CHENNAI: Sport has long served as the universal prescription for a troubled mind, aching heart and deflated spirit. Games are the occasions for fans to draw strength from simply being together. The invasion of coronavirus meant the suspension of play on an unprecedented scale. It was a good five months after the lockdown that the Indian sport swung back to action last Saturday, offering much-needed respite from present reality.
Though the delayed Indian Premier League (IPL) returned miles away in the spectator-less stadiums of the United Arab Emirates because of the pandemic, millions of fans are content that they have a reason to celebrate their common joy. Closer home, the Whistle Podu Army — the official fan club of the three-time IPL champions Chennai Super Kings — is also adapting to this new normal. The club has been engaging the fans virtually by having Zoom calls on preview and match days, making up for the ones who could not experience the euphoria of standing in a sea of yellow at MA Chidambaram Stadium and cheering raucously for their Thala MS Dhoni.
“We were excited to fill in the I, J, K stands, see a full house at Chepauk after a long time and also watch MS (Dhoni) back in action after 13 months (he last played a competitive game in July 2019). Then pandemic happened. But that the IPL is happening is in itself a blessing. Amidst the tough times, this acts as entertainment and relief,” says Prabhu Damodaran, co-founder of Whistle Podu Army.
While fans cannot physically be present at the stadiums, the Indian board has set up four fan walls across the three venues in UAE. The Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI), along with BookMyShow, has set up a system where those who want to be present virtually, can log in and register. With 96 slots allotted per team, the lucky ones will find themselves cheering from the stands, virtually. “CSK fans are spread everywhere. We would have filled half the stadium at the Wankhede (Mumbai) or Eden Gardens (Kolkata) and have the same roar for Dhoni when he walks in.
We miss that, this season. But fan walls allow us to let them know that we are backing them,” he adds.
This time around, there is a lot more engagement from women with many of them writing blogs or providing match statistic or putting out videos, points out Damodaran. Though Chepauk has had more and more women filling the stands over the years, not many had been active online until this season, he adds.
For the Whistle Podu Army, it is not just the fans that they want to engage.
To boost the morale of players who are in a bio-secure environment and have been away from the family for close to two months, the club has plans to keep their social media handles active by posting videos of fans holding placards with messages of support for the team, and more. “We want to make sure we send a message to the team. Each one can make a placard and say ‘Whistle Podu’ or ‘Roar for CSK’ and take photos and videos, share it on social media. Barring the time they play match and train, players are in an isolated place with their smartphones.
We did observe that they notice our posts. We want to keep them in good spirits,” elaborates Damodaran.
At its best, sports can be uplifting and reassuring. That’s what the IPL has done. Even though the pandemic has not slowed down in India, the live sport has given people the hope that the return of normalcy isn’t too far out of reach.
Fan club leads the way
- To educate people about the importance of wearing masks to contain the spread of coronavirus pandemic, the Whistle Podu Army included face masks as a part of the official kit that the exclusive members get every season. The fan club also sent in recyclable seed papers with basil seeds in it.
- “We normally send a t-shirt, CSK flags and stickers before the start of the season to the registered members. This time, we sent masks and t-shirts to send a message to our fans,” says Damodharan.
- The club has around 1,500 active members. Every year, the club opens its registration for three weeks in February or March and collects `650 as annual fee.
- Throughout the year, the club does social service such as conducting blood donation camps, visiting orphanages and celebrating birthdays of the players with specially abled children, and more.