'Empty stands a challenge' - Bindra
In a week of surprising, distressing events - turbulence in the airline industry, the crash of the stock market and the collapse of a flyover in Delhi - the one foreseeable positive was Sachin Tendulkar becoming the world's leading run-getter in Tests. Yet when he got it the response at the ground was underwhelming - because the stands were largely empty.
There are various reasons put forward but IS Bindra, the Punjab Cricket Association chief, conceded the paying public has been "short-changed" in most Indian grounds and he promised to improve conditions in Mohali.
The poor turnout had people wondering if Test cricket still retains its popularity, for the same venue was sold out for the IPL and last year's one-dayer between India and Pakistan. IS Bindra, the Punjab Cricket Association president, said one of the reasons for the disappointing numbers could be the number of matches Mohali hosted last year. "We had 13 matches last year... Mohali, with a population of 1 million, cannot sustain in terms of crowd response," Bindra said. "That's what our research says." Chandigarh, the big city where the teams stay during matches in Mohali, may have a fraction more.
Another reason for the poor turnout could be the mental demands of watching Test cricket, which is different to watching ODIs and Twenty20s, offering fewer moments of obvious excitement and requiring far more concentration.
Perhaps the most significant factor, and one which Bindra himself conceded, is the poor spectator facilities - ironic, because Mohali's facilities are unmatched in India - and the stringent security measures. Getting to the ground is hard enough - the police don't allow anyone other than VIPs to bring their cars within a kilometre of the stadium. One of the most ridiculous security procedures was to force people down a 200-metre path when there was another, more direct route a quarter of the length. "That route is meant only for VIPs," a security official said.
Having reached the ground, the spectator is faced with restrictions on carrying water bottles and umbrellas. The only covered stands are those for members; non-members sit through the day under the sun, on plastic chairs that can get very uncomfortable in temperatures touching 30 degrees Celsius. Why walk a kilometre, then spend seven hours under the sun when you can watch it all on TV?
It's a point Bindra readily concedes. "If you can watch Test-match cricket for five days in the air-conditioned comfort of your own home, here you spend two hours getting into the stadium, going through the police," Bindra said. "The TRP ratings [for Tests] are very high, but it is essential to have people at the ground. We have to make our grounds spectator-friendly. We have been short-changing the public [in most Indian grounds] so far, the public will start short-changing us unless we improve."
Bindra said the association was "badly affected" by the lack of spectators for the Test. "It's the pride of the ground, and we take it very seriously. It's a challenge we must accept, and take it very seriously." He said the PCA planned two new international centres, in Bathinda and Jalandhar. "So if we rotate the matches, the novelty will still be there. Money is not everything, money is not an end in itself. It's good so far as it goes into the game. There's no atmosphere without the people."
There is a photograph of the stadium during the 2004-05 Ranji Trophy final between Railways and Punjab. The wide shot takes in the empty stands, where only two people sit watching the championship match. If the PCA doesn't want similar photos taken during Tests, it must act fast. Otherwise, as Bindra said, the public will short-change it.