In January 1999 when India-Pakistan tension was simmering, the neighbours had come for a revival series. The first Test was in Chennai and after four enthralling days of cricket, despite Sachin Tendulkar’s epic century, India fell short by a whisker. It was one of the most painful days for an Indian cricket fan but Wasim Akram, the then Pakistan captain, still talks about the standing ovation that his team got at Chepauk. Akram said in his 20 years of international cricket career, he had never seen a crowd more knowledgeable and sporting than the 30,000-odd at Chepauk on that day.
The heat and humidity of Chennai don’t always go in favour of Chepauk as one of the preferred destinations for a touring side, but what makes the historic ground stand out is its fans. Be it the 200-odd on the third afternoon of a Ranji game on the pavilion terrace or the packed house bathed in yellow at a CSK IPL game — there has hardly ever been a more involved set of cricket fans anywhere in India.
But when Chepauk will once again become a part of history by hosting the first Test in India (against England from February 5) post Covid and become the first Indian venue to host back-to-back Tests, there will be no fans at the galleries — at a time when the interest around Test cricket is at its peak in India.
The team has just won a memorable series in Australia and the world is waiting to see how India will take the next step. The Tamil Nadu Cricket Association, too, had initially hoped that there would at least be 50% fan attendance for the Tests, but the England Cricket Board was reluctant and the BCCI didn’t want to take a chance either. In all probability, they will allow fans for the third Test in the new Motera later in February, but Chepauk has to go fan-free.
There is a sense of disappointment around it, but it’s a reality that everyone has to live with. TNCA secretary S Ramaswamy says they would have loved to allow fans, but there’s not much spectators can do. “Even the three stands — I, J and K — which have stayed closed for so many years, are now ready. But it’s unfortunate that we won’t be able to have fans for the game,” the secretary said.
Be it the Test match against England immediately after the 26/11 attacks in 2008 with security measures at its peak or the last one after cyclone Vardah in 2016 against the same opponents, fans have always made Test cricket a fantastic spectacle at the venue. R Sundaravaradan, an 88-year-old former advocate of the Supreme Court, used to be a regular at Chepauk for Test matches and Ranji. His health doesn’t permit him to go anymore, but the octogenarian, too, will miss the pulse of fans. “There are so many memories, it’s like an old album you love to revisit on a lazy afternoon,” Sundaravardan’s memory isn’t exactly water-tight. “But why didn’t they allow a limited number of fans with the necessary set of precautions,” he asks.
That’s the question that is on everyone’s mind — especially when Chennai has recorded days when there have been no Covidrelated deaths. Political rallies are in full swing and cinema halls have reopened, but a cricket stadium, where every protocol could have been maintained to make the occasion memorable, remains on the ‘suspect list’.
But just as life has to go on, cricket, too, has to be played without its biggest stakeholders. So a bio-bubble has been created taking three floors of a five-star hotel where the English players are flying in from Sri Lanka and the Indians, after their Australia triumph, will gather in a couple of days. The TNCA officials, who have chosen to stay outside the bubble, won’t be allowed inside the ground and the media too has been asked to stay away. Still, there’s a lot of interest around the nature of the pitch for the game, more so because it has to sustain the wear and tear of two back-to-back games.
V Ramesh Kumar, the new curator of the ground, has prepared five pitches and two will be used. “For now, there’s a grass covering to ensure that it holds. I can assure a sporting wicket,” Kumar says. Virat Kohli, of course, won’t mind one that will help his team, more so when he won’t have the fan tonic to fall back upon during a good, hard day of Test cricket.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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