“When professional sport resumed amid the pandemic summer of 2020, it was without crowds. The major concern was how our sporting stars might gee themselves up without a parochial, energised crowd behind them. Stuart Broad employed England’s psychologist to help create a winning mindset in their absence. When we talked about crowds, or the lack of them, it was in a linear manner; they were for or against, a 12th man or hostile distraction. They are part of the reason why, in Champions League football, there is a far greater weighting on away goals than those at home.
However, on a Sunday afternoon at Lord’s the crowd was of a completely different nature. Sometimes, the spectators at HQ can provide quite the uncomfortable contrast: well-heeled punters, pleasantly sloshed, popping champagne corks onto the outfield as poorly paid stewards appeal in vain for some decorum. Not this time. On this particular afternoon we were reminded of the other role of living, breathing, cheering people, in live sport. They are part of the theatre, and the drama of the occasion which stretches far beyond the them versus us. This was no more evident than in the way that the Lord’s onlookers took to India’s Cheteshwar Pujara.
When the obdurate batter got off the mark on his 35th delivery, the applause flooded around the packed stadium. By the time Pujara had faced 100 balls, with just 12 runs to his name, the Mound Stand had given him a standing ovation. By 200 balls (40 runs) his adoring public was well-versed as to the protocol and the clapping lasted long in the air. The support was laced with irony, of course; only 48 hours before James Anderson had stormed to a five-wicket haul, Pujara one of his victims, every one of those in attendance fully behind him. This time around, as Pujara stonewalled any attempts at something similar, the ashen-faced Anderson repeatedly repelled, the crowd was Pujara’s alone. Slow-scoring batters can divide opinion like nothing else on social media, Brexit and new cricketing formats left in its wake. But a Sunday crowd at Lord’s are a knowledgeable one.
The Saturday one is the more boisterous, the group-drinking crowd laced with celebrities for the cameras to pan to. Saturday, however, is also club cricket day, so those truly invested rarely attend. Sunday, however, produced a crowd here for more than the win: they were here for the contest and the context, the skill and the temperament. Almost to the point that had Pujara been an Englishman, Dom Sibley say, their support for reaching the ironic landmarks may not have been so fervent. English crowds do, after all, have a habit of adopting overseas players as their own. Wimbledon has Roger Federer and Edgbaston’s Eric Hollies stand? Well, they have Colin de Grandhomme, the towering, mullet-adorned New Zealander, of course. The overseas contrarian, a hot sunny Sunday and a crowd who had already factored in that this was not a day for the big hits and dashing chases. This was the other crowd, not just the partisan one, that we had missed in those fallow, pandemic-strewn months. What’s more is that Broad was right: the players do thrive off the energy of a packed house.
The English crowd, if they stuck to their strict national lines would have abated, toned down their playful support for Pujara. That they did not made it all the more fun. And tense. Just 19 runs in the first hour after lunch and the crowd was neatly simmering, ready to launch into applause the moment anything beyond a dot ball arose. Because this was also about enjoying the occasion, which Pujara clearly was too. If the players are enjoying it, you can bet the crowd can find a way too. As the afternoon session wound to a close, India’s second slowest 50-run partnership this century just reached, Pujara could not help but let out a chuckle as an exaggerated Sam Curran slower ball was patted back at the bowler and tea was called.
Pujara, low on form, and confidence too, was able to tuck his bat under his arm, smiling broadly, the crowd rippling behind him, and enjoy the occasion despite the knowledge that his career balanced gingerly, largely dependent on what he might produce when he walked back out 20 minutes later. He eventually fell to Mark Wood for 45 off 206 balls. It was an absorbing, rather than an enthralling day’s Test cricket. But it also neatly demonstrated why this is a game that can go five days without a result and still lure you in. You had to be there, really. Thank goodness this crowd were.”