When the most influential career in Indian sport came to an end in 2013 – which, like today, immediately gave the feeling that the whole sport itself had come to a standstill – the pensioner made it clear what he would miss most. The memories you left me will stay with me forever. Especially Sachin, Sachin – who will sound in my ears until I stop breathing, said Sachin Tendulkar at the end of his farewell speech, responded with flashes of tears and turned directly to the spectators in the Vanhead Stadium.
Not his caresses, which are beyond our imagination. Even his hundredth century, in which he continued his career into the 24th century. Only the noise of the crowd reminds him forever of his presence when he sings his name; and he continues to do so, according to his own explanation.
For an athlete, the noise of the crowd is the first and perhaps the least false. Before this image is broadcast on a million televisions, before it sets a trend on Twitter, and before it brings trophies and enriches the player with a few zeros, the sound of the crowd is the most direct reward. The kind of reward that lets even the greatest people of all time – with professional success – the size of a small nation’s gross domestic product – go to the greatest. Ask the biggest of them all, Roger Federer.
In 2018 Federer won his 20th (and final) Grand Slam at the Australian Open. He did not collapse when he took the trophy and kissed, nor when he thanked his team for helping his almost 38-year-old body achieve the absurdity. But when he spoke to the crowd at the end of the speech, his eyes were well up. Hey, guys. You fill in the holes, you make me nervous, you take me out and train me. I just wanted to thank you for everything, he said with a lump in his throat. Without you things would have been different, he said, putting his hand on his face to wipe away the tears that flowed.
Federer’s usually an emotional person. But these tears were different from his usual tears of joy. That’s why he was questioned at the press conference that followed. It was the crowd. No man in the stadium would make me nervous, I can tell you that, he said, pointing to the trophy next to him. It’s for her.
Sports activities are gradually resumed, but behind closed doors. In the near future, the new standard will in any case be an empty phase. No matter how important the sport and the game is, it is played for free. The sound, the anger and the joy of the audience will be missed by those who play and by those who watch television. To illustrate this point, I would like to return to the Delhi test of 2017 – a cricket match so ahead of its time that the Sri Lankan team wore masks, albeit by infection, but not with Covid-19.
On the fifth and final day of the test a large crowd gathered in the stands of Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium, which made almost no noise as the game was heading towards a draw. After a long period of silence in the stands, Virat Kohli had had enough. Kohley’s bowlers were tiring and he decided to give them the most effective remedy: love for the crowd.
From his barrier position, the Indian captain waved his right hand in the west stand. When he caught their attention, Kohli roared with the palm of his hand behind his right ear – in the style of Hulk Hogan – and the west stand roared. Then he reached out his hand like a traffic cop and the noise disappeared. He turned to the eastern tribune and repeated his gestures – a wave of the hand, a pierced ear, a palm – and the eastern tribune followed him obediently.
Kohli laughed and stretched out both hands – when he raised one hand, and when he raised the other, the other hand splashed out. He moved his hands quickly like a man juggling invisible balls and Kotla came to life. Besides, the 198. Ball stand with the Dinesh Chandimal door dismantled.
What will stadiums in the sports world sound like after a pandemic if there are no spectators?
The indigenous sport in India, including cricket, is usually played for empty galleries. A handful of these gagging, silent stands are sports journalists. As a social experience, we asked the sports journalists of this newspaper to have their favourite experiences in an empty country. Almost unanimously, these experiments depended on the sound.
A journalist had a vivid memory of the basic sounds of a football strike, amplified by the acoustics of the empty stands in Delhi.
Bhaijun Bhutia rolled the meatballs herself. He got up, ran away and struck with a short, acoustic blow. If you haven’t heard that sound up close, it’s hard to know how hard you can hit the ball, he said. When the ball hit the crossbar, there was another thundering message – a metal bell echoing from the ground.
Even during big matches this metal bell sounds on most soccer fields in India (with the exception of a few in Calcutta and Goa and Kerala). Our football correspondent remembered the sound of a laptop keyboard beating louder than the crowd during the game of the Delhi Dinamos Super League in India.
The same applies to Indian tennis, with the exception of the strange draw in the Davis Cup or the annual ATP competition. Here is the experience of a reporter at a tennis tournament in Delhi: Game after game, you could hear the heavy breathing of exhausted players. But his blows were even stronger. The ball that hit the boards sounded like a drumbeat.
At the end of a game, a player came to this reporter and asked him how I played. No one else was there to give him an opinion.
Tennis is always a sport played in silence. The sound only blinks between the points; before the ball is thrown back into the air, the quantity is regulated or checked by the tower referee.
Even with the big helmets, if you walk a few metres from the fairgrounds, all you hear on the sidelines are grunts and gunshots – before, during and after the point.
The US Open in New York is the biggest and noisiest Big Helmet. But just a few meters from the stadium, the only sound Arthur Ash makes is the sound of the ball hitting the strings of the racket, the effort of the players and the strange applause of the coaching staff, said one of our correspondents. Perhaps that’s what will happen when the world’s largest tennis arena – Arthur Ash Stadium – reopens, along with the Rod Laver Arena, Wimbledon Central Court and the Phillip Chatrier.
Which brings us to our national obsession, cricket. There is a precedent where a noisy international match takes place behind closed doors, even though the doors are only closed to spectators for a few minutes. This is what happened at the 1999 India-Pakistan Asian Test Championships in Calcutta, a test especially commemorated by successive Shoaib Akhtar-Yorkers who killed the stumps of Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar during their first run in India.
But our cricket correspondent remembered the game before surrealism and then the unprecedented scenes that took place on the fifth day of the game.
By the fifth day, India needed 65 games with four wickets in hand.
But as soon as Kumbla’s penultimate wicket fell, the Eden Gardens crowd lost its cool and threw rockets at the field, prompting police to clear all the stands until the stadium turned into a concrete hippo, he said. Pakistan needed exactly 10 bullets to get the job done – Akhtar and another Yorker dismantled Prasad’s stumps. Even on television the sounds of the tree stumps resounded louder than those of the Achtar Yorks, which had previously anchored Tendulkar and Dravid. Defeat has never seemed so boring.
This is probably the most accurate description of how international cricket will feel in the near future. But make no mistake: When the wait for the resumption of the sport is over, waiting for the players in the stands will only be the beginning.