Cricket’s a crazy game with so many variables, codes and rituals. Every time it’s caught in a swirl of change, it assumes a new avatar and its diehard fans swear by those tenets. So, as scoffers ask whether we’ll survive the coronavirus scare and the upheavals that have followed, our implacable faith in the innate charm of cricket prompts us to say, “A cloudburst doesn’t last all day."
The game even stumped Alice of the fairy tale. In a memoir-cum-celebration of English cricket, All on a Summer’s Day, writer Margaret Hughes devoted the last chapter to a fan fiction-like account of Alice discovering cricket. “Alice at Lord’s, 1952 – With due apologies to Lewis Caroll" begins with Alice landing just outside Lord’s and asking a Cheshire cat on the wall for directions to go in. The cat points to the Nursery End and the Pavilion End: “Visit either end. The people are all mad."
The passion stays 68 years later, and the game seems poised for another round of changes, going by the epidemiological forecast and many recommendations, the latest coming from the Anil Kumble-led International Cricket Council committee. It won’t be long before the game starts at “bio-secure venues" on “island sites"—grounds that have hotels. The players will train and live in designated zones without any autograph-hunters and swooning fans in sight. The closest an admirer could get would be on Twitter.
Groundsmen and ball boys may have to scrub their hands often, but players are bound to face more rigour. Aficionados have let their imagination go wild: How close can the close-in cordon be? Will the slip fielders stand in chalk circles? Should silly-point and forward short-leg maintain a healthy distance from the batsman? At toss, shouldn’t the one who flips a coin wear gloves? Are team huddles out? Will the twelfth man—wearing a mask and medical gloves—also carry sanitizers to the field? How do you fancy a group photo of the winning team?
On a more practical note, dressing rooms may have to be redesigned and all surfaces regularly sprayed with disinfectants. With pavilions not big enough to separate players from one another, a strict code may kick in: no sharing of equipment, no uncorking of champagne bottles, no back-slapping appreciation or birthday cuddles. “And for heaven’s sake, please don’t throw your towels, socks and caps around."
On the field, elbow bumps and jigs will replace high-fives and hugs. Any other spontaneous expression of joy could be a risky indulgence. No chewing gum either. Players looking to check their secretion of adrenaline may have to find other ways of keeping composure. Fast bowlers are free to spit fire, but not saliva on the red cherry. Instead, they may mop the sweat off their forehead to polish the ball.
Word is out that some schedules may be rejigged, even in domestic games. Will the longer versions—four and five day matches—see curtailment, apart from stricter guidelines? The starkest difference may be that of playing in empty stadiums. How satisfying would a grand performance then be? Akin to playing Mark Antony with gusto to an empty hall? Cricketers love live interaction, be it sing-alongs in the stands or demands for a sixer. History so memorably records former India pacer Lakshmipathy Balaji greeted by Pakistani fans in 2004 with the chant: “Balaji zara dheere chalo…" (please slow down). Nothing can be headier for a cricketer than a standing ovation after a grand show or a Mexican wave by roaring crowds. Against a general carnival-like atmosphere, occasional volatility may be pardoned.
The other side of the coin is the transformation of the spectator into a viewer. Closed-door games will remove the concept of first-hand viewing and turn cricket into a television show. We will dip cookies in our coffee and lean back in our couches as we watch a Virat Kohli drive tear through the off-side field. If more homebodies love this, authorities could thread that needle with more adaptations. Those who experienced the first flush of Indian Premier League fandom might recall how the idea of enjoying the game was redefined.
But how long can we imagine going through the rest of our lives watching cricket in our drawing rooms, and, perhaps, to the accompaniment of simulated applause? The sweet thwack of the bat on the ball might echo emptily in uninhabited stands. Those who piously affirm their faith in traditional cricket may worry more about when we’ll flatten the covid curve. A true game is about putting bums on stadium seats. Or watching people dressed in white play at Shivaji Park in Mumbai or in the villages of Yorkshire.
We’ll hang around till our pulse-rate quickens with real action. Just the way Alice does in Hughes’s story. Bored with dull play, she nearly leaves the stadium, until she bumps into a tall man carrying a book on Wagner under his arm (so much like Neville Cardus, the celebrated cricket writer and Margaret Hughes’s friend) who tells her, “You won’t be able to stay away now that you have come." Things will pass, he says. Alice buys a cup of tea and stays back to watch the game.
Jayanth Kodkani is writer and freelance journalist based in Bengaluru