Cheers and cheerleaders return to Indian sport
- Fifty percent of the stadium’s box seats were released online for occupancy by the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association—with a list of Covid protocols to abide by—and Saravanan ensured he was one of them.
“Cricket namakku ulleye ooripona vishayam,” says Saravanan Hari in Tamil, which translates rather inadequately as “cricket has seeped into our soul”. This, Saravanan says in a matter-of-fact way, his facial expressions further hidden by a yellow face mask worn over yellow face paint. But he claims he has seldom been “as emotional as I was when I entered Chepauk today.” The spectators scattered around Saravanan in the Lower C Stand of the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai—them waiting patiently for a selfie with him—nod in agreement.
Saravanan is better known in this part of the country as an MS Dhoni Chennai Super Kings super-fan—forever under a curly wig and with his hero’s name and number (7) scrawled in jarring font over his bare chest. But today his CSK-themed body paint is buried under a tri-colour T-shirt; today, he is just one among the 11,000 fans to attend the first day of the second Test—the first such gathering at a sports venue in India since coronavirus changed the world in early 2020.
Fifty percent of the stadium’s box seats were released online for occupancy by the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association—with a list of Covid protocols to abide by—and Saravanan ensured he was one of them. “I can’t quite explain what life was like without being able to attend cricket matches,” says Saravanan, even as a cheer ripples through this stand for a Rohit Sharma cover-drive.
“This sound is what I missed the most,” he says instantly. “I may never have played cricket well, but I have always been excellent at being a supporter, even ending up making a name for myself by my style of cheering. It was the hope of returning to the stands to do what I do best that kept me going through the dark times.”
The “dark times”—or the time of no sport in India followed by sport behind closed doors—extends all the way back to a T20I against South Africa in Dharamsala last March. Although no cricket was played that day due to rain, it was the last time there were fans in the stands, albeit drenched and dejected ones. Both the sun and smiles had returned to the terraces around an Indian cricket field on Saturday, lending the only missing spice to an already flavourful contest.
The presence of the spectators was felt by the players in the very first over of the day when Stuart Broad pulled up in his run-up because a fan had moved just above the sight-screen. Even Sharma, whose focus was unbroken for 161 runs, made it a point to mention the role their presence made at the end of the day. "It was great fun to have them at the ground -- they really do liven up the whole atmosphere in the ground," said Sharma. "I think the intensity was low from both sides without the fans around in the first game. It has been a long time since they have come and watched a game in India, so I am happy they got to enjoy themselves."
They did, they really did. For a while, they cheered at the Chepauk simply because they were back, even as Sharma’s early shots went straight to the inner-circle fielders. One of them cheering at just about anything was D Venu, a 29-year-old man who works at a marketing company. Placed at the opposite end of the cricket-fan spectrum from Saravanan, Venu is attending his very first live match.
“Not because I am not a fan, but because I never really got around to booking tickets. I always wanted to come and watch India or CSK here, but something or the other always got in the way,” says Venu, making it a point to soak in the atmosphere as first-timers at live events tend to do. “But then coronavirus happened and everything stopped. So I told myself that the next time there is a game at Chepauk with fans, I will attend.”
Not long after he said that, Sharma struck the first boundary of Venu’s in-stadia experience and he grinned with the subsequent roar. “Television cannot really capture that sound,” he says. “I cannot imagine what that sound will be like in a full stadium.”
But he was soon about to find out what collective disappointment sounds like, at the fall of Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli’s wickets in quick succession. That sound was a stunning silence, somehow quieter and more eerie than the ever-present silence of a spectator-less stadium.