I was there. Literally every cricket fan has an “I Was There moment’. It might have been when a favourite player made a century, when an opposition bowler who was particularly tricky was taken apart. It can be when the team won a remarkable, even historic game, or when the team a fan was supporting was snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, crushing hearts.
When Joe Root let England to victory over India in Chennai, a city of fans was robbed of their I Was There moment. The MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chepauk is known for its knowledgable crowd, something that has come about over the years thanks to the local association’s practice of giving tickets and passes to club cricketers of different levels from the state.
And, just as the crowd was robbed of their I Was There moment, the Indian team was also denied something special: the support of a home crowd that acts as an extension of the team. When England was piling on the runs in the first innings, having won an important toss, there were times when the bowlers, and indeed Virat Kohli, the captain, might have looked externally for a bit of a lift.
Kohli, in the recent past, has shown a keen awareness for how the crowd plays a part in the tempo of a game. When the shoulders of the fielders and the bowlers are drooping, when the opposition is making the most of good batting conditions to build a partnership, Kohli, usually fielding at mid off or mid on, would turn to the crowd, urging them to up their participation.
As the fast bowler ran in to bowl, the crowd would drum up their applause, raise their voice, thereby creating an atmosphere and sense of occasion that was otherwise missing.
In doing this, Kohli and India seeded the thought in the opposition batsmen’s minds that they were in the middle of a contest. Of course, at that level these are professional cricketers, and are not easily taken in by such tricks, but they too are human. When you have 25,000 or more people baying at you, it is difficult to completely ignore their effect.
For India’s players, playing in front of empty stadiums is not completely alien. After all, when they were coming through the ranks in domestic cricket, there would have been many, many occasions during which there would have been virtually nobody in the stands watching the action. But, at the international level, there is no team in the world that is better supported than India. And, with the Indian Premier League being played overseas this year, and the calendar in general being curtailed there was every hope that the crowds would turn up in numbers when cricket finally returned.
But, as with everything that has happened in these unprecedented times of the global pandemic, it was impossible to begin the England series on a business as usual note. With the players and support staff of the teams continuing to live in a bio-bubble, restricting their movements and interactions as much as possible, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, working with advise from the state and central governments, played the first first Test behind closed doors.
That England pulled off a stunning victory, Joe Root in particular having a near perfect Test, from the toss, to his own batting to tactics when England put up runs in both innings and were on the field, in front of empty stands, would be a disappointment for the visiting team.
In general, when England travel, they come with their own mini cheering squad, the Barmy Army loyally travelling the world to support their team. However, given the times we currently live in, there was no chance of that happening. The fact that the authorities in Chennai have given the green signal for 50% occupancy of the stands is a major boost and you can be sure both teams will be watching developments closely.
While there is still the need to be vigilant, there is no doubt that players from both teams will welcome the presence of fans. For India, as they look to mount a fightback — just as they had done in the series in Australia recently — having a crowd behind them can only help. For England, who have already said that they will be wary of a resurgent India, the presence of 25,000 cheering fans in Chennai can only be a source of extra motivation. Or, at the very least, a reminder of what the game means to the Indian public, who will have their I Was There moment once more.