Live sport is nothing without the fans. And that’s been demonstrated this week in Birmingham as England host New Zealand in the Second Test Match at Edgbaston. A crowd of 18,000 will be allowed in across the five days as England look to claim the first series win of the summer after the drawn match at Lord’s, where there was a crowd of 7,500. And the crowd have elevated these occasions far beyond where they were last summer, when England were able to play out two test series against the West Indies and Pakistan respectively. Those series were wonderful to see, purely because of the fact that they happened at all. They were also good test matches, with good cricket played. Broad and Anderson reached bowling milestones and Stokes continued to show just how good he is and how important he is to the team. But no matter the quality of the cricket on show, the occasion was just slightly dead. And that has been true for all the sport that has been able to be put on during the pandemic. The fact that we have had all the sport we had during such an unprecedented time is a testament to the organisers and athletes who have worked so hard to make sure that these competitions can still take place during such a difficult time. But while we may marvel at the fact that sport has been able to continue unlike so much during the pandemic, it simply hasn’t been the same.
That’s true for all sport. Football has been as affected as cricket, baseball as much as NFL, F1 as much as NASCAR. And even more so when the group of fans is one like the Barmy Army. This is the colloquial name used for the England cricket fans, who often follow the team around the world. I genuinely believe that the Barmy Army is one of the finest supporter groups for any sport in the world. They are hardly ever unruly or disorderly, they provide wonderful support to the team all over the world, they are simply there to have a good time and enjoy watching the England cricket team. Sometimes what they get up to in the stands is better to watch than what’s going on in the middle. The fancy dress, the inflatables, the beer snakes that go the length of the stands. It’s all brilliant to watch. And their reactions to what has happened on the pitch over the first two days of this test match has reminded us how the fans can make a sporting occasion truly special. A little under two years ago, I went to Chelsea home Champions League group stage tie against Ajax. The game finished 4-4 after Ajax had taken a 4-1 lead, had two men sent off before Chelsea had a potential winner ruled out for handball. My memory of that game is the sheer joy and exhilaration I felt when the equaliser went in. I came out of that game sweating like I had been playing for 94 minutes. That was what the game did to me and every other fan in that stadium. It was almost a microcosm of your whole life. Devastating lows and astonishing highs. I watch highlights of that game from time to time and watch the crowd. It’s the same with watching replays of the Cricket World Cup final from 2019 or Ben Stokes’ incredible innings to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at Headingly that same summer. The build-up to a moment like those and then the explosion of emotion. It makes sport the spectacle that it is.
The Premier League would not be the global draw that it is without the fans. No elite sporting competition would be. The fans are the indelible and indefinable element that makes great sporting moments even more special. Their interaction with the players and with each other elevates sport beyond a glorified casual game in a park. They are what will lift the upcoming European Championships to another level entirely. The return of fans to live sporting events is something that anyone in sport should celebrate.