In the pink: Chinnaswamy stadium decks up to welcome crowds after two-year hiatus
Last Sunday, when the box-office counters were thrown open for fans to buy tickets for Bengaluru’s first day-night Test, serpentine queues greeted the occasion and tickets got sold like hot cakes. It was the ultimate affirmation, if needed, that the city was desperate to welcome back international cricket to the M Chinnaswamy Stadium for the first time in more than two years.
The second Test, which is the last match of the series, will be played in Bengaluru from March 12 to 16.
India last played in Bengaluru in January 2020, sweeping past Australia in the last of three One-Day Internationals. Since then, the stadium has been a mute spectator; the coronavirus pandemic first forced sporting activities, like life itself, to come to a standstill, and when cricket did resume, matches were played in select centres with limited crowds in strict bio-secure bubbles.
With the third wave having receded, cricket too is slowly returning to some sort of normalcy. Sri Lanka began this whirlwind tour with a Twenty20 International in Lucknow; travelled to Dharamsala for two more games in the same format and then moved to Mohali for the first of two Tests, which the home team won by an innings and 222 runs to gain a 1-0 lead.
With World Test Championship points on the line, India will be desperate to sweep the series 2-0. Towards that end, they will be delighted that a full house will cheer them on. The Karnataka State Cricket Association, with the support of the state government, has decided that it will operate the game at 100% capacity for the first time in the country since the onset of COVID-19. The overwhelming initial response emboldened the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) to pitch for this scenario once it was confident it had a handle on all health protocols and once the government solidly threw its weight behind the proposal. The fans responded in kind by again lining up in hundreds on Friday to make the most of this unexpected windfall.
It must come as a massive shot in the arm for connoisseurs of Test cricket that a format desperately in need of oxygen is being so handsomely patronised by fans who are now exposed to a steady diet – some might say surfeit – of T20 action.
Other factors contributing to his enhanced interest in a Test match are the long wait for quality fare in a city that is home to several of Indian cricket’s legends and the promise of excitement that comes with watching white-flannelled men doing battle under lights with the pink SG Test ball, still something of a novelty given it’s only the third day-night Test in India.
Standing like an ignored behemoth in the heart of the city’s CBD, the Chinnaswamy is decking itself up to celebrate the return of the ball thudding into the bat and cascading off it to the boundary. The stadium itself hasn’t undergone a massive overhaul, though this will be the first game since the old gave way to the new when it comes to floodlighting. The four original light towers were installed ahead of Bengaluru’s first day-night One-Day International, the 1996 World Cup quarterfinal between India and Pakistan. It’s only in the fitness of things that the new monopole towers will be pressed into service for the city’s first day-night Test.
The usual beehive of activity that an international cricket venue is in India a day before the game was conspicuously barren because the bio-security guard is still up. When players from both teams practiced separately on Thursday and Friday on the main ground, all other on-ground work came to a standstill to ensure that the sanctity of the bubble was not compromised to the extent possible. All other work relating to the pitch, and to broadcast and sponsor requirements, was undertaken either side of practice sessions in both natural and artificial light, a grim reminder that while things might have gotten better, they are far from the normal we were all accustomed to prior to March 2020.
There is a strong local connect to the game. Rahul Dravid, an illustrious son of the soil, will be in the Indian dressing room at the Chinnaswamy for the first time since October 2010 when he played against Australia; now, Dravid is the head coach of the national team, tasked with continuing the excellent work of his predecessor Ravi Shastri. India have had a mixed run in Tests since Dravid took charge, winning a home two-match series against New Zealand 1-0 and going down 1-2 in South Africa in a showdown they were heavily backed to win. The boss will be keen his wards extend their winning run against Sri Lanka as they reignite their challenge for a second consecutive appearance in the final of the WTC.
Dravid’s long-time Karnataka and India teammate Javagal Srinath will also return to the Chinnaswamy Stadium in an official capacity after a very long hiatus. Srinath is the ICC match referee for this series. He is able to fulfil that role only in India because of the pandemic which has forced the world body to limit cross-world travel wherever possible.
Karnataka’s direct link to the Test is formalised by the presence in the squad, and almost certainly in the playing XI, of local lad Mayank Agarwal. The opening batsman is perhaps only in the mix because of an injury to KL Rahul, but as he has shown in his brief 20-Test career, he doesn’t believe in looking a gift horse in the mouth. If he and adopted son of the soil, Virat Kohli, who has been with Royal Challengers Bangalore since the inception of the IPL in 2008, get going, the fans will be convinced it’s paisa vasool.
The sweltering heat is unlikely to be a dampener so far as the spectators are concerned. That the match starts on a Saturday and action is guaranteed over the two days of the weekend is incentive enough, though they will also be hoping for Sri Lanka to put up a semblance of a fight after their abject capitulation in Mohali. Or maybe not! After all, they are here as much for the Indian team (or even more so) than for Test cricket, day-night or otherwise.