Pakistan's thinning spectator numbers November 14, 2005

An 8000-strong multitude

Eight thousand isn't exactly the intimidating throng but those familiar with downwardly spiraling spectator numbers in Pakistan will think it heaven-sent

A few more spectators than just "12 people and a dog". © Getty Images

An odd thing happened during Marcus Trescothick's century in Multan, something perhaps that made it more special than Virender Sehwag's triple hundred at the same ground eighteen months ago. Unlike Sehwag's quite immense blitzkrieg, this relatively sedate effort had more viewers off the field than on it.

On two successive mornings, the soulless experience of walking into the Multan Cricket Stadium - a gently imposing concoction of red brick, concrete and stands, exceptional only by its bareness - has been as enriching as the brisk morning air because of the long spectator queues stretching down the unending road, a passable impersonation of a US Interstate Highway, leading to the stadium.

At first, the PCB's estimate of 8,000 fans on the first day strikes you as slightly incredulous, but gradually, as you realise that the stadium can actually hold roughly 30,000 (assessing capacities is an approximate science in this region) and it looks, well, roughly a quarter full, the claim begins to acquire some authority.

The two enclosures that flank the pavilion - appropriately the giants, Imran Khan and Fazal Mahmood - have almost been filled. Above the pavilion, the head of this trinity of legends, the Inzamam-ul-Haq enclosure has also been nearly packed. Around the stadium, in the concrete-stepped stands and enclosures, there has been, consistently, a healthy smattering of mostly local and occasionally foreign faces.

Eight thousand isn't exactly the intimidating throng of an Indian or Australian crowd, but those familiar with downwardly spiralling spectator numbers in Pakistan will think it heaven-sent. Crowd attendances for Test matches have been abysmal for a number of years now.

Until the early '80s at least, people will tell you that for matches involving India or West Indies, stadiums would still be generously populated, although by then, the rot had set. In the decades soon after Pakistan's induction into the Test fraternity, stadiums were teeming with enough people to host full-scale riots, as those present at Karachi during the 1968-69 tour by England or at Lahore in 1977-78 might attest. By the end of the century, matters had deteriorated to such an extent that Andrew Miller, the UK editor of Cricinfo, recounts watching Karachi's gloomy denouement with "12 people and a dog."

Virender's Sehwag's booming hits during his triple century echoed in the empty stands © Getty Images

There are several factors, none particularly verifiable, which have contributed to this. Blaming the rise in quantity and popularity of one-day cricket is a popular purist past time around the world. The birth and penetration of terrestrial television initially, and its glossier, satellite cousin eventually, into urban and rural Pakistan 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. It hasn't helped that for much of the '90s, Pakistan has striven hard, through a succession of controversies, scandals, in-fighting and an efficiently lackadaisical attitude to settled teams, to deter crowds from developing any kind of affinity with them.

Domestic cricket, constructed traditionally on organisational rather than geographic lines, is said to do little to nurture grassroots popularity, hence it becomes a recurring scapegoat in the debate. Regionalise the game, as the PCB are now doing, and attract the crowds is the theorem although you are likely to find as many people to deflate it as aggrandise it.

So why have people come now and especially to watch England, as opposed to India?

During the India Test in March last year when ticket prices were halved for the occasion, it seems either the PCB hadn't realized the desperation of the situation, or was just eager to cash in on a good thing. Coupled with the exceedingly hot weather at that time of the year and the fact that the stadium is far enough outside the city to test most marathoners, even the allure of the old enemy wasn't enough to stir locals.

Belatedly, this year the Pakistan board made tickets, or 70% of them, freely available from designated bank outlets throughout the city. Additionally, with the match starting on Saturday and the weather more than pleasant, people have braved the overbearingly officious security (how can they be anything else when there are 3000 of them?) and a middle-of-nowhere destination to come down. Maybe, as some Barmy Army fans have discovered, the tourists, for once are a popular attraction and the thought of watching Flintoff and Pietersen enticing enough.

It's somehow apt then, that as soon as the crowds begin tentatively to come back, the weekend ends, Pakistan begin to unravel and Monday, the third day's play, is witnessed once again by the barer stands that greeted Sehwag's history-making triple.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo