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I remember playing a Duleep Trophy match against West Zone at the PCA Stadium in Mohali. It was a classic Mohali track with pace, bounce and enough lateral movement to keep the batsmen guessing and, for once, making the bowlers believe that being a bowler wasn't that bad a thing. Faster men ruled the match but good batting was also rewarded, for bounce always helps to play shots.
Then there was the second Test match of my debut series against New Zealand at the same venue. While the track wasn't as lively as it was for the Duleep Trophy, it had enough to keep the bowlers interested. What made the show even more exciting were the spectators who'd come out in huge numbers on all five days of the Test match despite India trailing. A lot has changed since then - the pitch is a far cry from its original spirit, turning potentially competitive games into wishy-washy affairs. The spectators too seem to have got a whiff of the bland show, and hence don't care much about turning up and supporting their country.
The ongoing Test Match in Mohali seems to have been hit by both problems : a tame pitch and a low-key audience. The track is not even a pale shadow of what it used to be. The much talked-about pace and bounce is a thing of the past. Now we witness a low, slow wicket that is not ideal for a fair competition between the bat and the ball. If it wasn't for the SG Test ball, which helps the spinners with its pronounced seam and assists the pacers with reverse swing, bowlers may start mulling over their availability for the venue.
The claims holding incessant rains responsible for the insipid pitch at Mohali may fall flat too. When India played England in 2008, it was a high scoring match that ended in a draw.
Ironically, though, when the Ranji Trophy starts in three weeks, the pitch report might behave quite differently. There will be an even grass covering on the track and fast bowlers will share the spoils once again. Spinners play an insignificant role for Punjab in the first-class cricket. I'm not suggesting a green top against Australia, for that would be playing into their hands - like India did in 2004 at Nagpur - but a track with at least some carry and bounce won't hurt the game. It's rather unnerving to see the ball bounce twice to the wicket-keeper on the first day of a Test match.
Unfortunately, this comes at a time when sweeping attempts are being made to resurrect the format and challenge the spectator's growing disenchantment. Earlier, any international match would bring the star-crazy people into the stadium but now their hunger is sated through the IPL. No longer do they need to survive the proceedings of a dull Test match in order to get a glimpse of their favourite stars. Since the IPL has given them a taste of all that they can get from a match, the hosts need to stop taking their spectators for granted.
In order to save the longer format it's absolutely mandatory to encourage parents to bring their kids to watch the purest form of cricket. That might mean opening the gates at a much cheaper price or perhaps allowing kids for free when accompanied by their parents. Also give them incentives like organising tennis-ball cricket matches on the ground after the day's play, running contests during the day and a good PA system in place educating the crowd about the nuances of the game. These measures would enhance the viewing pleasure of the paying public and ensure that our cricketers aren't playing to empty stands.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Aakash Chopra is the 245th Indian to represent India in Test cricket. A batsman in the traditional mould, he played 10 Tests for India in 2003-04, and has played over 120 first-class matches. He currently plays for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy; his book Beyond the Blues was an account of the 2007-08 season. Chopra made a formidable opening combination with Virender Sehwag, which was believed to be one of the reasons for India's success in Australia and Pakistan in 2003-04. He is considered one of the best close-in fielders India has produced after Eknath Solkar.