International cricket returned to India after nearly a year and the crowd at Chepauk made sure they witnessed every bit of it.(HT)
International cricket returned to India after nearly a year and the crowd at Chepauk made sure they witnessed every bit of it.(HT)

At Chepauk, Covid-19 is a distant memory

  • Throughout the second Test, the crowd at Chepauk tended to collect in large and unregulated clusters.
PUBLISHED ON FEB 17, 2021 07:34 AM IST

At each of the three successive security checkpoints between the Pattabhiraman Gate and the media centre of the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai, the plain black T-shirt I wore caused a great deal of concern for the guards. Before every turnstile, I am stopped and admonished for brandishing “the colour of protest”, which, ostensibly, is not permitted at an Indian cricket ground. Even as I pleaded my "innocence", streams of men, women and children – most of them without face-masks – poured through unchecked; the most pressing matter on the planet today barely even registered with the authorities.

The Tamil Nadu Cricket Association was wise enough to release only 50 per cent of Chepauk’s capacity – or 15,000 seats – for public consumption per day of the second Chennai Test, presuming that every other seat will remain empty and the fans will be socially distanced on all four sides. But that was furthest from the truth on any of the days that this Test was played, right from Day 1 on Saturday, the first day of fans flocking back to an Indian ground since March 2020.

Throughout, the crowd tended to collect in large and unregulated clusters, either due to their own will or the harshness of the sun, which further pressed spectators together in greater density under the shaded relief of the awnings. As the temperature rose and the Chennai heat turned steaming by mid-afternoon, even the few who were diligent about following Covid-protocols found the stifle of the mask too much to bear.

Every time I dropped into the upper tier of Stand F, just a few floors above the perfectly hygienic TNCA press box, I found the mask-wearing population to be in the absolute minority. The media centre was dotted with hand-sanitizer dispensers and the reporting stations are distanced, where the reporters only ever take their respective masks off to sip water or coffee.

So, stepping out of that bubble of security and into the "real world" (Stand F) felt eerily similar to Will Smith’s character in “I Am Legend” braving the zombies for the sake of the greater good.

In the stands or in the stairwell leading up to them, there were no hand-sanitizer stations for the public. There were policemen present but they seemed least interested in laying down the law. The middle-aged man seated beside me in Row K had his mask pulled below his chin; he had screamed himself into a coughing frenzy after a boundary was hit by Ravichandran Ashwin en route to his century.

When the man was calm, I asked him why he wouldn’t wear his mask. He twisted his palm and didn’t answer. But his young son replied, with a question of his own: “How will Ashwin hear us if we wear masks?” His expression suggested incredulity that I could not figure out something so obvious. It was, after all, Ashwin’s match – with bat and ball and the fans needed to rally behind the home hero.

Man of the Match Ashwin was thrilled with the support he received all Test long, but he was cheeky in his remark at the presentation ceremony. “The knowledgeable Chennai crowd came in large numbers during the time of Covid,” he said in Tamil to much cheer from the stands. “Even though they didn’t wear their masks, I am glad that they clapped their hands and lent their voices to our win.”

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