India’s buzzing crowd take joy from knowing where to look in grim times


Television viewers of a certain vintage will have a clear memory of this experience: the picture on the screen is hazy, shaky, doing things that would today be called glitching, with the sound either a static buzz or simply nonexistent.

You then fiddle with the butterfly antenna vigorously, perhaps give the box a thump or two for good measure, and it just clicks: you can see again and the audio is crystal clear. Everything just comes to life magically. It felt that way to be at the cricket at the Chepauk stadium in Chennai on a warm yet not unpleasant February morning, as normal service resumed in Test cricket in India.

OK, it wasn’t quite normal service – 15,000 tickets were made available and around 12,000 turned up – but just how much was missed by not having a crowd was apparent early on. And it wasn’t as though this was a long hiatus. The first Test against England was the only one to be played in front of deliberately empty stands in India, with the IPL staged overseas. But the crowd still made its presence felt once more.

The first auditory element that caught the attention was when the two captains were in the middle with the match referee and broadcasters. Even before the result of the toss was shown on TV screens, you knew what had happened: the roar meant Virat Kohli had won the toss and it would be a batting day.

Not long after, the first chant rang around the ground – “Ro-hit, Ro-hit” – as India’s opening batsman took strike, waiting for Stuart Broad to begin his run-up. Shubman Gill went before he could feel the love, while Cheteshwar Pujara’s arrival meant that the heart rate was being settled at one end even as it raced at the other.

Rohit Sharma is the kind of batsman who likes to take his time early on knowing full well that he can go big, but this was not that sort of day. The full face of the bat was in evidence, first sending the ball through cover, then mid-off. Soon enough, another delivery was chipped over mid-on. Pujara was content just enjoying the best seat in the house, contributing eight of the first 50 runs of the partnership.

When England’s quick bowlers hit the deck, and sometimes even when the batsmen played the ball into the pitch, the top loosened, a puff of dust showing this was a very different surface to the one the previous Test had been played on.

But even as pace gave way to spin, Rohit could not be checked. The opener’s scores the past three times he went past 50 at home were 176, 127 and 212 and he looked in that mood once again, despite losing Pujara.

The crowd let out the loudest cheer of the day at that point, not to celebrate Jack Leach’s bowling but to welcome the arrival of Kohli. It is a tradition that bemuses visiting teams but one that is ingrained in the Indian psyche by two decades of waiting for Sachin Tendulkar to come to the crease at No 4.

But the “Koh-li, Koh-li” chant was shut down before it could reach a climax when Moeen Ali combined flight, dip and turn to bowl the captain through the gate.

Momentarily the oxygen was sucked out of the ground and it sounded empty, but Rohit’s ascendancy and Ajinkya Rahane’s calm seeded the first “India, India” chants of the day.

If the first session was won by Rohit, the second, wicketless one, was India’s. But England took the third as the sun began its descent and the flags atop the Anna Pavilion flagged for the first time in the day.

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While the intensity remained throughout there was more action off the field towards the close, the third umpire ruling Rohit safe on a tight stumping call and then failing to see that Rahane had gloved one to short-leg.

Twitter was afire, the lost review was reinstated, but these were not issues that gripped those present. For the crowd all that mattered was that India had 300 on the board, Rohit had treated them to a sumptuous feast and India were optimistically ahead in conditions they are best placed to make the most of.

This was a throwback to simpler times for those at the ground. There was a sense of gratitude at just being able to be there, allied with a reminder, if only in a cricketing sense, that even in these most depressing of times, there are things from which to take joy if you know where to look.