more pests because of the weather and restrictions in chemical use. Over the past couple of years we've had problems with daddy long legs, their larvae (leatherjackets) feed on the grass roots in the winter, especially this year when there was no growth because it was cold. We are concerned this is going to be an issue down the line. The heat and heavy rain are also perfect conditions for other diseases and keeping sheets on in the heat, to protect the square from rain, encourages fungal disease.
The dome solution: With other sports, the solution would be to move the game indoors—which is expensive but still doable. But a climate-controlled dome is tricky for cricket:
Conditions are fundamental to cricket. The sun, the clouds, the breeze all play their part in making the game lively and interesting. The sun bakes the pitch for the spinner, the clouds make the atmosphere heavy to aid swing bowling, the breeze assists movement.
BBC Future’s imaginary version of a domed cricket game—being played in 2050—has the Australia captain grumbling:
On day one, the first session with 100,000 people inside, it was almost hotter and more humid than outside and unpleasant to play in, let alone watch. I saw many fans had resorted to leaving. Then, by the afternoon session, changes had clearly been made but the temperature dropped rapidly. These aren't good conditions for any sport or athlete but batting out there, it was impossible to predict what the ball would do from one session to the next.
Future of cricket: The players
During a 2018 match in Sydney, English captain Joe Root collapsed and had to be taken to a hospital. The temperature in the middle of the ground: 57.6°C. In 2022, when the West Indies played three matches in Multan, Pakistan, the temperature reached 43.8°C—"above average even for one of the hottest places on earth.” The players had to wear ice vests to cool down. Point to note: a local Pakistani cricketer Umran Khan died due to a heat stroke in Pakistan’s North Nazimabad the same year.
Scorching temperatures will pose a real and present danger to the health of players:
Extreme heat in particular is a major issue for those playing the game as it not only affects the condition of the pitch but also impairs the performance of athletes and poses significant risks to their health. Combined with high levels of humidity, the risk of heat illness - characterised by nausea, dizziness, vomiting and faintness, and even, rarely, leading to death - is progressively greater as the environment becomes hotter and more humid.
Veterans like Ian Chappell have also warned of the increased risk of long-term effects like skin cancer—apart from heat stroke.
Big data point to note: Here’s how hot it gets for a batter on the pitch:
According to a 2019 report on cricket and climate change, a professional batsman playing over a day can generate heat equivalent to running a marathon. While marathon runners help dissipate heat by wearing shorts and singlets, in cricket the wearing of pads, gloves and a helmet restricts the ability to evaporate sweat in hot, humid conditions often lacking shade.
Now factor in the fact that an average test match is five days long and even in a One-Day International (ODI), each inning clocks in at approximately 3.5 hours—out in the scorching sun.
Also, pollution: As the planet gets hotter, it is also becoming more polluted. In 2017, Sri Lankan cricketers playing in Delhi vomited on the field because they could not handle the smog. The team’s coach said:
It is well documented that Delhi has high level 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.
The future of cricket: The bat
Cricket bats are made of wood from either English or Kashmiri willows. English willow grows best in cool temperatures—and takes 15 years to reach full maturity before harvesting. But erratic weather is also making their growth unpredictable, according to batmakers:
Trees are growing faster, and then they’re a little bit sporadic as well… you mightn’t get a cold year, and so you’re getting inconsistent grain growth, then you might get a freezing cold year where a tree might actually stop growing. The old growth trees aren’t there any more, everything is renewed growth… inferior trees are coming through, you still get some very nice ones, but for the majority, it isn’t what it used to be.”
Rising demand: makes the problem worse. Trees can’t grow fast enough to keep up with players who run through multiple bats. According to one batmaker: “If someone buys a bat every two years, they’re effectively buying seven bats in the time it takes for the tree to grow.” As a result, the quality of bats is declining–and will plummet further unless the sport switches to a more sustainable and durable material. Example: bamboo. But the switch will have all sorts of knock-on effects on the style of play etc.
The bottomline: Despite the overwhelming evidence, the International Cricket Council has done nothing. There are no policies guiding play during extreme weather. The council hasn’t even signed on to the UN climate change initiative aimed at global sports. As one expert puts it: “This is like stick your head in the sand denial. Cricket really needs to get its act together. A whole bunch of trouble is not really far away.”
This New York Times feature has the best reporting—while The Guardian offers an excellent overview of the big picture. You can also read the key studies—on the impact on global sport and specifically cricket—here and here. Cosmos looks specifically at the impact on bats. Also worth a read: BBC Future’s imagining of a domed match in 2050.