‘We are 11 but some 40,000 are with us. How can it not make a difference?’
FOR everyone concerned, playing in front of empty stands is a unique situation. Everyone understands the importance of fans; the high that one feels from thousands cheering for you. Having said that, in today’s time, cricketers are used to playing with and without the crowd. Domestic cricket, for example, doesn’t attract many fans. The current situation, triggered by coronavirus, is different. It’s not like the fans have turned away from the game, but other circumstances driving it, and we all understand the seriousness of the situation. Still, who doesn’t like appreciation? Just not for a wicket or a boundary or a good ball, but also if a player just dives to save a run, the crowd applauds. It makes a player extend himself, give more.
When there is no one watching, jism mein farak padta hai, josh mein farak padta hai (there is a difference, in our body, in our spirits). I know of many who feel this. Imagine running in to bowl and thousands screaming and cheering your every stride. It’s the best feeling in the world. Nothing comes close.
I remember the first time I played to a full house. It felt like a mela, and I had to find my own way to deal with the madness. Once I got used to it, I could see what difference the crowds made.
At another time, in 2012, I was returning after an injury. I had not played an international game for two years. My cricketing career was almost over. I was a bit down and my confidence was running low. We were playing the West Indies. At our first match in Chennai, as I was making my bowling run-up mark, the whole stadium started chanting “Irfan, Irfan, Irfan”. I can’t tell you how much it meant. It boosted my confidence, the noise made me feel that “Yes, I’m back”. I ended up taking a wicket off my first ball. I thank the crowd for it.
From the time we leave the hotel to the time we reach the stadium, the love which we get from the crowds is amazing. The cheering people, in thousands, certainly transfer their energy to us. They give us hope to climb boundaries and give us the spirit to win any game.
Recently, even when I played a Road Safety tournament in Mumbai for retired players, the crowd turnout was amazing. I felt almost the same high as during my India days. Perhaps, if there weren’t as many people, I would have slacked off. But I am sure the crowd made us forget that we don’t have the body we did in our prime. Maybe we retired players would have cared more about protecting and preserving our bodies if not for the crowd. We played for the crowd that day because we didn’t want them to go home disappointed. When you are playing for your country, it is easier to push what is happening in the stands at the back of your mind as the intention is clear: to perform for India.
Now, as the possibility of games before empty stadiums looms, players will take time to get used to it. Especially in India, where we are not accustomed to playing any international game without a crowd, particularly with the white ball. I don’t remember ever seeing a deserted or even almost-empty stadium in white-ball cricket. Foreign teams always complain that wherever India play, the crowd support is more for the Indian team. Even if we play abroad, where the opposition team might be playing at home, the Indian team gets louder cheers. We are 11 on the ground but some 40,000 are with us. How can it not make a difference? However, life will move on once the games begin.
Ultimately, there is no doubt that while it is a cricketer’s hard work that takes one places in the game, it’s because of the fans that we are remembered for so long. It is they who make us feel like superstars. When thousands cheer each shot or good cricket, it makes us players realise that God has been kind to us.
As told to Devendra Pandey