February 19, 2010

The rot in rotation

India's rotation policy, which allocates Tests to venues, is obsolete and needs ruthless, radical change

Harbhajan Singh was low, beat up; he'd had a catch dropped off his bowling and couldn't buy a maiden, let alone a wicket. Then, in his 16th over, he got a top edge from Jacques Kallis, saw VVS Laxman take a catch running back, looked towards the crowd, raised his arms, and saw the crowd rise in sync.

In his next over, with 35,000 behind him, he took two wickets in two balls. The 35,000 appealed with him for both those wickets and celebrated with him when the appeals were upheld. Twice he went on celebratory runs, towards his friends, the Eden Gardens crowd, who made him believe he could get a wicket every ball. They were the fabled 12th man - intimidating the batsmen and making Harbhajan a completely different bowler from Nagpur.

Imagine Harbhajan getting on a similar roll in Nagpur, creating momentum, celebrating wildly, trying to get the crowd into the batsman's ear, going on those runs towards the stands. He would have been greeted by empty blue upholstered chairs, and the air-conditioned boxes, marginally better populated with the board president's guests.

Take his home ground, in Mohali. If he went on his celebratory run there, he would have seen sunlight bouncing off uncovered and unsurprisingly empty stands. Sachin Tendulkar knows that feeling: he broke Brian Lara's record for most Test runs in front of practically nobody in Mohali.

Add Ahmedabad, where the turnout is a little better, but still disappointing, and you have three regular Test-match venues in India where Test cricket gets short shrift. Play an ODI or a Twenty20 and people - despite the uncovered stands, despite the distance from the city - throng the same stadiums.

Between this last Kolkata Test and the one before that, at the end of 2007, six Tests have been played in Nagpur, Mohali and Ahmedabad. During those matches, Tendulkar overtook Lara, India completed a series win over Australia, Rahul Dravid engineered a stunning comeback from 32 for 4. Still this Kolkata Test alone was probably watched by more people than all six others put together.

To watch those six Tests was to find some merit in the view held by the rest of the world that India - the country, not the team - doesn't care about Test cricket. To watch the one at the Eden Gardens was a pleasant reassurance that India did. That Test cricket was alive and kicking in India, the only place able to draw more than 100,000 - the figure when Eden Gardens is not undergoing renovation - to a Test match.

Harbhajan paid his friends at the ground a fitting tribute: "In Test matches, we don't even get crowds, but Eden [Gardens] is probably the best ground, as you get the crowds for the whole five days. It does not matter whether India is batting or bowling."

That sentiment, doubtless shared by Harbhajan's peers, cuts no ice with the BCCI's rotation policy: The Test against South Africa was the second at Eden Gardens since March 2005. Whether this is because of board politics - the lack of Tests coincides with a shift in power from Jagmohan Dalmiya to Sharad Pawar and Shashank Manohar - is immaterial now: the policy is obsolete anyway and needs ruthless, radical change. The purest form of the game, generally reckoned to be an endangered species nowadays, should be played at venues that care for it.

So, it is time to strike Nagpur, Mohali and Ahmedabad off the list of Test venues. The logic is simple: There is a clear mismatch there between the crowds and Test cricket. The crowds in Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai, even Kanpur, and to a lesser extent Delhi, support Test cricket with their presence in the stands and should each get a match every year. They are not necessarily the best stadiums but the players will trade in the advantages - the state-of-the-art facilities, the hospitality, the indoor nets - for a large, appreciative, knowledgeable crowd that creates atmosphere. And that's true of hosts and tourists.

It will, for one, restore some of the sanctity previously accorded to the Test-match schedule. In a recent piece in the Hindu, S Venkataraghavan, the former India offspinner, wrote about the Pongal Test in Chennai. "In Madras, this festival [traditionally in mid-January] used to be synonymous with Test cricket at Chepauk," he wrote. "Schedules were carefully drawn so that a Test match was played at Chepauk during the season."

That is like the Boxing Day and New Year's Tests in Australia and South Africa, annual events that people plan for months ahead. The last time Chennai saw a Pongal Test, though, was in 1988, and there have been only 10 Tests there since. With nine venues and only five or six home Tests a year, it is impossible to develop this sort of a certainty. Take out three venues and Test cricket can become an annual event in the venues where it is cherished: Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai, Kanpur (with improved facilities) and Delhi.

Tendulkar is currently three short of 50 Test centuries. If he reaches the landmark in, say, Australia or England, thousands will stand and applaud. In Mohali, a couple of schools will promise their kids free lunch and send them to the staidum for a two-hour outing. The visiting team will be confounded by the callousness of the people. Let's rule out that possibility. Especially when there is another city willing to sell out a stadium meant to take in 90,000. Whether India is batting or bowling.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo

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