This Saturday, the eyes of the sporting world will be trained squarely on Germany. After nearly two months of inaction forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, high-profile sport will make an appearance with the resumption of the Bundesliga, the country’s top football competition.
The Bundesliga returns with the blessings of the German government and guided by advice from relevant medical authorities. Most notably, it will be played behind closed doors, in stadiums bereft of spectators in what is set to the new normal for the immediate future.
It is impossible to state with any certainty when the sporting calendar will start to be populated with its attendant numerous stops. It’s even more difficult to predict when audiences will be allowed back to partake of the entertainment first-hand. Whenever that is, packed houses will pretty much be a definite no-no, with the new tenet of physical/social distancing ruling out possibly more than only a third of the permissible numbers.
There is no clear, or even fuzzy, indication of when cricket will make a comeback. However, going by the recent statements of Arun Dhumal, the treasurer of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, it can be surmised that at the least the BCCI, if not the players themselves, aren’t averse at this stage to honouring their proposed bilateral series in Australia in December.
Even assuming that events pan out favourably over the next several months and India do keep their Australian date, it’s hard to see the matches being played in front of spectators. That will be a massively new experience for both sets of players, and especially for India’s superstars of this generation who have been fortunate enough to ply their wares internationally with extensive support from a significant proportion of the fans, no matter where they are playing and against whom.
Sport behind closed doors isn’t entirely unheard of. Football, primarily, has had to fall back on this concept from time to time, both in club versus club and country versus country battles, mostly because of sanctions on the hosting entity owing to one infringement or another. It is worth remembering too that the Eden Gardens Test between India and Pakistan in February 1999 had to be completed in front of empty stands, even though the Asian Test Championship showdown had begun normally. Crowd trouble after Sachin Tendulkar’s controversial run out in India’s fourth-innings run-chase following a collision with Shoaib Akhtar left the authorities with no option but to clear the stands, Pakistan’s resounding victory accompanied by the eerily deafening sound of silence.
That sound of silence could be a constant for a little while yet. The exigencies of commerce as well as the overwhelming desire to embrace near-normal will trigger the return of competitive sport at some stage, but without the buzz and the colour which electrify the spectacle. How India’s cricketers adapt to this significant change will make for interesting viewing. Having got used to playing in front of, and often feeding off the vibrancy of, a frenzied audience, they will now have to pump themselves up internally rather than draw strength and courage from their unofficial 12th man.
Like all creative artists, sportspersons thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes from instant appreciation from the audience. The immediate feedback, be it through deep-throated approbation or occasional unpleasant boos, impacts their ego one way or the other; it keeps them driven and focussed. No matter how hard they try to make you believe otherwise, it is impossible to shut out the noise cascading from the stands, even if it’s only a sideshow to the actual theatre playing out in the middle.
Having grown up in an atmosphere of noise, the Virat Kohlis and the Rohit Sharmas will find themselves in uncharted territory. The only applause for a cracking cover-drive or a nonchalant front-foot pull will come from their own team-mates and support staff. The claps from the dressing-room will waft through as if an after-thought. It can be quite unsettling for a magnificent stroke to be met with hushed silence when you are not used to it; it can be safely asserted that neither of these two guys is quite used to it.
It’s no secret that even in his five years as captain, Kohli still loves to engage with the crowd. Especially in India, but even overseas where there are substantial pockets of support for him and his players, he exhorts the fans to get behind his team. It makes for compelling visual drama, the skipper pulling the strings and the spectators responding seamlessly. Faced with the rare hostile audience, Kohli tries and turns even that to his advantage, embracing a brazen ‘I will show you’ attitude that has seldom ended badly. What will he do now, when he realizes that there is no one to either support or heckle him? Will that, however far-fetched it might appear, rob him of some of his competitive edge? Or will it show comprehensively that the past was all about showmanship, that the scent of battle alone has been enough for Kohli to rouse himself?
In so many ways, playing in front of empty stands is a throwback to the start of their careers for the current generation of Indian players, Kohli included. By the time they cut their teeth in domestic cricket, even in the mid-to-late 2000s in the case of Kohli, Rohit, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and R Ashwin, first-class cricket was barely patronized by spectators. To now play again in front of crowd-less stands will almost certainly transport them back in time and remind them — if they need reminding at all — of their roots, their origins in their chosen sport.
And, as is generally the case, the absence of fans will perhaps instill in the players a sense of gratitude and appreciation to which some might only have paid lip-service in the past. The Indian cricket fan, especially of this vintage, is singularly undemanding. He is willing to spend hours standing in a queue to procure a ticket, weather the intense security screening that has become a necessary evil, shell out a pocketful for bare minimums such as potable water and a snack, and brave a visit to unkempt, often unhygienic washrooms with no attention to even the most basic details. He invests a lot and expects very little in return — maybe a wave of the hand, a smile, the occasional selfie across a barbed-wire fence.
Quite often, he returns home empty-handed but contented if his team has won and his hero has performed well. More than occasionally, he doesn’t even have the memory of a player waving the bat in his general direction to acknowledge a milestone to take home with him. So caught up in their bubble are the cricketers that a majority of them generally ignore the appreciation of the crowd; if they reach a fifty or a hundred, they wave their bat towards the dressing-room or point it with angry gestures towards an expert who has got under their skin with pithy comments. It’s as if the fan who has made him the megastar he is today doesn’t matter, doesn’t deserve even a perfunctory gesture of thanksgiving. Maybe now, when his best doesn’t attract instant applause, the player will realise the value of what once was, and will be more humble and responsive when the past is recreated in future.
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The experts stressed on the need to strike a balance between bio-security bubbles and the avoidance of "excessive" mental health costs to the players.
Whether Kohli took the decision to quit T20I captaincy to purely manage the workload or the criticism got to him will remain a mystery for a while, but all things considered, it appears a bold move that should only benefit Indian cricket and him.
"A lot of good cricketers think what is good for them because he must have thought for himself. I'm sure he thinks that he may be able to perform better if he keeps away from leadership (in) this T20 (format) or something," Borde said.