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Monday, January 25, 2021

Sports without the crowds: Why 2021 will test the resilience of sports

From the blockbuster IPL in the UAE to Nadal’s perseverance at the French Open, 2020 showed that sports and sportspersons can click even without fans cheering them. This year’s Olympics, Euro football and T20 World Cup will look to reinforce the fact that fans need players more than players need fans.

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi | New Delhi | Updated: January 5, 2021 9:50:35 am
test win in Australia, Cricket, IPL, Covid crisis, soprts news, indian express explained, Indian express newsSports stars love the attention and cherish the affection but do they depend on fan support to do well? (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

You don’t need fans in the stands for a blockbuster IPL, and India can win a Test in Australia without Virat Kohli or his brand of aggression. The year 2020 busted myths; it also re-classified cricket’s ‘indispensables’.

Just when sports had looked the most vulnerable, it showed why it has survived wars, economic depression and pandemics. From inside the bio-bubble, it screamed out that its strength was its script and its mass appeal was not a slave to spectators or superstars.

With Olympics, Euro football and T20 World Cup slotted for 2021 and the vaccine distribution expected to take time, the resilience of sports and its administrator will continue to be tested. The 2020 experience, though, has shown it will do fine.

The IPL template

The IPL 2020 success story gives hope and sets the template. In an alien country, inside the UAE’s brilliantly lit up but eerily desolate coliseums, the intensity of the contest didn’t dim. There was no one dancing in the aisles, no cheerleaders to encourage or barrackers to instigate. Sixes kept spilling out of the stadium and small groups of expats would scramble on empty roads to secure the IPL souvenir balls without even knowing who had hit it. On the other side on the imposing walls, circling the sanctum sanctorum, recorded roars would be played out. It didn’t seem the players were missing anything; at least the count of sixes didn’t drop.

With due apologies to the Wankhede Stadium faithful, especially the die-hards at the North Stand, Mumbai Indians had their most dominating season ever without the chants they chorused and the sledges they directed at rival fielders on the fence. There was no sea of blue to intimidate their rivals this IPL. On most days, the 2020 winners needed just a couple of boys in blue on field to blow away the rivals. Suryakumar Yadav, Hardik Pandya, Ishan Kishan, Kieron Pollard, Jasprit Bumrah, Trent Boult took turns at being match-winners, all without the fans wildly urging them.

Over the years, books, films and newspapers have called fans the 12th man, the ever-present catalyst that provokes phenomenal sporting feats. It needed a pandemic to call out this theory. Fans do add to the atmospherics but their role in inspiring players is grossly overrated, if not untrue. Sport desperately needs a research paper that calculates the correlation between runs scored or wickets taken and the rise in the decibel level because of empty mineral water bottles banged on plastic bucket seats.

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Johnson vs Jordan precedent

Until then, take the word of the world’s tallest sporting icons. Basketball’s big boys Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson say that their most intense game and the one they loved the most wasn’t played in front of screaming fans at Madison Square Garden but inside an empty obscure Monte Carlo gymnasium.

At the pre-1992 Olympics camp, the Dream Team was split into two for a practice game. Jordan and his senior Johnson were named captains. Sports Illustrated would later call the training session match-up the ‘Greatest game that no one saw’. Sadly this greatest game is recorded for posterity in the form of single-camera grainy amateur video, shot by the coach’s assistant.

With 10 Hall of Famers and at least three GOATs, it was a face-off of high skills and higher egos. The faithful would have sold their house to witness the once-in-a-lifetime assembly of the Gods of All Tall Things. Be it a connoisseur or a star-gawker, there was something for everyone. No one gave an inch, they teased and taunted each other. Jordan reminded Johnson that the Magic decade, the 80s, were over. This was his time, the Air Jordan 90s, he would shout after a three-pointer. Magic gave it back but had to eventually surrender his place at the top.

Minutes after the game, an epic moment of generational shift would unfold. There are documentaries on YouTube that have romanticised this exalted bit of hoop-history. Last year’s sleeper hit Netflix web-series The Last Dance, too, dedicates an episode to this celebrated game.

Johnson has been gracious enough to relive the moment when the crown that was slipping from his head finally fell on the floor of that empty gym. He talks about how he and Larry Bird, both giants of the game from the 80s, are sitting by the court side and Jordan, with a smirk pasted on his face, passes them. “There’s a new sheriff in the town,” he blurts. Johnson says he didn’t retort or debate or sledge. With a hearty laugh, he recalls tapping Bird with his elbow and saying, “He isn’t lying”.

So on what would have been just another training morning, this nondescript Monte Carlo gym witnessed sport in its purest form. There were no qualified referees to officiate, no replays, no analysts, no army of coaches; it was just a court-full of men proving who was better on the day. There was no live telecast, no financial incentive and no fans to carry tales. It was all about two men playing for pride and respect. There was intrigue, drama, inventiveness and heroism — there was enough at stake to give their best. At this pristinely primal duel, almost a personal battle of two minds, it felt a ‘Come on, Michael’ shout from the stands would have been a distraction. It would have broken the trance of the men on court.

Big achievers & survivors

At Roland Garros in the 2020 French Open final, Rafael Nadal too had that sublime stupor. Paris did allow a handful of fans but the court was painfully silent. It didn’t come in the way of Nadal’s ferocious defence of his turf. In the backdrop of the big Grand Slam race, the Nadal vs Novak Djokovic final was more than a fight for the silver bowl. Before the final, the Big 3 Slam count was Federer (20), Nadal (19), Djokovic (17).

All three were ageing; they didn’t know how long they could defy age or avoid injuries. Nadal wasn’t going to wait until next year for the stands to fill, for his fans to cheer him to get inspired. In what many say was his best show even on his favourite surface, he breezed to a three-set win against an opponent in prime form. In a year where Djokovic had been unbeatable, Nadal served him a 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 humiliation.

It’s not just those chasing lofty goals who can elevate their game to a higher plane. Even those showing resilience to survive can be equally stimulating.

Rahul Tewatia, 27, an IPL journeyman, knew time wasn’t on his side. At the start of the season, Delhi Captials had traded him with Rajasthan Royals. Playing against King’s XI, his team chased 224. Tewatia was promoted up the order. With the run-rate climbing, the unassuming all-rounder seemed to be crumbling under pressure. He was swinging the bat but rarely connecting.

Commentators were seriously suggesting that he should retire. If he couldn’t smash the ball, he should smash the stumps and get out hit wicket, suggested another pundit. There was general consensus that the Haryana boy was playing his last IPL innings. Soon it would be back to his village Sihi near Faridabad and trying to play the Syed Mushtaq T20s.

But in a magical transformation, the puny boy awakened the inner Chris Gayle in him. He would hit 5 sixes in an over from Sheldon Cottrell, the formidable West Indian new-ball bowler. From going home defeated, he was suddenly a household name, the Cinderella story of IPL 2020. Tewatia didn’t need the cheer or the jeer from the crowd to play the innings of his life.

In the zone

These pandemic tales have thrown up an uncomfortable question. Sports stars love the attention and cherish the affection but do they depend on fan support to do well?

If we listened carefully, the players have been dropping hints and in a way answering that question. From Sunil Gavaskar to Sachin Tendulkar to Virat Kohli, they have spoken about withdrawing into a shell or going into a meditative mode to cut the clutter around them when batting. They also talk about going into the zone. For years, youngsters have sat at the feet of these masters to learn the art of switching off.

Switching off, shell, zone — these are euphemisms about going blind to everything beyond the boundary rope. These are polite expressions that refer to the act of blocking out the fans while single-mindedly pursuing their goals.

In these times of obnoxious fan behaviour and growing cases of offensive and racist chants from the stands, this is a timely warning. Be around but don’t be overbearing. They can do without you, but you can’t do without them.

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