Fancy dress and football chants as the Birmingham buzz returns

Matt Roller intrepidly returns to the stands to sample the unlocked atmosphere

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Fans make merry at a lively Edgbaston, England vs New Zealand, 2nd Test, Birmingham, 2nd day, June 11, 2021

Fans make merry at a lively Edgbaston  •  Getty Images

Countless column inches have been filled in the last 15 months about the prospect of a 'new normal' but at Edgbaston this week it has felt as though the old one has returned.
7,000 fans per day returned to Lord's last week, making the first Test England's first home fixture played in front of supporters since the 2019 Ashes, but with three-quarters of seats still empty and the others filled primarily by becalmed MCC members, there was something missing in the spectacle.
Not so in Birmingham. Around 18,000 people have been allowed into every day of the second Test, meaning the ground is roughly 70% full, and they have made themselves known through beer snakes, giant inflatables, fancy dress and football chants. Matt Henry, the New Zealand seamer, described the notorious Eric Hollies Stand as "electric" at the close on Thursday: "It was some impressive energy," he added.
There are times when the press pack take the benefits of the job for granted but the pandemic has been a welcome reminder of them, not least during England's bio-secure summer when only a dozen or so reporters were granted access to grounds which were otherwise sealed off. The atmosphere at behind-closed-doors fixtures has been eerie but it is a privileged position to experience it in the first place.
And yet… there is nothing quite like leaving your laptop in the hotel and being at live sport as a fan. Saturday was my first time in the stands - rather than the press box - since a midweek trip to Fratton Park for Arsenal's fifth-round FA Cup tie against Portsmouth last March. A group of nine of us from university had booked our tickets on a whim back in February with no expectation of them being valid four months later, but here we were, filtering in to take our seats in the West Lower alongside a pack of human crayons, a cabal of Egyptian pharaohs and a quartet of Cool Britannia-clad Geri Halliwells.
Other than a tremendous thirst, there is only one key requirement for spectators at Edgbaston this week: proof of a negative lateral flow test, taken within 24 hours of their arrival at the ground, which must be shown along with a ticket. With the match serving as a pilot in the government's Events Research Programme, they were also sent two PCR tests and encouraged to take one on the morning of their attendance, and another five days after.
Masks are encouraged when fans leave their seats, though the stewarding has been refreshingly even-handed, and social distancing is not required inside the ground. A consent form, agreeing to participate in the programme, was also required, though Under-16s were deemed unable to provide it and therefore not permitted to attend.
Warwickshire have taken welcome steps to improve the fan experience, too: the Edgbaston app has replaced physical ticket stubs and also enables click-and-collect food and drink. With the ground now fully cashless, the only item required throughout the day is a smartphone.
Graeme Swann once said that the Edgbaston crowd was "louder than any Premier League game" I've been to and they have done their best to maintain a football feel this week, ahead of England's first Euro 2020 fixture on Sunday. A Gareth Southgate lookalike ran round the Hollies waving a St George's cross on Friday afternoon, and Baddiel and Skinner's Three Lions has echoed throughout. Harry Maguire, the Manchester United centre-back, played cricket as a teenager but could never have guessed a chant about the size of his head (f***ing massive, since you're asking) would prove so popular at a Test match.
Fielders on the midwicket or cover boundary in front of the Hollies have to contend with relentless ribbing from the crowd. Neil Wagner played along on Thursday, waving on request and grinning back at them, while Will Young - who shares his name with the winner of the inaugural series of Pop Idol - was greeted with a chant of "there's only one Gareth Gates" (Young's namesake edged Gates into second place).
Not everything has been as good-natured. While it was heartening - not least in light of football fans' boos when England take a knee before kick-off - to hear warm applause in the 'moment of unity' on the first morning, some took pride in singing Ollie Robinson's name as the investigation into his racist and sexist tweets continued, and the Telegraph reported that at least two stewards were injured by drunk fans on Friday. The lowlight was a pitch invader during a drinks break - stupid at the best of times, but with the players still living in a 'secure team environment', potentially fatal for the series.
But the vast majority has been harmless fun, and has felt like a fitting celebration of the reengagement between players and supporters. Newspaper headlines this morning suggested that the Great Unlock, initially pencilled in for June 21, could be pushed back by a full month - which would have a profound effect on the finances of counties, who have sold tickets to England's white-ball fixtures and the second half of the T20 Blast group stages at full capacity. Further reason, then, to cherish the Birmingham buzz.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98