CHENNAI: Indian Premier League? Postponed. The NBA? Suspended. French Open? Postponed. Masters golf? Postponed. Formula One? Postponed. Euros? Postponed. Olympics? Postponed. Major European football leagues? Indefinitely suspended.
In other words, organised sport has not known a time like this in more than a century of its existence. In peacetime, it's been the one constant apart from death and taxes. But March has thrown the idea of live sport as a permanent part of people's lives out of the window. Thanks to the widening spread of COVID-19, the world's sporting arenas are under lock and key. The ones that are open are for housing patients who have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease.
The closest thing to live sport these days is maintaining social distancing in public places. The alternatives are the Belarusian Premier League or Candidates chess. Slim pickings.
So it's understandable that a fair few athletes and teams, some of whom are not even in training because of being quarantined, have taken to social media to keep themselves amused. Cesc Fabregas, who is in isolation in Monaco, is trying his hand at comedy on Twitter. Other footballers are taking part in #StayAtHomeChallenges. A few Olympic medallists have improvised as they continue to train inside their rooms.
But what about the people who tune in every week because of the glorious madness that only sport can offer? What about the people who use sport as an escape from reality? What about the fans, the folks who lend colour and atmosphere to the world's least most important thing? With live sport gone for the foreseeable future, where is their next hit of dopamine coming from?
To compensate for the loss of live football from his life, Harish Rajagopalan tried to mimic a normal Sunday on Sunday. "At around 4.00 pm, I got onto YouTube to watch an entire Arsenal match from a couple of years ago," he says. "This is my coping mechanism these days. I am so conditioned by the idea of live football, I don't think I can ever come to grips without it."
Like millions, he is into FIFA, but there are only so many hours of gaming a person can do. "Whenever I am not FIFA-ing, I have started going to my balcony to think about life... is it all worth without live sport?" He is still searching for an answer.
Harini Venkataraman is 'almost there'. "I want to write about it," she sighs. "Want to rant, would be in better shape to answer next Sunday (contemplating life without sport) when it actually sinks in." For the time being, she is 'gnawing' at her TV.
Not just her. It will hit a lot of Indians hard on Sunday. The absence of IPL (originally supposed to begin on Sunday) — oxygen to the millions of people in the country during the summer — from screens will be weird. Double-headers, make-believe South Indian derbies, amped-up fantasy team rivalries, that magic 4.00 pm to 11.30 pm slot on weekends, maximums, new RCB memes... all that will be gone at least till April 15.
Considering many scientists believe the virus is here to stay for a while, the likelihood of the event beginning on April 16 is minuscule, to say the least. Put it another way, the last time there was no live IPL on TV at this time of the year, Linkin Park was still a big thing.
After the flood, the famine.
Hemant Buch remembers the flood for he has been part of the IPL jamboree for almost every edition. Buch, a freelance broadcaster, was contracted to work the 2020 edition. "This (postponement) will affect a lot of freelancers," he says. "This time, most years it's a maze of airports, hotels, stadia... now, I have been sleeping a lot (laughs)."
In any other year, Buch, one of the men responsible for bringing in the colour and noise generated by the stadia-going public to millions of households, would have already been at the Wankhede Stadium overseeing preparations. This year? "I'm resting up... can't complain."
Buch hasn't felt any withdrawal symptoms but that's not the case with Amlan Nanda, whose weekends are defined by the Premier League. "It (life) feels empty and you have to find other ways to engage yourself," he explains. "Watching TV series and movies. NBA has made its NBA League Pass free and accessible for everyone."
Watching videos of old matches seems to be a favourite to plug that sudden live-sports shaped hole. Anand Sridhar, for no good reason, decided to watch a re-run of West Ham vs Liverpool from earlier this season. "I was watching it for some kicks yesterday (Saturday)," the Bengaluru based consultant says. The Man United supporter, a regular at RCB matches, rues that he can only dream about AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli this year. "There is a massive hole now," he rues. "I miss AB and Kohli lighting up the (M) Chinnaswamy (Stadium) like they do every year."
He is just thankful that a streaming service has dropped 'The Test: A New Era For Australia's Team', a documentary on how they look to rebuild their image following the ball-tampering saga against South Africa.
Apart from catching re-runs of past encounters, Aarthi Sundaresan is using the time to work on her badminton form at home. "(My) days are empty and restless (...) live sport is a welcome break from just another day in the rut. I think this isolation is the best time to work on your form and hence an at-home HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is how I cope with it."
She has also been exploring a new sport — basketball — apart from going down a badminton-based YouTube rabbit hole of 'highlight reels and from major Championships and rallies from legends'.
With aficionados resorting to the internet to get their fix of sports content, it's not a surprise to note that Indian authorities — like a few of their counterparts — have written to streaming services, requesting them to reduce their data consumption.
What does this mean? That Tai Tzu-ying deception on YouTube will be on SD for the foreseeable future. Re-runs of the 2011 World Cup final will be on SD. Newly dropped sports documentaries will also stream only on SD.
But starved of live sport, this is a small bargain as they wait for the resumption of that magic four-letter word — LIVE — to appear somewhere on their TV screens.
People tend to attach too much importance to sport. The truth, however, is that it acts as an incredible balm, a perfect escape from reality. It's always been like this; weeks after the terror attack in Mumbai in 2008, the country healed a bit after India chased down 387 against England. Recently, England's World Cup win helped them, divided by Brexit, come together as one for a few weeks.
Of course, sport doesn't come with a satisfaction guarantee. Your side could lose or the player you adore could be a dope cheat. Then again, it lets you dream your wildest dreams. It also offers invaluable life lessons. Just ask Aarthi. "I have learnt all my valuable life lessons from sport," she says. "It motivates me to fight back and give it your all irrespective of the result."
Harini, too, has used sport as a prism to define who she is as a person. "I started following sports avidly after the 2011 WC win. If anything, who I am revolves around my love for the game. Its absence will be a void very hard to fill." It's why, as the Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp said a couple of weeks ago, 'football (or any sport for that matter) seems to be the most important of the least important things'.
With the world changing so much even in a 24-hour period as the pandemic rages, sometimes sport, too, will have to take a backseat. Even though Amlan wants to feel the drip of nostalgia in these testing times, he is reminded of the deaths in Italy, Spain, USA, UK and the concerning situation back home in India.
"It has been great escapism for a majority of the people," he says. "You don't bother about anything else but the match you are watching. But now (...) you have too just look at how many people are suffering and the deaths in places like Spain and Italy (...) you just feel down. Even if you try to blank it out and not let it consume you, it's hard to do so."
Even as Harish, Amlan, Aarthi, Harini, Anand and millions of others hope for normalcy to return, a sporting arena, somewhere in the world, gets ready to welcome COVID-19 patients.