There was an unmistakable buzz in Chennai during the Pongal festival when Master, starring Vijay, one of Tamil cinema's biggest stars, hit the big screens. Theatres were only allowed to open to 50% of their seating capacity as a precaution against Covid-19, but that didn't dull the usual fanfare: the first show in the city began as early as 4am, with ardent fans queuing up from midnight and unveiling large cut-outs of their hero.
The first-day-first-show experience at Chepauk isn't too different. While it reaches epic proportions when Thala MS Dhoni is around in Chennai Super Kings colours, Test cricket has also historically drawn strong crowds. There was even a decent crowd when Virat Kohli had turned up for an India A fixture here in 2015. This game was originally supposed to take place at the SSN college ground in the outskirts of the city, but once it was moved to the MA Chidambaram Stadium, a few hundreds gathered to watch him train.
About six years later, Kohli is back in town as a world-beater and new dad, and international cricket is set to return to India, but the usual buzz is missing in Chennai. This is because the first Test against England, starting on February 5, will be played entirely behind closed doors despite the Indian government revising its guidelines pertaining to spectators for outdoor sport. The second Test will be opened up to the public, but there will be no first-day-first-show fun.
R Bhaskaran, unofficial cobbler of the Super Kings - and at times the India team - has witnessed nearly every match at Chepauk from 1993. But this time, although he has been permitted to work from his pavement on Wallajah Road, he can't enter the ground to attend to players.
"First I was told 50% capacity, so I was a bit happy but then they said no crowds," Bhaskaran tells ESPNcricinfo. "I haven't been allowed this time. Whenever there's a match, it would be like a thiruvizha (festival). Just like how it is around IPL, even a Test match would have a similar atmosphere. This time I would be dealing with my regular customers. There's no paraparappu (excitement). Usually fans will start queueing up days before the match day. It is just sad that people can't watch it at the stadium this time."
Along the main Wallajah Road corner is Dhoni Sports, a popular sports goods destination owned by Syed Shahbaz, a former hockey player. His shop has been around for eight years, attracting spectators during the IPL as well as international games, but this time the mood is bleak.
"People generally used to start gathering a week before a match," Shahbaz says. "This is not just for tickets, they just curiously hang around the stadium to get a glimpse of the proceedings. The whole road will seem happening.
"It's totally dead now, there's no activity. Every market, cinema hall is full, why not the stadium considering it's an open space? It can make a huge difference to the fans. It would have been good for businesses too if they had allowed [fans]."
Around 5km west of Wallajah Road, Washington Sundar had received a warm welcome in Kilpauk, his neighbourhood, after returning from Australia. His homecoming included a special cake topped with a photo of him raising his bat after his debut half-century at the Gabba. Having played a vital role in India's famous win in Brisbane, the Chennai Corporation named Washington a district election icon.
Washington's father M Sundar, a former Tamil Nadu prospect and long-time coach, watched the tied Test of 1986 and Sunil Gavaskar's double-hundred against West Indies in 1983, among other games at Chepauk, but under the current circumstances he might not be there for Washington's potential home debut.
"It's a bit sad, theatres have now opened up to 50% indoors, but this is an outdoor sport, and it's unfortunate. Chepauk has a rich tradition; [international] cricket is coming back to India and two players from Tamil Nadu [R Ashwin and Washington] are in," Sundar says. "They [India] are starting a new home season after winning a historic Test in Gabba, and it's unfortunate that we and their fans can't see them play from the ground."
"Washi actually scored his first Ranji hundred at Chepauk. When he was on 30 or 40, I thought it will be good for him if he converts it into a century at his home ground. My whole family was there for the match against Tripura. At the Gabba, he missed a hundred, and here in his first Test at Madas, I'm hoping he can score his first Test hundred."
Siva Ananth, the co-writer of the documentary Sachin: A Billion Dreams and Mani Rathnam's Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, has also been a regular at Chepauk since returning from the USA in 1997. Ananth agrees it would have been "great to have crowds back", but nevertheless he's pleased to see cricket return to Chennai.
"Traditionally, Chennai has been one of the oldest cricket-playing cities from the British India times, right? Obviously, it has been in the city's DNA to play cricket," Ananth says. "I think one of the standout games [I've been to] was the second day of the India-Australia Test match in 2004 when [Virender] Sehwag scored 155 and Shane Warne took his only five-for in India - 6 for 125. You could actually hear the ball hiss when Warne tossed it up, you could see the ball dip, and Sehwag's innings was also outstanding - I was watching from the pavilion stands and had one of the best seats.
"The other was the India-West Indies World Cup match in 2011. I was with a friend, I had to find a sandhu (alley) to park the car in Triplicane and run around. There was a cheer going up, and India was batting. We found our seats and sat down. [Sachin] Tendulkar hit the ball to square leg, scored a couple of runs, and got out [three balls later].
"There was pin-drop silence. I know there was pin-drop silence because I dropped my cell phone and it sounded like an atom bomb! And that game also featured one of the most beautiful cover-drives by Yuvraj [Singh]."
During India's first Test against England, there will be a different sort of silence, and Aishwarya Haridas, a self-confessed cricket super fan who has hardly missed a game at Chepauk since 2004, says she will miss all the noise and chatter.
"The entire stadium atmosphere, Chepauk will always be special, no matter how many stadiums I go to or I will go to," Aishwarya says. "The Mexican wave, the random hi-fives with people, interacting with other country fans and in this case it's the Barmy Army. The Chennai crowd always acknowledges the game of both sides equally, no matter which side is winning or losing."
After spotting reports of crowds being allowed for the second Test, she posted a message on a private cricket group on Facebook. "Who's in for #CricketismAtChepauk for the second INDvENG Test?"
"You can speak to anyone from the [Chennai] crowd about the game, they will have an opinion," she says. "You look at a random person you have never met and talk to him or her about the game, they will always have a response. And of course, the knowledgeable Chennai crowd tag has stuck with us since eternity. Stadium experience [at Chepauk] is truly something else."
The Chepauk faithful may have expected a familiar first-day-first-show experience. They'll have to endure a first day, no show.