Coronavirus pandemic: In an empty stadium, Australia vs New Zealand ODI resembles match in the park on a Sunday

  • Michael Wagener
  • March 13th, 2020
  • 17:18:41 IST

In 2002, New Zealand hosted the under 19 cricket world cup, at a time before anybody really paid much attention to the event. Some of the matches were played at Colin Maiden Park which is between the house that I was living in and the university that I was attending at the time. As a result, I watched a few matches, often stopping while walking home.

Colin Maiden Park’s 4 grounds were not given the marquee match-ups. One day, there were two matches being played simultaneously: Canada vs Namibia and Nepal vs Scotland. I wandered between the two grounds, watching a few overs at each. There may have been someone else there, but I was not aware of them. I was probably the only spectator who was not either attached to one of the teams or an ICC official.

And that meant that those two matches had at least one more fan in attendance than the opening match between New Zealand and Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) tonight.

It’s one of the greatest rivalries in modern cricket, between trans-Tasman neighbours. The Chappell Hadlee Trophy was up for grabs. Two teams who are near the top of the world rankings were playing.  And nobody was there to watch.

As a statistician, I can buy into the idea of social distancing as probably being the most effective way to control a disease like the COVID-19 coronavirus. It’s realistically very unlikely that we can stop the virus from spreading almost everywhere, but by slowing it down, we allow the medical professionals the time and space to deal with it.

We have seen in Italy and Iran what can happen when an outbreak happens quickly, and how the hospitals and medical infrastructure can be overwhelmed. Social distancing allows the spread of the virus to be slowed down and accordingly allows recovered patients to be discharged before new ones arrive needing treatment.

However, as good as that is in theory, it resulted in a very peculiar scene at the SCG tonight. Watching a game on TV with no crowd noise is not the same as watching a game at the ground where nobody else is there. You still get lots of different shots (without having to walk to a different position), the commentary and the ability to hear the stump microphones. None of those happens at the ground.

But there are a number of differences from watching a normal match on TV, and not all of them are things that you would expect. I never realised how much I relied on the crowd noise to tell me if there was a fielder about to cut a ball off or not. The crowd starting to cheer before the ball gets to the boundary lets me know that the ball is going to make it. Them murmuring as it approaches suggests that a sweeper is probably just out of shot.

It can be difficult to focus on every ball of a match, and often there are unconscious signals that we pick up from the crowd noise that a ball is about to be bowled. I know instinctively to look up from whatever else I’m looking at. That doesn’t happen without the crown noise. It was, surprisingly, much more mentally taxing to watch.

The roar or sudden silence when a wicket falls adds to the drama significantly. Steven Smith took possibly the greatest gully catch I have ever seen, and it was all just an anti-climax. There was no noise, no real celebration, nothing. Martin Guptill is a fairly laconic individual at the best of times, and the only real indication to what had happened was that he leaned back slightly and shrugged his shoulders. That was it. No cheers. A remarkable act of skill creating a significant moment in the match, and there were just a few men in yellow shirts touching elbows.

There were a few things, however, that were possibly a little better. It was much easier to hear the fielders talking to each other, and some shots sounded wonderful with the echo. Both of those things were reminiscent of watching cricket at a ground like the Colin Maiden Oval.

When Steve Smith dropped a catch, and then the next ball was fielded by him, there was no ironic cheer. That made a nice difference. But it was only a small consolation.

There was not the overuse of PA music. But having none of it actually made me realise how much it being there actually adds.

The match petered out into a convincing victory for Australia, with New Zealand falling 71 runs short. That meant that we did not get a grandstand finish, but even if we had, would it have been as thrilling without the crowd? I doubt that it would have.

As the match drew on, it became clear that the crowd adds much more to the spectacle of the game on TV than I had ever realised. Without them, some of the distance between a normal ODI and a Sunday park match was removed. The bowlers were still bowling much faster, the fielders were still breathtakingly good and the batsmen in much better control than at the domain on a summer’s afternoon, but the whole event seemed less super-human and more like some men in a park playing a game.

Part of the mystique that gets us to watch international cricket more than park cricket is the otherworldliness of the event. It is not just what the players represent, nor is it just the skill on display that make it so engaging. The crowd plays a part. And that part was not there.

There were still some great moments in that match. But there was also something lacking.

Hopefully, this era of closed stadiums will not need to be a long one. The quicker that humanity is through this threat, the better. That’s true for lots of reasons much more important than cricket. But it’s also true for cricket.

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Updated Date: March 13, 2020 17:18:41 IST

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