Pakistan v India, 2nd Test, Lahore, 1st day April 5, 2004

All for a good cause

Before the second Test started, Dravid and Inzamam-ul-Haq came together to join children in holding a banner with the slogan "Bowl out Polio" written on it



Umar Gul nails Virender Sehwag on the way to his five-for. Sadly, very few turned up to watch Gul's superb bowling performance © AFP

The official attendance figure for the first day of the second Test was 1647 at tea. Looking at the stands, though, you would not have guessed that even that many made it to the Gaddafi Stadium. Umar Gul returned to the Test team with an exhilarating spell - it's not every day that you pick up the wickets of Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid - and claimed 5 for 31. Sadly for Gul, there was hardly anyone in the ground watching him perform. The crash-bang-wallop one-dayers were played to full houses, and no-one expected the Tests to draw an equal response. But at Multan and now here at Lahore the crowds have been so disappointing that it's time for the authorities to start worrying.

All around the world ground attendances have dropped in Test matches. Thankfully, there are still places, like the smaller towns in India, where significant numbers turn up. That certainly is not the case in Pakistan. Officials of the Pakistan Cricket Board have been asked about this repeatedly, and yet no convincing answer is forthcoming. Some blame the heat, some the excessive security, and some even claim that the crowds stay away because they believe these matches are fixed. But a huge factor is the quality of the television coverage these days.

You ask the locals and most of them tell you they aren't interested in going to the ground, because they can follow the game so much better on TV. Action replays, expert analysis, extensive graphics and tools like Hawk-Eye are now used to dissect each and every element of play. Also, the people who run the game are so happy with the money TV generates that gate receipts have become meaningless.

The vast reach of television, coupled with the Indian team's eagerness to promote good causes, has resulted in a number of initiatives being launched. Before the second Test, Dravid and Inzamam-ul-Haq came together to join children in holding a banner with the slogan "Bowl out Polio" written on it. This campaign to increase awareness about polio is a UNICEF initiative. But not many are aware that it started more than a year ago, when UNICEF and the Indian Cricket Players' Association forged their partnership. Since then, several leading Indian cricketers, including Sourav Ganguly, Tendulkar and Laxman, have recorded messages for broadcast on television.

Hot on the heels of this announcement came the message that the Indian team had put its weight behind yet another good cause. Shahid Siddique Chhina, a local journalist, approached them with a special request. His daughter, Huba Shahid, has been diagnosed as having a strain of facial cancer that can be treated only by something called gamma-knife surgery. This procedure is not available in Pakistan, and India is the nearest and cheapest centre where Huba can be treated. When the Indian team heard that time was running out for the 10-year-old girl, they appealed to cancer specialists in India to come forward and help save a life.

As the day wore on, India recovered from Gul's scything spell through a blinder of a century from Yuvraj Singh. When he reached his hundred, his first in Test cricket, he immediately acknowledged the cheers of the dressing-room. He then looked around, trying to find a populated stand to wave his bat at, and found none. Two great performances from cricketers of the future unfolded with virtually no-one in the stands to witness them. Looking at it positively, at least those watching on their TV sets at home enjoyed the performances. And, in the middle of all the entertainment, got two very important messages as well.