2021 and COVID-19 pandemic: Cricket isn't normal yet without the crowds

2021 and COVID-19 pandemic: Cricket isn’t normal yet without the crowds

A virus leapt from the wet markets in Wuhan and through the earth’s global veins — trade, aviation and the proverbial travel itch — COVID-19 proliferated. It caused deaths, crippled economies and introduced us to three new usages — social-distancing, lockdowns and bio-bubbles. All through 2020, while mankind fought against its muscle memory to spontaneously hug and shake hands, sport was the last thing on anyone’s mind and cricket was no exception.

Since its formal inception in 1877, the willow game had previously paused during the two World Wars, but other than that it was normal service with the red cherry thudding into chiselled wood. And as eras receded, cricket broadened its form, seamlessly switching between Tests, ODIs and Twenty20s, slipping from whites to coloured clothing, embracing both day and night, and also making allowances for three types of balls — traditional red, white and the latest pink. The game always remained a kinetic entity despite lacking football’s universal footprint.

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But 2020 was the year of the long pause, simmering grief and eternal wait. All of us have lost someone to the coronavirus from our personal space that constitutes family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues. This cuts to the bone, this pierces the heart and while a vaccine seems just around the corner, it is time to take stock of what limited cricket happened last year and also acknowledge the seeming return to sporting normalcy in the current 2021.

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In a sparse 2020 when live sporting action was largely a mirage, satellite channels dished out past games. It was about sepia notes and nostalgia while the cricketing calendar witnessed 18 tour postponements and two cancellations. The biggest event to fall by the wayside was the much-anticipated ICC Twenty20 World Cup scheduled to be held in Australia from October 18 to November 15. The event was shifted to 2022 while the 2021 leg will be held in India.

Mumbai Indians is crowned champion after the final of season 13 of the Indian Premier League, played in the Unted Arab Emirates. The IPL was cricket’s adrenaline shot in 2020.   –  Sportzpics / BCCI

 

The derailment of cricket seemed impossible when Ireland set foot in the West Indies in early January 2020. If it was all about sport on the turf, jiving off the field and some rum punches on the side. The game was also flourishing in its other Commonwealth zones with both Sri Lanka and Australia making quick tours of India before Virat Kohli’s men flew to New Zealand and won all the five Twenty20s and lost the subsequent three ODIs and two Tests.

After those initial skirmishes, cricket took a forced siesta from March 21 to July 7 as most nations imposed lockdowns and flights were restricted to just emergency evacuations. Finally, the sunny men from the Caribbean islands touched down in London and the game was played in bio-secure environments with spectators staying away. After the West Indies left, it was Pakistan’s turn to visit Old Blighty and England, cricket’s birthplace and spiritual home, had again showed the way forward.

In a year wracked by frustrations and cabin fever, the big-ticket event was surely the Indian Premier League (IPL) that was held in the United Arab Emirates (from September 19 to November 10. Manipulated crowd sounds and overexcited commentators may have been part of the staple artificial acoustics, but there was no denying the quality of cricket dished out on the desert sands while Mumbai Indians emerged as the deserving champion, that too for a record fifth time.

The IPL was cricket’s adrenaline shot in 2020 and after that with lockdowns getting into a staggered unlock phase, the sport gently cleared its throat, hastened its trot and the fans were relieved. India is currently touring Australia and the matches, be it the abridged versions or long form, have been riveting. The West Indies, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, South Africa and England were all involved in their own set of bilateral jousts while Kane Williamson keeps scoring hundreds as if to show nothing has changed and to quote the quiet Kiwi: “It is what it is!”

New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson keeps scoring hundreds as if to show nothing has changed.   –  AP

 

Cricket has revived but its contextual environment isn’t normal yet. Bio-bubbles are deemed sacred and strict, and players have been penalised, either for dropping in home or stepping out for a bowl of noodles. But with the crowd, a restricted one at that, trooping into grounds in Adelaide and Melbourne, to name a few, and news trickling in about vaccines being approved, there could be light at the end of the tunnel. May not be disco lights but the slow-burn type at least for now.

The various fixtures in December have spilled over into January and 2021 has begun with its previous year’s hangover but without the anxiety around the mystery virus. Protocols are in place, athletes are constantly scrutinised and barring the odd breach, cricketers have adhered to room service, congregations in sanitised zones and the regular hotel-ground commute. Still, for youngsters to be cooped up in confined spaces can trigger psychological scars, and seen through that perspective, they surely cherish the freedom on offer while stepping out to play. This will be the grim reality till vaccines are administered, the virus wanes and herd immunity kicks in.

Despite these constraints, 2021 will throw up adequate bilateral contests besides the ICC Twenty20 World Cup in India probably during October and November. England, after its current tour of Sri Lanka, will hop across the Palk Strait and land in Chennai for a long tour, which will also witness Ahmedabad’s refurbished Motera Stadium with a capacity of 1.10 lakh spectators, making its international debut besides hosting a day-and-night Test.

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The IPL too will sashay in during the Indian summer and gradually cricket will get back to its routines. In a packed calendar, there are some significant outings like India’s tour of England later from August. But in these COVID-19 times, we are collectively yearning for hope and seen in that realm, none can be bigger than the proposed tours of Pakistan by South Africa and England. A country that was forced to shift its cricketing base to the UAE following the terror strikes on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009, Pakistan needs international cricket to return its soil while enhanced security measures are in place.

Ahmedabad’s refurbished Motera Stadium, with a capacity of 1.10 lakh spectators, will make its international debut besides hosting a day-and-night Test, when England arrives on its India tour.   –  Vijay Soneji

 

If 2020 was largely a washout, 2021 will be all about regaining lost terrain be it for teams or individuals. Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, Williamson, Ben Stokes and Jasprit Bumrah, to name a few, will be keen to make up for lost time and an interesting blend of matches should herald new heroes and stir fresh rivalries. If by the end of 2021, we could be sitting in packed stadiums and hollering away to our heart’s content, and life would be stirring anew, but there are multiple days and innumerable matches before that dream can be realised.

2020 was not just a year of loss, it was also about multi-tasking when some of us even tried our hands at baking bread and delved into old photo albums. It was the same with cricketers, who, with time to spare, were active on Twitter and also conducted formal interviews with their team-mates, almost giving journalists a run for their money.

But it is time to keep the oven aside and pause the recorder; sport at large and cricket specifically will have to take their rightful place in our lives. 2021 offers that window and to borrow a title from a recent anthology about life during the pandemic, it is time for us to say: “And we came outside and saw the stars again.”

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