November 18, 2011

Oh no, not at Eden

The empty stands at the Kolkata Test have confirmed Test cricket has serious problems on its hands

A friend of mine, now about 40, wistfully remembers the time when he was much younger and was taken to watch a Test match at the Eden Gardens ("Obviously all five days!"). It was quite an event for him, as indeed it was to all of us when our turns came. You waited for it, you analysed the opposition, you picked the players you wanted to follow, got excited if one of them fielded at the boundary in front of you, and over dinner that night told your dad what you had liked and what you hadn't.

Another friend recalls the time his father told his teacher that it was more important that his son went to Chepauk to watch S Venkataraghavan bowl than to attend just another day at school. He didn't tell me what the teacher's reaction was. Presumably his father hadn't bothered with it (anyone who objected to a young boy watching cricket couldn't be right anyway).

Just to put the era into perspective: my older brother used to study in Kolkata. It took a couple of days, sometimes more, to get there from Hyderabad, and we didn't know he had reached safely until an inland letter arrived.

As you can imagine, much has changed since. And yet, when the Eden Gardens had just a few spectators dotting its vast stands this week, there was widespread despair. "Not in Kolkata," they spluttered into their Darjeeling tea, but I'm afraid it was. An occasion that has been a rite of passage, an initiation into the endless world of sport and joy for a young man, has been largely ignored. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, on whom ballads might be composed in Kolkata, hit centuries, and must have looked for fans to raise their bats to. This wasn't Kanpur or Mohali; this, sadly, was the Eden Gardens.

Yes, you could say the Test match started on a Monday (is any further proof needed that cricket is now largely a television sport?), that there had been holidays earlier, that there has been far too much cricket to follow, that the Kolkatan too needed to go to work. You could say all that and more. But the Eden Gardens is one of the homes of cricket and it was at home that Test cricket had been spurned.

It was also a week in which Haroon Lorgat formally announced that the World Test Championship had been put back to 2017. Poor Peter Roebuck said a lot could change in a week, and this is five years away. The ICC is disappointed, many players are disappointed, the romantics are disappointed, and yet, as the Eden Gardens showed, they don't count. Outside of certain pockets, people don't want to watch Test cricket. They know the scores, they follow the game on the internet, look at the television from time to time, but that's it. I am increasingly fearful that people talk about the glory of Test cricket like they do about world peace and Mother Teresa: because it is a nice thing to be heard saying.

There are still a few marquee series left but those are too few. If half the Test-playing world doesn't interest audiences, there is a problem and it has to be addressed by looking it in the eye rather than through the romantic, wistful writing that all of us have indulged in at one time or another. Maybe Test cricket ought to be played by fewer teams; maybe, as has been suggested by some former Australian cricketers, you play less, but better, Test cricket; or maybe you seek to market it more humbly.

In India, maybe we could start by making the act of going to a cricket ground pleasant. Security is something we cannot wish away. It is a grim fact of life in our part of the world, where distributing hatred doesn't seem too difficult, but maybe we can make everything else easier. Like buying tickets, getting parking, organising public transport, providing decently priced food, and the most difficult, providing clean seats to sit on. Test cricket is in a buyer's market and the sellers are struggling to come to terms with that.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

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