Had we not been living through extraordinary times, the optics of the Southampton Test, first in post-COVID era, between hosts England and West Indies would have been a lot different.
The stands would be packed with spectators in their best and brightest, a heady buzz of anticipation would be palpable as the teams line up for the Test and the food and beverage stalls in and around the pristine Ageas Bowl would make brisk business.
However, these aren’t normal times and the game isn’t as it used to be.
While not losing sight of the fact that the ongoing battle between England and West Indies marks the return of international cricket after a three-month spell of gloom, it’s not quite the game we are accustomed to.
It’s shorn of color and buzz.
Post-COVID cricket: A new normal
Playing to empty stands takes a lot of getting used to, not just for viewers the world over but also for the players.
Not to be cheered on and welcomed as the two captains arrive for the toss is also a novelty forced on the cricketing world.
Also, to reduce the risk of players getting infected by coronavirus, the world cricket bosses put a ban on the application of saliva on the ball and celebrations after the fall of wickets.
While it’s being said that the new rules would be in force only as long as the coronavirus doesn’t go away, the World Health Organisation (WHO) put out a statement today warning that the deadly contagion could hold sway for five years.
So, by the looks of things, this could well be the new normal in the gentlemen’s game.
While games in England, barring the limited overs ones, have scarcely been known to attract huge crowds, imagine India playing to empty stands at the iconic Eden Gardens or the Chinnaswamy or the Lankans playing without the usual drumrolls at a spectator-less Premadasa or the Aussies not being treated to full throated chants at the MCG.
Even the thought of it seems bizarre. While it’s relatively easier for English fans to adjust to this new viewing experience, for Indian fanatics, it would be akin to putting them on the rack.
Not a soul to witness history
While the game was witness to a historic moment when players of both sides took the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, there was sadly not a soul to see it from the stands.
However, empty stands or not, the game has surely had its moments to savour. England were skittled out for 204 in their first innings, with Windies captain Jason Holder scalping six.
The Islanders replied with a fighting 318, with Kraig Braithwaite and Roston Chase scoring impressive half-centuries.
Though England fared better in their second dig, finishing at 313, they could only set a target of 200 for the Islanders. It now remains to be seen if the English bowlers can make a grand feast of it.
Till the time of filing this report, the Islanders were struggling at 35/3, needing another 165 runs to overhaul the target.
The match seems to be heading for a close finish, the dull viewing and playing experience will stir a debate whether the changes were necessary in post-COVID cricket.
However, with public health and safety a priority now, one has to agree to the changes.
While the debate may rage on and remain undecided, if the changes render the game safer for players, then so be it. The virus has already claimed thousands of lives the world over and letting the guard down, as the public health minders have warned, could prove costly.
Hence, let’s all support this cause of making the game safe before it could return to its vibrant best.