Closed Door Action: Can Cricket Exist Without the Fans?

Philosophers have been teasing our intellect for centuries with questions such us – If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody’s there to hear it, does it make a sound? Similar question would be – can cricket exist without crowds in the stadium?

If Ben Stokes produces miraculous 135 not out at Headingley to take England to victory in an Ashes Test against Australia and nobody was there to see it, did it really happen? If MS Dhoni walks out to bat for CSK at Chepauk and the stadium does not resonate with “Dhoni, Dhoni” chants, is it really MS Dhoni? If Virat Kohli scores a blistering hundred and there is dead silence at the Chinnaswamy, can it still be called a hundred? If Pat Cummins sends the stumps flying with a perfect Yorker at 152 kph in front of handful of cameramen, will it be considered magical?

The cricket fraternity around the world is pondering over the possibility of playing cricket without live presence of fans, trying to search for a delicate path out of shutdown. Playing without spectators may become a real possibility at some point, possibly next year, but it will not be the cricket as we know it. The experiences with the fans such as chants, roars, booing, communication, anxious faces, waving, high-fives, autographs, cheering, enthusiasm, craziness, banners and placards are what complete the spectacle of a cricket match. It is the fans who fill up the stadium which give the fans watching at home on TV a perfect cricket match. The game of cricket is nothing without its fans. The presence of die-hard fans is what makes cricket the popular sport it is. The match between Australia and New Zealand earlier this year which was being played behind closed doors appeared so boring on the TV with no crowds in the stadium. Ground was so silent that you could hear individual voices in the field. I can’t stress enough on the importance of the spectators. The fans react to the players, who in turn, react to the fans, in a constant cyclic interchange. The smile on their faces when they are on the big screen or when they take a catch when the batters smash the ball into the crowd or the joy of getting an autograph from your favorite player is precious. Experience of watching cricket being played behind closed doors would be strange and inauthentic.

Looking from player’s perspective- they also need the fans to bring the best out of them. Some players like Virat Kohli feed off from the energy of the fans. Just like theatrical performance, in cricket also, every player would like to perform in front of the audience. Players get constant encouragement from the crowd who appreciate a good shot or a brilliant delivery with a roar and applause. Without the audience the intensity of the performance would just not be the same.            

At the moment, we are very far away from having the fans in the stadium. People coming together and sitting in close proximity would risk the spread of coronavirus. Only when we have a vaccine available, developed and proven effective can we think about brings the crowds back. Until then, we may not be able to enjoy the spectacle of cricket as we used to. Sure, it would be upsetting to not hear a roar after a six or to not experience dead silence after the roar on local hero getting out. But the fundamentals of the game itself do not change itself without the crowd. It’s not an ideal option but no fans in the stadium seems like a small price to pay to get the players back on the field. In theory at-least, some cricket is better than no cricket. Doing it behind closed doors is the most pragmatic solution and a practical step in these anxious times. But even players, coaches, trainers, support staff, umpires, grounds-men and camera crew would be a sizable gathering. There is, however, so much money involved that will make cricket to return without fans first. That is almost inevitable. Every cancelled tournament is leaving a deep hole in the purse of the broadcasters and sponsors. Star Sports, the broadcaster for the IPL pays around Rs 3300 crores annually for the telecast rights. Franchises and cricket boards also have commercial contracts for brand promotion based on matches being telecast.

At the moment, however, even closed door action appears to be quite far away. Imagine if the teams do get back on park and a player tests positive for coronavirus that would lead to entire team getting a two week quarantine and the series getting cancelled. I doubt the board or government officials would risk a gathering of players and teams at this stage when it is not safe for the public to gather. It’s also not just about the match-day, these players practice with each other through the tour. When the level of testing around the world improves to such an extent that we are able to test every player on a tour every day and exclude anyone who tests positive, would be the time when we can restart cricket and let players perform in empty stadiums. That is, probably, still several months away. Based on the current situation, I think it is going to be quite some time before we are in a position to get fans back in the stadiums. We are not even past the first wave of coronavirus infections yet. I don’t see that happening in the next 12 months. That would also mean, it would be very difficult to move forward with T20 World Cup in October this year or even in Feb-March next year as ICC is planning. You can play a bilateral series but you cannot play a cricket world cup without the fans. That would be meaningless. World Cup is pinnacle of cricket and players would need fans for optimum performance.

Probably, waiting until it is totally safe would be the best decision. Whenever cricket resumes, just imagine, if you will, the magnitude that will come out of the joy of victory and anguish of defeat.           

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