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It couldn’t be more ironic. Between the first two Ashes Tests, both absolute thrillers that held crowds as if in a thrall, the MCC World Cricket Committee met at Lord’s and declared grimly: “Test cricket is dying”. The committee, comprising 19 eminent cricketers from around the world, cited an MCC research to say that attendance at Test matches is declining to the extent that could prove terminal for Tests. “There is a growing ambivalence towards the longer format of the game from cricketers in certain nations, with player surveys revealing that an ipl contract was the main career aspiration for many,” it said.
The committee observed that while certain series like the Ashes attract crowds, the symptoms of death are more pronounced in lower-ranked countries. But this observation is true for even a high-ranked nation like India, which regards itself as the spiritual home of the game. So, when Sachin Tendulkar got the 11,954th Test run of his career to break Brian Lara’s record, there were only isolated clots of spectators in the Mohali stadium last year. When India beat Australia in a terrific battle of wits in Nagpur, and Sourav Ganguly walked away from Test cricket, there were fewer people present. Crowds have been better at traditional Test centres like Chennai and Calcutta, but the decline in the numbers over the years is palpable.
Sometimes, it seems that the cricket associations aren’t too keen to fill the stands. Before the Test against Australia in Nagpur last November, this correspondent met a UK national of Indian origin who had been going around in circles trying to buy tickets. They weren’t available online, nor in the city. He went to the stadium—located 18 km out of the city—to discover there was no ticket office in the grand new facility. Directed to a roadside shack, he was told he couldn’t buy the tickets with a credit card. “I wanted several high-end tickets—I can’t be expected to carry around lakhs of rupees,” he grumbled. A month later in Mohali, a bunch of England fans was mystified by the absence of the ticket office. No one seemed keen on their watching the match, even though officials ferried children to the ground from towns across Punjab so that the stands would not be shamefully bare.
This indifference to the paying spectator isn’t incidental. “A state association would get some Rs 15 crore from the BCCI as an annual grant,” an official told Outlook. “Getting more people to watch the game only means there would be the difficulty of managing the crowds. So, no one frets if there are no crowds.” You get the money from the BCCI anyway.
Perhaps this is also the reason Test cricket in India hardly gets marketed. Those who venture to the games are left to bake in the sun, corralled in barricaded stands. “Abroad, it’s much more fun—it’s like a picnic, you can get your own food and have a nice time,” says Javed Miandad, the former Pakistan captain. “But the administrators in this part of the world aren’t bothered about the cricket and the fans, they care only for the money.”
In the absence of marketing, wouldn’t it be better to hold Test matches only in centres that pull in crowds, like Calcutta and Mumbai? Ramachandra Guha, historian and avowed purist, told Outlook, “That was amazing...Australia vs India was a grudge series, and you hold a match in Nagpur, 18 km outside the city, and there’s no transport! Bangalore had fairly adequate crowds of 8-10 thousand.... It likely is due to Bangalore having this culture of appreciating Test cricket, as do Calcutta, Chennai, Mumbai.” But even the audience of 8-10 thousand is dismal compared with the heaving, surging stadiums of past.
There’s also politics to countenance—matches are allotted by turn and often, critics say, with prejudice. An official of the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) complains there are few matches in Calcutta, which has always drawn huge crowds for Tests, because the CAB is headed by Jagmohan Dalmiya, who’s daggers drawn with the current BCCI czars. Empty new stadiums, destitute of ambience, can hardly be expected to generate interest in the classic format of the game for those in their early teens.
Also, many grounds lack competitive wickets, turning the matches either one-sided or excruciatingly boring—thus killing the appetite for Tests. Former captain Dilip Vengsarkar regrets that the icc hasn’t yet thought it wise to improve the quality of playing tracks. “It’s such an important point, and it’s not been addressed—simply amazing,” he told Outlook. Add to this the lure of easy money. As Vengsarkar points out, “If players opt for T20 over Tests at age 31-32, like Andrew Flintoff has done, or as Andrew Symonds and Chris Gayle could do, then it’s a concern. These are among the best players in the world.”
He insists money can’t be allowed to undermine the primacy of Tests. “Test cricket is the heart of cricket. It’s important that Test cricket should provide cricketers for one-dayers and T20, it can’t be the other way round,” Vengsarkar says. “T20 players can’t play Tests; some of them can’t even play 50-over ODIs. It’s impossible to argue with money and stardom. Since from some T20 games a player can earn five times the money he makes for a Test match, players, right from early teens, need to be educated that Tests are supreme, and no amount of money must be allowed to let their motivation fall,” he adds. Agrees Miandad: “It’s all right to make money from T20. Every cricketer knows T20 is easy, with practically no accountability. But the boards have a larger responsibility to save Test cricket.”
Those who love Test cricket are surprised that players perform in empty stadiums in India. “I’m deeply disappointed that Indians seem to have turned their backs on Test cricket in favour of the stunted form of the game,” muses veteran cricket writer David Frith. “I’d always thought they were thoughtful and meditative people, always ready to appreciate feats of concentration and stamina. But it seems there would be no applause for a Mankad or a Hazare these days. I’m at a loss to explain.”
To save Test cricket in these very commercial times, audiences must be made an interested party—their interest should be the joy, and the abiding memory of it, that only the unique tension of a great Test contest can provide. The BCCI must try to facilitate just that.