Emptiness in Eden
India's 5-0 series sweep over England was played out in an unusual setting: at each of the five venues, row upon row of empty seats, vacant corporate boxes and vast tracts of sparsely occupied stands. This, in India's first series at home after winning the World Cup.
Despite the high profile of the series, the quality of the opposition and India's success in undoing some of the misery of the summer, India's paying public stayed away for the first time in an ODI series featuring their cricket team. The general consensus was that it was due to overkill - too much cricket involving India of late - and, in some cases, overpriced tickets.
Consider these figures:
The 63,000-seater Eden Gardens, where the whitewash was completed on Tuesday, was more than half-empty, for the first time in local memory at an India game. The crowd was to be estimated in the region of 28,000 with tickets sales figures the night before the match being put down at 5868 by the Cricket Association of Bengal. An alternate estimate said the crowd figures had risen to 35,000 towards the end of the Indian innings. The absence of turnstiles at most Indian grounds makes it difficult to arrive at accurate numbers of the turnout for matches.
The opening game in Hyderabad had an approximate crowd of 28,150 out of the official capacity of 39,600, according to the Hyderabad Cricket Association (HCA).
- At the second ODI in Delhi, police estimated a crowd of 35,000 out of a capacity of 42,000; other estimates put the attendance at closer to 30,000.
- Crowd figures from the Punjab Cricket Association (PCA), hosts of the third ODI in Mohali, said about 25,000 of the 27,500 seats were occupied during the match there.
- Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, came from the Wankhede Stadium during the fourth ODI, watched by 18,000 in a stadium that seats 33,000; the MCA said they'd sold 13,000 tickets.
According to PCA secretary and former BCCI treasurer M P Pandove, the poor ticket sales are not a reason for worry. "Tickets these days are not even 20% of our overall revenue," he told ESPNcricinfo. The worries, he said, lay elsewhere, "because only if people are interested will the other revenues come."
His implication was that Indian cricket ran on TV revenues, not gate receipts, but there could be concerns even on that front. While television ratings for the entire series are not yet in, the TAM ratings for the first three ODIs averaged 2.91 - significantly lower than the average IPL TAM ratings in 2011 (3.94) and also the Champions LeagueT20 final (3.51).
BCCI secretary Sanjay Jagdale told AFP that the spectator numbers at some of the matches had "surprised" him. "We got good crowds for the first two games in Hyderabad and New Delhi, so it can't be that people are tired of watching," he said. "Of course the low turnout at some matches has surprised me. We usually get full houses for one-day games. The Diwali (festival) period could be one of the main reasons."
Hyderabad Cricket Association joint secretary S Venkateshwaran says every association should study ticket pricing carefully in order to keep the crowd numbers high. The HCA, he said, would have altered its pricing had its ODI been held halfway through the series. "If we had got the 3rd or the 4th ODI in the series, we could have looked at the crowd statistics from the other venues and adjusted accordingly."
To key MCA officials, however, ticket pricing was not the reason the crowd response had been poor. The MCA said that it had sold Rs 3 crores worth of tickets and therefore their administration could not be held responsible for the empty seats. MCA president Vilasrao Deshmukh, a former chief minister of Maharashtra, told Mumbai tabloid Mid-Day that the ticket prices "were not very high. People in Mumbai have the capacity to pay that much." According to Deshmukh, the absence of "superstars like Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag is also a factor why people haven't flocked to the stadium. Another reason could be the Diwali festival."
An MCA committee member told ESPNcricinfo that in Mumbai the tickets had been far too expensive - the cheapest tickets were priced at Rs 1000, for the East Stand, and the most expensive were priced around Rs 10,000. In Hyderabad, the tickets in the East and West Stand, which are usually priced at Rs 200, were divided up into slabs: Rs 1000 for the lower-tier tickets and Rs 300 for the higher-tier tickets. Venkateshwaran said: "In hindsight, we miscalculated. Usually, we price those tickets at Rs 200 as common people come for the matches."
Public transport to the Rajiv Gandhi stadium in Uppal had been affected by the Telangana agitation, but he believed "overkill" had also led to the poor response. "We must also look at how to get more people in," Venkateshwaran said. "People may not want to come if a ground is hosting two or three matches in a year. There could be an overkill of cricket; we had hosted several Champions League matches before the ODI."
Overkill is a reason offered by several others, with DDCA vice-president Chetan Chauhan saying that the thin crowds in Mumbai had indicated to him that there was a problem the BCCI needed addressing. "The BCCI should have a rethink about the tight and jampacked schedule," he said. "We understand that there is a big demand for the Indians and they are behind about 60-70% of the cricket economy, but there's got to be a balance. Not only does an empty stadium look bad on TV, who would like to play an international match in front no crowd?"
Pandove said the stands in Mohali filled up in the second half of the match but that the higher-priced air-conditioned lounge had gone empty and the reasons could be "because of how many matches are being played around the world ... this has never happened in an India international at any of these grounds." The PCA's student tickets, priced at Rs 100, sold quickly, but its AC lounge tickets, around Rs 12,000 including hospitality, could not be sold.
After the poor tour of England, the five ODIs against England had been billed and built up as a "revenge" or "payback" series.
Other than the Indian cricket team making an emphatic statement against England on the field, there was another element of payback in the series. That of the Indian spectators against what is being made available to them at most cricket grounds around the country.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. Additional reporting by Tariq Engineer and Abhishek Purohit