Thursday, August 18, 2011

Make Test Cricket a Tradition To Sustain It.

Test cricket, the best form of cricket, needs a serious revival in India, with regards to spectators in a venue.

Test cricket in recent times has seen a big drop in ground attendance across many venues in India. One of the best prepared pitches and outfield in Mohali would be presided over by a crowd which you can count on your fingers. Cricket in VCA/Jamtha in Nagpur was attended by a mere 2000 spectators last year (vs NZ, November), and another 3000 students were filled in just to make the stadium look a bit more filled. Didn't help much. Deccan/Hyderabad saw a poor turn out too.

There are two major reasons for poor turn outs :-

1. People not as interested in attending test cricket than they would attend ODIs.

2. Stadium too far away from the city.

As for reason no.2, one can't help it. And some of those cities having a stadium in the outskirts have a stadium inside the city limits too.

Price of tickets is never a reason. I attended a test match in Nagpur which costs Rs 200 for the whole test match (all 5 days), i.e. Rs 40 a day. That's less than a dollar. I spent more on my headphones.

It all points to one little fact, that there are more purists in some pockets of the country, where people are wanting to attend any day and every day of a game of test cricket. Also, they are willing to pay a higher amount of entry fee to enter into the city (big city economy and all that).

Any cricket board has atleast one eye on the money. And I'm talking about cricket in India, meaning, atleast 2 eyes. One-Dayers and T20s generate huge turn out, even if the stadium is in outskirts of a village in the middle of nowhere. People are willing to shell out money for a one-time shorter format outing.

Take Dharmasala for example, which had a good turn out during the IPL. And I remember Nagpur being house-full for a T20 international game. My friend told me he couldn't buy a ticket for a Hyderabad ODI game at 9pm on the day the ticket sales opened, as all tickets were sold out within 12 hours. ODIs in Cuttack, Rajkot, Gwalior etc are always jam packed. The last time I saw a good crowd at a first class game in India was the Ranji Trophy final between Karnataka and Mumbai at Mysore. People climbed on trees to watch the watch the precious last session on play.

So, we need to keep the interest of the people and generate money out of it. In a balanced manner. The solution is quite clear -

1. Host the test cricket in the prominent "traditional" test venues, thereby getting rid of rotational policies, where attendance is guaranteed.

They would include - Chennai, Mumbai (Wankhede), Bangalore, Kolkata, New Delhi, Kanpur, and maybe Ahmedabad (Motera). I hope and pray there are a couple more to add? Hyderabad hasn't been a sweet spot for test cricket. And Mohali, howsoever good the ground and stadium is, never generated the attendance.

2. Create, or revisit a tradition in scheduling the tests at particular venues. I learnt that the last "Pongal test" in Chennai (Madras) was more than 2 decades ago, and that was the "Hirwani test". Assuming we play cricket from July/August to march/April, there are enough openings for Diwali, New Year, Sankranti/Pongal, Holi etc. Schedule 2 series across 4 or 5 months, starting with a test series, then both ODI series (or tri-series?) and then finishing with the other test series. That can cover the dates above mentioned which are spaced well apart.

I read that some CLT20 games were shifted out of Kolkata, as advised by local police, because of Durga Puja. In that case, I'm sure a test either just before or just after the festivity will be lively. It will be like, "to set the tone" or "to finish the festivities".

3. Schedule ODIs and T20s in other stadia in the country, implement rotational policy, weather compatibility and all that. Crowds guaranteed. Money guaranteed. Allot a fixed amount to the stadium that hosted the LOI games, and put the rest of the income in a common pool. Use the money in the pool to cover excess expenditure at the test venues to improve the ground, pitch, infrastructure (not all stadiums have a good wi-fi connectivity at press-box, for example) etc.

4. Nothing wrong in increasing the price of tickets a bit at the test venues. People will be willing to pay Rs 500 for five days' entry to the stands for sure. It is not a guess, it is what the people have been cheerfully paying for the love of the game, of test cricket.

Such formats are followed in Australia and England. Australia have had this for long enough to use this as a strategy, to weaken the opponents chip by chip.

5. Better scheduling of a test by days of week. A test in India's WI tour started on Monday. That will in no way attract crowd to a game. A test match should ideally start on a Thursday or Friday, woo people to the ground and make them come back for all days. People have enough love for the game in their heart to attend the last day of a game on a Monday or Tuesday. I've seen it.

Indian cricket fans are very sentimental, and it will be a risk to now hold tests in less prominent grounds now, when Indian team has just lost the mantle of no.1 test cricket team in the world. Luckily, India host West Indies in New Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai.

Cliché or not, uphold the spirit of test cricket.

(built on inputs from Venkat Ananth, Dileep Premachandran and others)

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