Sound of silence, the stadium cut
When the most influential career in Indian sport ended in 2013 – which momentarily felt like all of sport itself had come to a halt, like it has today – the retiree was unequivocal about what he would miss most. “The memories that you have left me with will be with me forever and ever. Especially ‘Sachin, Sachin’ – that will reverberate in my ears till I stop breathing,” said Sachin Tendulkar at the end of his farewell speech, blinking back tears and directly addressing the spectators at the Wankhede Stadium.
Not his strokeplay, which stretched our imagination. Not even his hundredth hundred, which stretched his career into a 24th year. Only the sound of the crowd, which forever reminded him of its presence with a chant of his name; and by his own admission, continues to do so.
For a sportsperson, any sportsperson, the sound of the crowd is the first and possibly the least adulterated feedback. Before that shot is beamed to a million television sets, before it causes a Twitter trend and before it earns trophies and makes the player richer by several zeroes, the sound of the crowd is the most instantaneous paycheck. The kind of paycheck that makes even the all-time greats—with career-earnings the size of a small nation’s GDP —coming back for more. Just ask the greatest of them all, Roger Federer.
In 2018, Federer won his 20th (and thus far final) Grand Slam at the Australian Open. He did not break down when he accepted and kissed the trophy, or even when he thanked his team for helping a near-38-year-old body achieve the ludicrous. But when he addressed the crowd at the end of the speech, his eyes welled up. “You guys. You fill the stadiums, you make me nervous, you make me go out and practice. I’d just like to thank you for everything,” he said with a lump in his throat. “It wouldn’t be the same without you guys,” he said, a hand on his face to wipe away the rolling tears.
Federer is usually an emotional man. But these tears felt different from his usual tears of joy. So, he was asked about it in the press conference that followed. “It was because of the full crowd. No people in the stadium wouldn’t make me emotional, I’ll tell you that,” he said and pointed at the trophy beside him. “This is for them.”
Sporting events are slowly beginning to resume, but behind closed doors. At least for the near future, the new normal will be the empty stadium. No matter how big the sport, or how big the match, it will be played to vacant seats. The sound, fury and joy of the crowds will be missed—by those playing, and those of us watching on TV. To illustrate this point, allow me to take you back to the Delhi Test of 2017 – a game of cricket so far ahead of its time that the Sri Lankan team played with face masks, albeit due to pollution and not Covid-19.
On the fifth and final day of the Test, a large enough crowd had packed the stands of the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium; they were largely quiet as the game moved towards a draw. After a long period of lull in the stands, Virat Kohli had had enough. Kohli’s bowlers were tiring and he decided to administer them with the most effective drug – love from the crowd.
From his fielding position in the slip cordon, the Indian captain waved his right hand at the West Stand. When he had their attention, Kohli cupped a palm behind his right ear – Hulk Hogan style – and the West Stand roared. Then he held his hand out, like a traffic cop, and the noise vanished. He turned towards East Stand and repeated his gestures – hand wave, cupped ear, palm out – and East Stand obediently followed.
Kohli laughed and held both his hands out—when he raised one hand a stand bellowed and when he raised the other hand the other stand bellowed. He moved his hands rapidly, like a man juggling invisible balls, and the Kotla came alive. Next over, a 198-ball stand was felled with Dinesh Chandimal’s wicket.
In the post-pandemic world of sport, what sounds will stadiums produce in the absence of spectators?
Domestic sport in India, including cricket, is largely played in front of empty galleries. The handful that dot these yawning and silent stands are sports journalists. As a social experiment, we asked the sports reporters in this newspaper to relive their most cherished experience from an empty ground. Almost unanimously, these experiences hinged on sound.
One journalist had a vivid recollection of the elemental sounds of the kick of a football, amplified by the acoustics of a spectatorless stand in Delhi.
“Bhaichung Bhutia was curling freekicks all by himself. He lined up the ball, ran up, and kicked with a resounding, short, thud. If you have not heard that sound from up close, it is difficult to grasp just how hard a ball can be hit,” he said. “When the ball hit the crossbar, there was another thunderous report – a metallic ringing that echoed across the ground.”
Even during the big games, that metallic ringing can be heard across most football venues in India (save for a few grounds in Kolkata and the states of Goa and Kerala). Our football correspondent remembered the sound of laptop keyboards clacking louder than the spectators during a Delhi Dynamos game in the Indian Super League.
This is true for Indian tennis as well, outside of the odd Davis Cup tie or the annual ATP event. Here’s one reporter’s experience at a tennis tournament in Delhi: “Match after match one could hear the exhausted players’ heavy breathing. But even louder were their strokes. The ball hitting the boards sounded like the beating of a drum.”
At the end of one match, a player walked up to this reporter and asked, “How did I play?” There was no one else there to give him feedback.
Tennis is anyway a sport played in silence. Noise erupts only between points; just before the ball is tossed up in the air again the crowd either self regulates or is policed by the chair umpire.
Even at the Grand Slams, if you walk a few yards away from the show courts, the only sounds that can be heard from the matches on the side courts are grunts and shots – before, during and after a point.
“The US Open in New York is the biggest and noisiest Grand Slam. But a few metres away from Arthur Ashe Stadium, the only ‘noise’ is of the ball smacking the strings of the racquet, the effort put in by the players and the odd applause from their coaching staff,” said one of our correspondents. This is perhaps what the largest tennis arena in the world, the Arthur Ashe Stadium, too will sound like on resumption – and for that matter Rod Laver Arena, Wimbledon’s Centre Court and Phillippe Chatrier too.
Which brings us to our national obsession, cricket. There is a precedence of a high-profile international game being played behind closed doors, even if the doors were closed on the spectators only for a few minutes. This occurred at the Asian Test Championships contest between India and Pakistan in Kolkata in 1999 – a Test better remembered for Shoaib Akhtar’s consecutive yorkers that cleaned up the stumps of Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar in India’s first innings.
But our cricket correspondent remembered the match for the surreal and then-unprecedented scenes that unfolded on the fifth day of the match.
“Start of the fifth day, India needed 65 runs with four wickets in hand.
But once the penultimate wicket of Kumble fell, the Eden Gardens crowd lost its cool and flung missiles on to the field, prompting the police to clear every stand until the stadium was a concrete behemoth,” he said. “It took Pakistan exactly 10 balls to finish off proceedings – Akhtar dismantling Prasad’s stumps with yet another yorker. Even on TV, the sound of the clattering stumps echoed louder than the Akhtar yorkers that had castled Tendulkar and Dravid earlier. Defeat had never sounded this deafening.”
This is possibly the closest description to what international cricket will feel like in the near future. But make no mistake: when your wait for the resumption of sport ends, the players’ wait for your presence in the stands would have only just begun.