India v Australia, 4th Test, Nagpur, 1st day November 6, 2008

Spectator-friendly minus the spectators

Shashank Manohar, the BCCI president, has built a fabulous stadium in his home town that should serve as a model for the rest of the country. But he is now left to ponder the task of filling it. Empty grounds are no fun. They are soul-breaking


Sachin Tendulkar scored his 40th Test century in a virtually empty stadium © Getty Images
 

I had two new experiences today. I watched a day of Test match cricket as a spectator at an Indian ground in comforts that, in the context of what an Indian cricket fan has learnt to endure, bordered on the luxurious. And then I also watched Sachin Tendulkar score a Test hundred in front of a crowd so small that, with a bit of perseverance, you could have counted them manually.

It was both tragic and ironic. The most spectator-friendly ground in the world's most cricket-obsessed country was also the barest.

There were good reasons to expect a healthy turnout. It is Sourav Ganguly¹s final Test and VVS Laxman's 100th, and most of all, it is the Test that will decide the fate of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy which has, over four hard-fought and enthralling series in the last seven years, emerged as the top contest in Test cricket. Yet nothing, not even the news that India's openers were galloping away at over five, could persuade locals to make the journey.

Of course, the journey might have been the problem. To get to the new ground is a challenge. It is 18 kilometers from the town centre, off the highway to Hyderabad, and there is no public transport. An autorickshaw ride costs upward of Rs 200, and taxis more than double that - and even these options are not available for the return trip.

And the local organisers have done nothing to encourage spontaneous urges. Only season tickets are being sold and, though the organisers argue that prices are more than reasonable - 30,000 seats in the 45,000-capacity ground are priced between Rs 750 and Rs 1000 - it is staggering that a daily ticket is simply not available.

It is a pity because considerable planning and money has gone into building this gleaming and well-designed stadium. Ricky Ponting gushed about the comforts in the changing rooms; Sachin Tendulkar said the facilities exceeded all expectations. The fans could not hope for better seating - the entire stadium has bucket seats, some of which are cushioned - and care has been taken ensure there are no columns obstructing the view. There are plenty of toilets and exits and you can even walk from one block to another. Though the stands are tall - the South Wing has four levels - there are gaps for air and light. The security measures are ideal: adequate, but not oppressive.

But what use if only 4000 people turn up for the first day of a series decider?

More worryingly, it points to a larger trend of declining audiences at India's smaller Test match centres. The story was the same at the second Test in Mohali, which is similar to the new stadium in Nagpur. It is comfortable once you get in, but the tough part is getting there.

Equally, there is a discernible indifference towards the culture of Test cricket at the smaller venues. Mohali recorded a huge turnout for almost all of the home matches of Kings XI, Punjab during the IPL and, despite a disastrous run by the Deccan Chargers, the new stadium in Hyderabad - which is a fair distance away from the city - drew in larger numbers than those seen at Test matches in Mohali and Nagpur. And the turnout at ICL matches in Hyderadad and Ahmedabad has been huge, though it can be argued that there have been plenty of free tickets going.

Is there a lesson here for the Indian board? Bangalore has been the best attended Test in the series so far and, though comparatively thin, the numbers in Delhi far exceeded Mohali and what was seen in the first day in Nagpur. Eden Gardens never draws less than 40,000 and the Test-match attendance at Chennai and Mumbai has always been healthy.

 
 
Restrict Test matches to centres that have a culture of and a connect with the longer version. Smaller centres will be only too happy to host one-day matches, still a big draw, and whatever Twenty20 matches the BCCI may conjure up. A rotation system for match allotment is understandable in a huge country like India, but it must also be sensible
 

Prima facie, there is a case to be considered, if not immediately implemented, to restrict Test matches to centres that have a culture of and a connect with the longer version. Smaller centres will be only too happy to host one-day matches, still a big draw, and whatever Twenty20 matches the BCCI may conjure up. A rotation system for match allotment is understandable in a huge country like India, but it must also be sensible.

I forgot to mention my third new experience of the day. Midway through the first session, they started belting out Hindi songs during the over breaks. It felt incongruous at a Test match. Worse, it felt hollow and artificial. There was no one to dance in the aisles.

Shashank Manohar, the BCCI president, has built a fabulous stadium in his home town that should serve as a model for the rest of the country. But he is now left to ponder the task of filling it. Empty grounds are no fun. They are soul-breaking.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

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