Test series starts luring fans back to international sport

Excited fans in Indian face paints streamed into the brand new world’s biggest cricket stadium on Wednesday for what promises to be one of the biggest sporting spectacles since the pandemic.

The freshly renamed Narendra Modi Stadium (previously Motera Stadium) can hold 110 000 fans but because of coronavirus 55 000 tickets went on sale, and officials expected between 35 000 and 40 000 people on each of the match’s five days.

Like other sports, live cricket has been played largely to empty stadiums in recent months although crowds have started tentatively to return, including when Australia hosted India in December.

The biggest crowd since the pandemic for any major sporting event was the State of Origin rugby league final between Queensland and New South Wales in front of 49 000 fans in Brisbane in November. A month earlier 46 000 people saw hosts New Zealand beat Australia at rugby union in Dunedin.

In cricket-mad India, the first Test of the current series against England in early February was behind closed doors in Chennai, but for the second game a limited crowd of 15 000 was allowed — a game the hosts duly won to tie the four-Test series 1-1 so far.

On Wednesday for the third Test — a pink-ball day-night match — for the new Ahmedabad stadium’s inaugural game, thousands of Indian fans with flags queued up to get inside the vast new state-of-the-art venue.

Staff at the entry gates were handing out masks for fans who didn’t have one and asking people to sanitise their hands.

“I have shut my shop for the day,” said an “excited” Tarun Parmar, who runs a salon in the city and wore a jersey embossed with the name of India captain Virat Kohli.

“I am here with my whole family for this historic moment. We have taken precautions for coronavirus by wearing a mask. I hope India win,” he said.

Seemingly absent were any England fans after a handful of Barmy Army faithful made it to Chennai in February.

Foreign tourists are still banned from visiting India because of coronavirus, with members of the Indian diaspora travelling from Britain facing tougher checks than many others because of the new strain of the virus that was identified there.

Kohli and Rohit Sharma jerseys remained hot picks with hawkers outside the stadium selling them for about $3. The tricolour and face paints were added attractions. 

The ground, part of the Sardar Patel Sports Enclave, was renamed Narendra Modi Stadium before the start to honour the Indian prime minister, who initiated the idea to reconstruct the old venue.

President Ram Nath Kovind and Home Minister Amit Shah, who was formerly the chief of the state cricket association in Gujarat, performed a Hindu blessing to inaugurate the venue.

But it was the fans who made the occasion special as they stood up to sing the national anthem and then cheered the home players after England elected to bat first.

“I am absolutely loving it. The stadium looks so impressive and [I’m] lucky to be the first to sit on these new seats,” Shrey Patel, a 26-year-old student seated at the pavilion end, told AFP.

Patel, with Indian colours painted on his cheeks and the tricolour wrapped around him, shouted “India, India” with his fellow supporters as India took the field.

Shiny blue and saffron seats, manicured grass and LED lights welcomed the fans and players in India’s second-only pink-ball Test at home. The first was in Kolkata against Bangladesh in 2019.

The perfectly round venue promises unobstructed views from every angle and has facilities including four dressing rooms and a club house equipped with an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

A ground staff member said he had witnessed many matches at the old Motera Stadium but the atmosphere was not as “electric” as now. — AFP

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Faisal Kamal
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