India in Pakistan 2003-04 March 30, 2004

Ghost stadiums

When a batsman scores a triple-century, and when he does it in the thrilling fashion in which Virender Sehwag did so, as an onlooker you cannot hold many regrets

Anything longer than a one-day game has the crowds scampering © Getty Images

When a batsman scores a triple-century, and when he does it in the thrilling fashion in which Virender Sehwag did so, as an onlooker you cannot hold many regrets. If there is one, it is that there was scarcely a soul present at the Multan Cricket Stadium to witness what turned out to be a historic moment. And it wasn't because of the colour of Sehwag's passport; this was, after all, the first Test match against India in Pakistan for 14 years.

Over the first three days of the most eagerly awaited Test series in Pakistan for years, it turns out that the Tests at least may not be, well, that eagerly awaited after all. A stadium that can hold up to 28,000 people has struggled to fill barely a quarter of its capacity, and that, too, only on the opening day, which was a Sunday. More people will turn up at Lahore, but not enough to disguise the fact that Test matches in Pakistan are among the most poorly attended in the cricket world.

Although, as a general trend, Test-match attendances around the world have been in decline, a few countries, such as Australia and South Africa, and particular visitors, such as India or England, still see healthy numbers turning out. When India toured Australia earlier this year, even accounting for Steve Waugh's farewell, record numbers turned out. In Pakistan's case a variety of reasons have been responsible for this decline.

There are the usual suspects - the rise in popularity and quantity of one-day internationals has meant that spectators can see in about nine hours what they previously waited five days for. And they still weren't guaranteed a result. The advent and penetration of TV initially, and satellite TV eventually, into urban and rural areas has meant that people are unwilling to swap the vagaries of weather, travel, inflexibility of companionship and indifferent views of the play with the comfort of the lounge and box seats at home. With the rapidly changing pace, and face, of modern life in the 1980s and '90s, sparing a whole day, let alone five, is not possible. But in Pakistan other factors, coupled with these reasons, have hastened the decline.

Although official attendance figures of matches in Pakistan are as rare as the crowds now, older journalists and players recall that until at the least mid-'80s, crowds would turn out in healthy numbers for games against the likes of India and West Indies. In the 1950s and '60s, when Pakistan was still enjoying the novelty of Test status, the grounds, according to some, weren't big enough to hold everyone. In the '70s, the pull of glamorous players such as Zaheer Abbas, Asif Iqbal, Majid Khan and Mushtaq Mohammad ensured good attendance at Tests. Imran Khan and Javed Miandad's exploits in the '80s kept fans interested, although by this time numbers had started to decrease to an extent. But it was in the '90s, when Pakistan cricket for many equated to controversy and scandal - and inconsistent performance - that crowds really stopped coming in.

The revolving-door policy, applied to players, captains and the board itself, meant that fans, although not exactly losing interest in the game, began to develop a de-sensitised approach to it. As Pakistan lurched from controversy to scandal, fans developed a cynicism that manifested itself in their absence at grounds. When the match-fixing scandal broke, and every inconsistent performance came to be greeted with a virulent suspicion, the image of cricket fell drastically. If a lost game wasn't fixed, then the defeat must be down to factions and infighting within the team. Whatever the reason, decided the crowds, it made for an unedifying spectacle and it wasn't worth the hassle.

Some argue that the lack of interest in domestic cricket, contested by an assortment of commercial and semi-public departments and organisations with little or no following, has translated itself onto the national stage. There is a popular school of thought that suggests that completely regionalising the game will bring more people with allegiances to the ground. This theory is rubbished by those, such as Abid Ali Kazi (a leading documenter of the local game), who claim that even when the game was based exclusively on such lines almost nobody would turn up. The recent Patrons Trophy final between WAPDA and ZBTL in Karachi may have been watched by four men and a dog, but games in the ongoing Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, contested by regional sides, haven't been much better.

Perhaps it is because, as one fan enjoying the Multan heat sombrely pontificated, cricket hasn't really seeped as deep into Pakistan society as many think. "It is popular, of course, but just not as much as some think. Sure, kids play it and watch it on TV - but going to a ground to see players isn't such a big deal. People have other things to worry about."

Whatever the reasons, it is difficult to see how the trend can be arrested. If a Test match against India cannot bring more than 5000 people in a city of 1.5 million people, then nothing can save it - except, perhaps, an Inzy triple-century and a nailbiting last-day finish ...