Cricket fans feel loss of crowds as keenly as players in the age of Covid

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I was idling through my smartphone one lockdown evening, when I randomly tapped on voice memos. There I found ancient recordings of my children singing adorably (to a mother’s ear), a hoarse Billy Bragg in Delaware Forest, and Anya Shrubsole talking modestly about her inclusion as one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year. But in between were numerous unnamed files.

I clicked and immediately floated back into a different world, with different shadows. To 2017, and a happy September day spent watching England play West Indies at Lord’s with my family.

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For reasons now lost in the mists of time, I spent the day taping what I could hear during a day at the Test. This included things so entirely normal and mundane that I can’t believe I bothered, but they seem extraordinary now. A tram, train and underground journey from Manchester to NW8. Queueing to get into Lord’s, closely enough to eavesdrop fully on other people’s conversations, and pass the time unmasked. The lunch interval, and the sound of people eating together outside their family unit, rubbing elbow against elbow, cool box against cool box, so squished between rows of humanity that one person’s visit to the toilet involved another 10 standing up, or sitting back in their seats. My dad loyally took the phone into the Long Room for an hour, where you can hear the low hum of the pavilion baritone – rich, blazered and plummy-vowelled.

The scorecard shows an England team since transformed, with only Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad still mainstays. The top five of 2017 has been largely scrubbed out: Alastair Cook retired and Mark Stoneman, Tom Westley and Dawid Malan all lost their Test places. Toby Roland-Jones has been the victim of injury’s cruel trip hazards; Moeen Ali and Jonny Bairstow have fallen in and out of selectorial favour.

But the biggest transformation has been in the way we have had to watch cricket in the past year – on television or on the internet, sharing bad jokes and chat with others on WhatsApp or Twitter rather than a nudge in the ribs or a thoughtful something in the ear during a passage of play. Even more peculiarly, the cricket we have watched has been played in barren, empty stadiums, barring the dribbles, then multitudes, allowed into the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad for the Tests and first two T20s – until a local rise in Covid cases ensured the remainder of the T20 series would be played behind closed doors. And for that reason, my favourite recording of all seven I took that late-summer day in 2017 is the one of the first ball, with all the drama of a beginning and a day yet to unfold. It is something that, despite the best efforts of commentators, isn’t the same without a crowd.

As the clock clicks towards 11, the reassuring voice of the Lord’s announcer launches into the air. We are given details of the lunch interval times, the Yorkshire Tea break, availability of scorecards, various places where people can buy food and drink, a mysterious “activation area”, and even given the chance to meet John Emburey. Then there is applause from the crowd as the West Indies batsmen Royston Chase and Shai Hope walk out on to the grass, past the unmasked Lord’s gate man, through the non-sanitised pavilion gate. We learn that James Anderson will be opening the bowling from the Nursery End. The excited chatter continues until suddenly, silence, as Anderson presumably starts his run-up. A second or two later, an appreciative “oooh”, as Hope pushes a morning bat forwards a touch too slowly and is beaten by Anderson.

Jimmy Anderson celebrates the wicket of Royston Chase on day three of the Lord’s Test against West Indies in September 2017
Jimmy Anderson celebrates the wicket of Royston Chase on day three of the Lord’s Test against West Indies in September 2017. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

If only I had continued recording, as three balls later Anderson induced a prod from Chase outside off stump and was caught by Bairstow for three. Anderson went on to take career-best figures of seven for 42 as England won by teatime, by nine wickets, in just three days.

This last week, watching Sydney Roosters and Manley Sea Eagles play rugby league on a hot afternoon at a lively SCG, and India v England in a Covid-unfriendly but exhilaratingly full Ahmedabad, the loss of cricket with a crowd suddenly felt heavy. Virat Kohli famously feeds off spectators; you could see him whipping them up in the Test series after India fell behind, you could feel him drawing strength from the home fans on Sunday as he guided India to an easy victory in the T20, so much that a straight six off Tom Curran seemed to come with the effortlessness of a puff of perfume.

But how much we, as cricket lovers, feed off a crowd too: not just the closeness of friends, but the company of strangers.

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