Lockdown: What it is like to play in front of empty stands, according to cricket stalwarts

Updated: Jun 10, 2020, 09:42 IST | Harit N Joshi, Subodh Mayure | Mumbai

With cricket most likely to return in spectator-less avatar, stalwarts who experienced it before explain the feeling

The Sydney Cricket Ground during the first ODI between Australian and New Zealand in March. Pic/ Getty Images
The Sydney Cricket Ground during the first ODI between Australian and New Zealand in March. Pic/ Getty Images

During this Coronavirus-caused national lockdown, Virat Kohli's actor wife Anushka Sharma posted a video on social media, chanting the Indian captain's name like his fans at the ground would, urging him to hit a four. It's something the India captain will not hear in the near future, considering the plan to have spectator-free cricket. In other words, Kohli and his team will face up to the new normal.

As expected, the word "strange" will be among the first to be uttered by cricketers know what it is to be watched by a large number of spectators.

Virat Kohli
Virat Kohli

In his nine-year India career, former international Ajit Agarkar played in front of an egg and bacon tie-audience at the Lord's pavilion end and the less uptight Nursery End crowd, passionate crowds at Eden Gardens, the we're-here-for-a-good-time ones at Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).

Strange experience

Agarkar told mid-day: "The first few [international] games will be very strange for players, for sure. It was strange to watch the Bundesliga [German football league] without spectators, so for sure it will be quite different for the players to play without crowds."

While the Mumbai stalwart can relate to the atmosphere of a packed MCG, having figured in the 1999 and 2003 Boxing Day Tests, he has also played in front of only a handful of spectators during domestic matches no matter how many international players figured in both teams. "The crowd adds to the atmosphere. You get two to three early wickets and the crowd gets excited. The players ride on those emotions. But [with no spectators in the stadium] now, the players will have to create these emotions themselves. Crowd can sometimes really get you going or put the opposition under pressure. Now, the XI guys on the field will need each other even more," he said.

Afitya Tare and Dilip Vengsarkar
Aditya Tare and Dilip Vengsarkar

Former India captain Dilip Vengsarkar, a veteran of 116 Tests, said players get an adrenaline rush, thanks to the crowd. "When it's a full house, the adrenaline starts flowing automatically and the players give their best. You get immediate response for a good effort, so it's going to be a different feeling for the players," said Vengsarkar.

Kohli, Steve Smith, David Warner and Babar Azam are some of the top-rated batsmen who are known to take extra leverage from the crowd. How will they perform with no one to cheer?

Cricketers love their crowd

Former Pakistan batsman Mohsin Khan does not see any dip in their performances. "Cricketers love the crowd. They love to take that pressure. In fact, they perform better when put under pressure. That's the big difference between a good and great batsman. But even without crowd they will be motivated to put up their best. While there are players, who love to play before a packed house, there are some who like to play with fewer or no spectators. Cricketers will be itching to play and be on the park again—crowds or no crowds. Cricket is a unifying force especially in the sub-continent. It will help cheer up people in these COVID-19 times," said Mohsin, who played 48 Tests and 75 ODIs.

Agarkar felt players will have to train their minds to accept the vacuum in the stadium. "In Ranji Trophy, you are mentally prepared for no crowds. It is all about training your mind for not having the chaos or noise around you. As a player, you still worry about your performance. When you have the ball in your hand, your first worry is to negotiate the batsman. It will be a matter of first few games. The England v West Indies series will help us gauge better.

Ajit Agarkar and Mohsin Khan
Ajit Agarkar and Mohsin Khan

"At the end of the day, they are still playing an international game, which is the main focus. External factors keep changing, but the primary focus is to do well in the match. I am expecting most of the players will quickly get used to it," said Agarkar, who has played 26 Tests, 191 ODIs and four T20Is.

Meanwhile, Mumbai's Ranji Trophy-winning captain Aditya Tare said it is important that the show goes on. "Playing IPL or international cricket in front of empty stands will be new. The game has to go on. The competitiveness won't be taken away by empty stands.

Every cricketer will give their 100 per cent. There is no chance that the quality [of the game] will be compromised. There could be a dip in motivation levels as there are players, who love the crowd support," said Tare, who plays for Mumbai Indians in the IPL.

No thrill for fans

Vengsarkar's heart went out to those who can't come through the turnstiles now. "The atmosphere at the ground is completely different as compared to watching on television at home. The fans will not get the same thrill," said the batting stylist, who played 10 Tests in front of his local supporters at the Wankhede Stadium.

The level of uncertainty in the new normal is not lost on Kohli. He told Star Sports recently: "Things will go on, but I doubt that one will feel that magic happening inside because of the atmosphere that was created."

Not watching a magician at work in the flesh is going to be hard for spectators. But then, like most things in life, there's always a first time.

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