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Throwback to pre-Covid times as Cuttack's cricket party kicks off on match eve

Impassioned crowd turns up for India's nets, with Sunday's T20I set to be the first international match at the Barabati Stadium since 2019

Hemant Brar
Hemant Brar
The BCCI has allowed 100% attendance at all the venues for this T20I series  •  PTI

The BCCI has allowed 100% attendance at all the venues for this T20I series  •  PTI

It's a short ball on middle and leg stump. As Shreyas Iyer moves across and pulls it towards the square-leg boundary, the crowd at the Barabati Stadium in Cuttack goes berserk. People are cheering, whistling, shrieking, and making all sorts of appreciative sounds human vocal cords are capable of.
For a moment, it feels as if we are in the middle of the second T20I between India and South Africa. But it is only the eve of the match, and Iyer is having a practice session at the side strip.
To say people in Cuttack are passionate about cricket is an understatement. The last time India and South Africa played a T20I here, in 2015, play had to be stopped twice as a section of the crowd started hurling plastic bottles onto the ground. The reason behind their anger being India getting all out for a mere 92 after being put in. The fans first threw water bottles onto the field during the innings break and then twice during South Africa's chase.
On Saturday, though, an entirely different but equally impassioned side of the Cuttack crowd was on display.
The Odisha Cricket Association had opened one stand so that fans could watch the players train. During the day, the temperature hovered around 33° Celsius but such was the humidity it felt closer to 40°. A weather forecast cautioned against strenuous activities, saying there was a danger of dehydration, heat cramps and heat stroke. Even when the sun logged out for the day, there wasn't much relief; you could still feel your clothes sticking to your body with sweat.
But fans still came out in large numbers to watch their favourite cricketers practise their trade. Almost filling the whole stand next to the sightscreen at the Mahanadi end, they applauded every time a shot was played and gasped whenever the ball beat the bat.
Diagonally opposite to that stand, just below the media box, was stationed the biggest cricket fan in India: Sudhir Kumar Chaudhary. Or if not the biggest, definitely the most recognised, with his body painted in blue, and an Indian flag in hand. After a couple of interviews with local news channels and more than a dozen selfies with his fans, Chaudhary started waving the flag with his never-ending energy.
Iyer was one of the first Indian batters to come out for the practice. He started on the side strip, which was almost indistinguishable from the lush outfield.
Of late, Iyer has been troubled by short-of-good-length deliveries, so it was almost imperative he faced some of those. A barrage of short balls was met with full-blooded pull shots, and with each shot, the cheer from the spectators got louder.
The decibel levels peaked when Rishabh Pant played an aerial shot in the direction of the crowd, and you almost believed that all those shots were propelling India towards a big total.
Between all the festivities, one person even managed to escape the security and reach the advertising board next to the boundary line. A policeman spotted him just in time and took him away. Apparently, the man was seeking an autograph.
You do not generally get such a big crowd in India on a non-match day, unless Chennai Super Kings are having one of their training sessions. But then Cuttack doesn't get to host too many international matches. In the last six years, they have staged only two ODIs and one T20I.
Sunday's T20I will be the first international match in Cuttack since 2019. With the Covid-19 situation in the country now relatively under control, the BCCI has allowed 100% attendance at all the venues for this series. It seemed fans were just waiting for an opportunity to watch the players in the flesh instead of following their digital images on two-dimensional screens.
In 2021, at the peak of the pandemic in India, an ongoing IPL was seen by many as an obscene gesture. But now the sport is playing a part in helping people return to their pre-Covid lives. It has shifted their conversation from the latest variant of the virus and the number of active cases in their city, to Umran Malik's blistering pace and Hardik Pandya's dream comeback.
The hotel I am staying at has a signboard at the entrance with "NO MASK, NO ENTRY" written in block letters. But their business is finally picking up after a lull in the last two years. And when room service came to know what I was there for, one of the staffers couldn't help asking that same old question: "Do you have an extra ticket, sir?"
Like all the previous times, I didn't have one but I don't think that request had ever brought a smile to my face before.

Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo