Loud Musings of the Empty Galleries

Muhammedali Puthoor

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On our way to Maharaja’s College Ernakulum to represent our college in a quiz competition, I and my friend Mohammad Aslam couldn’t stop ourselves from getting down from the bus at the stop in front of Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium where Indian National side were to take on the English team in ODI in January 2013. The golden opportunity at hand to fulfil the long cherished dream of watching an international game in a stadium and being immersed in the atmosphere of festivity had taken the sense of responsibility from both of us. Not sooner than later we realized that we did not have a ticket and all the passes have been sold days before as an international cricket match is not so frequent in the south-west state of Kerala. With the innate urge of a typical Indian we found a way out to dribble formal procedure of getting a pass and met a man who was in search of the late comers. 200₹ valued tickets to watch the match from the farthest seat from the ground was safe in his pocket but 600₹ extra for each ticket looked too tall of a wall that needed to be jumped over.

The demand for tickets in black was so high and the patrolling eyes of the cops were so vigilant that there was not even an option to bargain. With the feeling of missing the match between the cup and the lip we started to walk back but only to return after a few steps as the crowd inside started cheering supposedly for boundary or some other moment in the match that had started well before the time we had reached the outer courtyard of the stadium. The buzz around the stadium, cheerful faces with tricolor paints of the fans, those who ran quickly into the entrance with a ticket in hand had all that it took to make us take every single penny out of our pockets and plead the man selling the ticket in black. It was just the matter of a few seconds before we found ourselves amidst the mesmerizingly electric crowd in the stands.

Shouting on top of the voice as the opponents lost wickets and the favorite batters crossed the boundary line, holding breath when the match took twisting turns and erupting out of joy to form the illustrious Mexican waves the gallery was a never before experience of festivity for us. Since then we never missed an opportunity to run into a stadium whenever it was possible. It did not matter whether it was Indian Premier League, Indian Badminton League, Indian Super League, and the Kabaddi competition, or any other sports matches there was always a bunch of sports enthusiasts to go to the stadium come what may. As an unexpected tragedy in the ground or more than that the global pandemic has blown a whistle and suddenly the grounds and the stadiums were deserted. Proving the catching commentary phrase; when going gets tough the tough gets going, the competitive leagues across the sports categories are now on their way back to the grounds and that has brought a smile of relief on the face of fans around the globe. However, to the dismay of all we are still miles away from the day when the galleries will be filled with the fans cheering for their favorites.

Sports events happening in front of empty stadiums makes me think of the title: given the ability to speak the mind out, what these unoccupied seats would tell us?  Are they breathing a sigh in the vivid memories of the noise that could not have been louder? Will they have something else too?  I do not have an iota of doubt that they have a lot to tell. Not just about the noise but a lot more. They will tell us how bad they miss the rhythm of chants, the vibration of the air upon the entry of each team into the middle, playing anthems, and the occasional ceremonies of coronation of the victorious. They will have volumes to speak about what it meant for the crowd to watch their best-loved players make difference for their teams and celebrate the success; they will also break into an unending eulogy about the change of emotions in the crowd when the favorites faced an unexpected set back. Those seats will certainly tell the stories of ‘the twelfth man’ playing a no lessor role in determining the outcome of a match that was swaying between the sides. In short, they will speak tirelessly about the  power of human presence and emotions that made a sports match into a festive event with all the ingredients that were just taken for granted until the foul play of Covid-19 caused a time out.

The difference between a home ground and away ground is not just how familiar the players are with the grass on the field but the change in the atmosphere of the gallery. It’s the contrast between the decibel level of chants and the rhythm of chants that decides the intensity of a derby or El-Classico. Celebration weeks without the fans are just boring and boredom is the perfect antonym of sports.

The crowd in the stadium is not just about complete festivity. The beauty of a crowd watching a match is always the mix of emotions. Punctuated roars, ecstatic outbursts, cheering and energising the teams are all until the final whistle and all of a sudden the stadium will split into a real two different groups. Those who are on the cloud nine and the other in the deepest of the trenches of sorrow. Tears of the Brazilian fans on the day of “the agony of Maracanã” was also the day of a lifetime for the Uruguay fans. YNWA in Anfield will always be reassuring for the men in red while the opponents both in the middle and behind the boundary lines will experience the chill of being left alone. Deserted stadiums with artificial noise or without it will never give the same experience even for those who watch the matches through online or TV channels, let alone the players in the ground. If it was not for the mystery behind the human collective and the emotional side of watching a match together, what would be the reason why big screens were erected on the nuke and corners of the streets all around the world during world cup seasons? Virtual fans and the artificial sounds in the gallery may help the players to an extent but surely they cannot replace the delight and the buzz that only human presence can bring about.

Moreover it is the irreplaceable crowd that converts moments into events and it is such events that keep the life of a lot of other humans from snack vendors, face painters, flag and jersey sellers to a whole lot of other people going forward. As the never ending hope of a faithful fan who watches his team trialing , let us all wait for a glorious comeback of full house galleries in the very next moment, after all it is that unfailing hope that makes someone a fan.