While international cricket is limping back to normal, or the new normal, after being in the doldrums due to the global COVID-19 outbreak, it’s the changing optics around the game that has sparked a debate.
While it’s still an attritional battle between the bat and ball on 22 yards, it no more has the buzz around the stands, colourful faces chanting the names of their favourite cricketers, burly men in fancy costumes and headgear and jubilant children in the company of their watchful parents.
While cricket is back after the COVID-19 lull, it seems to have lost its soul, its joie-de-vivre. With happy faces not around, cricket is a lot more lonely than it used to be.
Some cricket fanatics reckon that it matters little that cricket isn’t the same as long as it’s there. However, for many, cricket sans spectators is like putting shackles on the game, which is hardly better than caging it as the COVID-19 did.
In the ongoing Test series between hosts England and West Indies, the optics couldn’t have presented a starker contrast. While one can’t complain about the quality of cricket on show, it’s the empty stands that has made many come away with the feeling, or realisation, that cricket is poorer post COVID-19.
Joyless and dull
While the no-spectator rule has left many sore and disappointed at being denied the joy of watching their favourite cricket stars from the stands, the joyless fall of wickets has made viewing dull. Also, the ban on applying saliva on the ball to keep it shiny on one side risks an unequal contest between the bat and ball, especially on flat beds like a Motera or a Chinnaswamy.
Crowd is an essential adjunct to any outdoor sport. For cricket, it is lifeblood. And, when you take spectators out of cricket, you’re literally putting the game on crutches, a game struggling to redeem its true self.
A point of concern that has been raised, of late, about Test cricket is that it no longer draws enough numbers to the stands. That the game’s longest format isn’t as popular as it used to be. The question is what good are the game’s custodians doing to the longest format by holding spectator-less Tests.
Also, while the decks have finally been cleared for the cash-rich Indian Premier League (IPL) from the corona-induced doldrums, it will be played to empty stands, with perhaps, no cheer girls either.
While the fear of COVID-19 spread and logistical issues have taken the premier domestic tournament away from India’s shores into the desert lands of UAE, it will be shorn of its familiar hoopla.
Unsure of ticket sales, the stakeholders – BCCI, franchises and the broadcasters – would mostly rely on prime-time television viewership for revenues. The call on allowing crowds at the three venues – Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah – would rest on the UAE government. Even if spectators are allowed into the stadiums, they won’t fill the stands in the manner seen on Indian grounds.
However, while cricket on its return from lockdown is nothing like it used to be before the pandemic, let’s not be too cynical about the game in its new avatar. Noiseless and less exciting it sure may be, but the new rules have been prompted by concerns over public health and player safety. Cricket can’t be the same when the world isn’t. Schools and offices have moved online, government meetings are being held on the cyberspace and working professionals are cooped up at home.
Since cricket isn’t untouched by all that’s happening around it, the game has to adapt. And, so do cricket fans. If safe cricket is the new normal, so be it.