Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday turned to India's sporting heroes for support in the herculean battle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and more than 40 accomplished champions such as Virat Kohli and P V Sindhu responded by vowing to raise awareness and spirits amid a national lockdown.
The athletes, along with sports minister Kiren Rijiju, participated in nearly an hour-long video call which started at 11am. The country is in a 21-day lockdown to contain the spread of the virus.
From Sachin Tendulkar stressing on the need to keep the vigil even after the lockdown ends on April 14, to sprinter Hima Das expressing sadness at the recent attacks on frontline warriors such as health care workers and police officers, to others sharing their experience of being in a lockdown, the sportspersons had lots to offer during the interaction. All these athletes have been generous donors to the funds being raised to fight the crisis.
The Prime Minister, on his part, sought their support to raise awareness about the need for social distancing and personal hygiene at a time when the total number of COVID-19 positive cases in India has crossed 2,000.
"Your suggestions will be taken note of. We are fighting this pandemic like Team India. I am confident that India will be rejuvenated by the inspiration provided by you," the Prime Minister can be seen telling athletes in a clip shared by shuttler B Sai Praneeth, a world championship bronze-medallist, who also attended the call.
All sporting activities are currently shut in the country and it is still not clear when normalcy will resume. The much-anticipated Indian Premier League is among the big-ticket Indian events suspended till April 15.
When Ganguly was asked about the development this morning, he said, "Yes, I will be joining our Honourable PM via video call." But he refused to go into the details.
Cricketers formed a major chunk of the participating list.
Apart from Tendulkar, Ganguly and Kohli, others in the call included top batsman Rohit Sharma, former pacer Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh.
The names of World Cup-winning former captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and K L Rahul were in the list of participants but it is learnt that they could not attend the call.
Olympic silver-medallist shuttler Sindhu, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, chess wizard Viswanathan Anand, sprinter Hima Das, boxing star Amit Panghal, wrestler Vinesh Phogat, and teenage shooting sensation Manu Bhaker were among the other accomplished athletes who took part in the video call.
"Of these, 12 have been given three minutes each to speak and present their view," a ministry source told PTI without revealing the names of the chosen athletes.
It was later learnt that Tendulkar, Ganguly, M C Mary Kom and Kohli were among those who were to speak during the interaction.
"I suggested that as much as possible, I will use our way of greeting - saying 'Namaste' instead of shaking hands, even after we overcome this pandemic," Tendulkar said after the interaction.
"I told him that it is sad that health care workers and police have been attacked," said Asian Games medallist Hima Das, who is employed with Assam Police as a DSP.
However, six-time world champion Mary Kom could not connect to the call due to network issues.
Among those who managed to, former world champion weightlifter Mirabai Chanu said the PM urged everyone to be united in the fight to combat the pandemic.
"The PM asked us to spread awareness on social distancing and hygiene. He spoke about how we need Virat's (Kohli) fighting spirit to win this battle," added veteran table tennis player Sharath Kamal.
World championship silver-winning shooter Abhishek Verma said the PM urged athletes "to be positive and spread positivity".
"He said appreciate and highlight the work of frontline workers. Take good care of yourself and family at home. He asked us to e-mail any suggestions we have on how to handle the situation better," Verma said.
The Prime Minister said the ability to face challenges, self-discipline, positivity and self-belief, which are essential to sports, are crucial tools to combat the spread of the virus as well.
Sporting action has come to a halt the world over with all major events either cancelled or postponed.
The list of postponed events includes the Tokyo Olympics and the European football championships, while among the biggest to be cancelled this year is the Wimbledon championship.
The deadly outbreak has caused more than 50 deaths in India. The global death toll has crossed 50,000.
Olympic-bound archer Deepika Kumari said the PM advised the athletes to keep their immunity levels high during a time when they are not getting enough training exposure.
"PM Sir urged us to post videos about the awareness campaign. He gave us a few pointers like 'Laxman Rekha' (Don't cross the line while maintaining social distancing); 'Sankalp Lena' (Taking a pledge not to step out)
"He said 'Dhairya Rakhna' (don't press the panic button). He also advised us to boost our immune system and stay fit by doing daily exercises," she revealed.
Tennis player Ankita Raina said the PM equated the virus to an unknown opposition.
"(He) told us that athletes are stronger mentally and have the quality to adapt to different conditions and in unknown territories. So he wanted us to spread the positive and encouraging message since this is also an unknown territory (fight against coronavirus)," she said.