Slightly nervous mixed with barely controlled excitement. That’s how most international debutants feel; and it was no different for my Test match debut as a spectator at the stadium. I watched the first two days of the Chennai Test between Australia and India from the stands in Chepauk and was not disappointed as Ashwin, Clarke and Tendulkar made it a very memorable experience. I’m still kicking myself over missing Dhoni’s double ton on the third day, but that story is for another time. Here is a brief recount of the highlights of my two days at Chepauk.
My trepidation about attending a match at the stadium had to do with the assumption that I would not be able to appreciate the minor details as much as I would have if I watched the game on TV. Instead, I realized that the trade-offs go the other way too; the joys of watching quality spin and pace bowling (Ashwin and Pattinson), masterful batting (Clarke and Tendulkar) and stunning ground fielding (Warner) at the ground does not really give a fair contest to a TV experience. Also, the ebb and flow of a hotly contested Test match really sucks you in as a spectator. There are no distractions; just an absorbing contest between a bowler and a batsman. I left the stadium with a much deeper appreciation of Test cricket.
The ‘Knowledgeable Cricket Crowd’ title for Chennai fans is quite appropriate. At so many points in the match, I overheard interesting stats and anecdotes from fans sitting around me. Another impressive factor was their recognition of lesser known players. It’s one thing to recognize an Indian reserve player, and it is another matter to realize that the Australian player walking along the boundary ropes in front of you is Jackson Bird. The Aussie players would be pleasantly surprised whenever someone would call out their name and start cheering. The same applied to players on the field. Michael Clarke and David Warner were big crowd favourites on Day 2 as their names were being chanted (this, at a time when Sachin and Pujara were at the crease!). Both obliged crowd requests by doing mini-jigs, thereby getting a lot of love from the stands. And there was something else that I never would have imagined I would see in a Test match: Mexican waves. Young, old, men, women – all joined in and had a gala time doing it. All of this made for a fun two days of watching cricket at the stadium.
Indian players getting cheered at the stadium is no big deal. Still, it was an experience in itself whenever Tendulkar came into play. If the ball went to him when he was fielding, there was a loud cheer. If he defended a ball for no run, there was a loud cheer. The big screen at the stadium had to just show him sitting in the pavilion, and a loud cheer would resonate around the ground. There was this ridiculous instance in the first session of Day 2, when the Aussie tailenders were resisting; Sachin was off the field for a short while and the crowd was getting restless. Out of nowhere, someone started a “Sachin, Sachin” chant, which immediately got picked up in the stands. All this for a player who was not even on the field of play! It’s just mind boggling to think how he handles this game after game, in different stadiums in different countries, decade after decade.
It was not all perfect, of course. Entry into the stadium was not nearly as smooth as I would have liked; fans were asked to switch off their phones (in my case, I was asked to “remove the battery” of my iPhone!), those who were wearing black t-shirts were turned away (fearing some political disturbance) and there was no re-entry allowed for fans who wished to leave in between and come back later in the day. As for the big screen, it was annoying to see the action replays being cut off midway and replaced with a random ad, which always resulted in loud groans from the stands. All these amounted to minor quibbles over the two days.
Overall, I had a great time watching the game from the stands. I understand that experiences may vary in other stadiums within the country and outside it, but I would highly recommend watching an international game at the ground for any fan who hasn’t done so till now. Watching a well contested game between two quality sides in the company of thousands of cricket lovers, making new friends and meeting up with friends you only knew in the online world till then; all of it made for a memorable international debut…for me.