It was as electric as sport gets. It was not a Wimbledon final between Nadal and Federer, nor was it a FIFA World Cup opener between Brazil and Argentina. It was in fact a dead rubber in a largely inconsequential series of T20 cricket in Sydney of all places. Yet from the long, meandering queues before the game, the guttural roar of the swelling crowd, and the unmistakeable way it made the hairs stand on the back of your neck, it may well have been one of the most important athletic contests of all time. For this was the first international sporting event with a capacity crowd since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
In a year that has taken so much, this was a reminder of what sport has to give. Sport has occasionally found a way to co-exist with the insidious virus, but it has at times succumbed, often in a cruel dichotomy; look no further than the ODI series between England and South Africa, which was called off the very day before Australia and India played in front of a packed Sydney Cricket Ground.
Until the third and final T20I though, sport had not yet triumphed over the virus. COVID-19 remains a pervasive threat, but for just one night, it was unceremoniously forced to take a back seat as hordes of fans – more than 30,000 at that – flocked to a venue that has hosted some of the greatest cricket matches. But few matches have transcended the sport the way this one did.
While many other countries are reeling from devastating third and fourth waves of COVID-19, including the UK, the United States and India itself, Australia remains the envy of the world. Even our failures have their silver linings; controlling the outbreak in Victoria was the best evidence yet that we are doing something right, not just getting lucky through isolation and low population density.
Those following the third T20I from other countries may have wondered whether they were watching a replay of a match from 2019. There was no requirement that masks be worn, and no fans took up the option. Social distancing was, for all practical purposes, impossible. Indian cricket fans, not known for distancing from each other at the best of times, piled into the stadium in their thousands, grouped together with others, and did what they have always done.
They danced together in the aisles, rendering meaningless the current ban on nightclubs. They sung in loud unison with the music, abandoning the need for karaoke rooms. They roared when their captain launched a stunning assault on the Australian bowlers in yet another limited overs batting masterclass, albeit this time an unsuccessful one.
They unfurled hundreds of massive flags that littered the golden SCG like so many saffron, white and green butterflies at sunset.
It was almost enough to make you nervous.
But even in an era of unprecedented and often vitriolic mistrust in institutions, NSW Health has enhanced its reputation immeasurably. Its advice that stadiums can operate at full capacity deserves the benefit of the doubt.
The occasional reminders were there for those who may have felt chronologically challenged; the ball was still sanitised after being touched by spectators, handshakes between the teams were done away with, and neither of the teams signed any autographs or posed for any selfies.
And then there were the more traditional reminders of why sport is played; the clear mutual admiration between the captains, Indian fans singing – with equal gusto – the home and away anthems, even the way Indian captain Virat Kohli handed the series trophy to debutant T Natarajan almost immediately after receiving it.
2020 has taken a lot, but on this one day, for just a few hours, it managed to give, too. It was a bittersweet, spine-tingling reminder of what once was.