Fever pitch in Chennai as cricket-mad India fans return for second Test

Chennai (India) (AFP) –


Mask-wearing fans poured into Chennai's MA Chidambaram Stadium for the second Test against England on Saturday, as cricket-crazy India welcomed live crowds for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic.

As many as 15,000 fans from India’s famously noisy and vibrant fanbase -- the largest in the world -- will be allowed to watch each of the Test’s five days in the 50,000 capacity ground.

Officials are enforcing mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing and temperature checks at entry points.

India has been one of the world’s most heavily-hit countries with more than 150,000 Covid-related deaths and the second-highest cases in the world, but fatalities and infections have slowed sharply and most activity is returning to normal.

Manikandan, a 40-year-old software professional who goes by one name, told AFP that life without live cricket had been "very difficult".

"The IPL was pushed back to the UAE, so we really missed cricket action. I am sure India will fight back and that will be the icing on the cake," he said.

India suffered a heavy 227-run defeat to England in the opener in Chennai -- in an empty stadium -- to trail the four-match series 1-0.

But from the first ball the home crowd made its presence known, with the socially-distanced spectators cheering every run.

With tourist travel to India still banned, only England fans living in India could come and support their team -- and they were expected to be very thin on the ground.

Street vendors sold caps, hooters, flags and shirts for around a dollar each around the MA Chidambaram Stadium to home fans excited to be back.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who retired from international cricket last year but captains the Chennai franchise in the Indian Premier League, continues to be the top draw among fans in the city.

Skipper Virat Kohli and senior batsman Rohit Sharma also remain popular among young fans who wore their favourite cricketer’s jerseys.

"We went into losses with cricket shut down. I hope we sell good today and in the coming days," Anil Kumar Mishra, a Delhi resident who moves around cities to sell cricket items on match days, told AFP.

"Thankfully the coronavirus situation is not too bad here and people are coming to watch the game. I will move to Ahmedabad for the third and fourth match after this."

Social distancing was tough to maintain at counters where hundreds lined up to renew their online tickets which cost a maximum of around $3.

Shiva Kumar, 62, patiently waited to get inside with his wife and praised the ground authorities.

"I haven't missed a match since 1966 when I came as an eight-year-old," Kumar told AFP.

"I don't fear the virus as all safety measures are in place."