India v Australia, 2nd Test, Hyderabad March 3, 2013

Pity the paying public

The way Indian cricket treats spectators is depressing and a travesty of the times
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Watching cricket at Indian grounds has become less harrowing in the past few years, but the experience still tests your love for the game.

Since ESPNcricinfo is not considered worthy of media accreditation by the BCCI I have done a fair bit of cricket watching from the stands and, as a consequence, I have stayed acquainted with the reality. Press boxes provide the comfort and tools to do the job but, cordoned off from the noise and the colour, it is a relatively sterile experience. In the rest of the world, where we are welcome to report on cricket from the press box, I always make a point to catch a few sessions from the stands. It is invariably more enjoyable.

It's come a fair way since the days of cement benches and lone ticket counters. Most Indian Test grounds now have bucket seats and, in most cases, you can buy tickets online. During the IPL, the franchise owners - for whom attendance is a crucial component of the revenue - even court the fans. But that fundamental change of mindset is yet to filter down to most of the state associations that host India's international matches.

The ongoing Test between India and Australia is the second of the season in Hyderabad, a city that hasn't lost its grace and old-world charm despite the onslaught of consumerism. This Test was granted to Hyderabad because the facilities for the players at the Green Park ground in Kanpur were deemed unfit. But do facilities for spectators even count?

The new stadium is barely six years old. It is 40 minutes away from the city as opposed to the old Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium, which was bang in the middle. Lack of space in the city is a genuine problem, but what accounts for the lack of thought? That the construction makes no allowances for aesthetics can be put down to a matter of taste but absence of consideration for spectators can only be put down callousness.

The word stakeholder is used in nauseating regularity by sports administrators around the world, eager to establish that sport is an enterprise and that they mean business. But how often does the definition of this term extend to include spectators?

I didn't buy my ticket. I couldn't have. I had left it till the last and, even though there were empty seats at the ground, the first day was officially sold out. This is true of many grounds in the world, and particularly so in India where the recipients of vast quantities of complimentary passes simply don't turn up.

Only last week, I had been forwarded a letter to the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association by Mina Anand, advocate by profession and cricket fan by identity. She stood in a queue at the ticket counter for nearly two hours on the second day of the Chennai Test only to return disappointed when the tickets were sold out in ten minutes. When she got home Tendulkar was batting on television but what caught her eye was the rows of empty seats in the stands. Hopes raised, she returned to the ground at lunch only to be told that those seats belonged to the sponsors.

She made sure she got in the next day: she left home at 4 am to make sure she was among the first ones in the queue. Which takes us to the first sentence of this piece: wanting to watch cricket from the stands in India does test your love for the game.

The night before the first day of the Hyderabad Test, I met a group of students from the Indian School of Business, among them a former colleague from ESPNcricinfo. They were fortunate to have secured tickets online in one of the better parts of the ground. But they still had to leave home before 7 am for play that started at 9.30 am - because the online tickets could only be picked up in the morning from the middle of the city, about 25 kilometers from their campus, before travelling 20 more to the ground. A ticket collection centre near the ground? That would make it too easy and that would be too much common sense.

I met the students again at the ground. They wore the same harried look as I did. Like me, they had encountered trouble at the first of many checkpoints: mobile phones had been banned. I was told that it was in the fine print on the ticket that I had picked up on the way to the ground, and the security guards, with utmost politeness and with folded hands, pointed to the signage at the gate.

It was part of the tightening of the security process after the recent bomb blasts in the city. But why mobile phones, I asked?

"Don't you know they can be used as a triggering device?"

"But how would a bomb get in to the ground?"

India, we are breathlessly told, now boasts of 43 international grounds. Can a dozen not be found where spectators aren't subjected to melting under the sun? Or can money not be found to put roofs over every inch of the grounds where spectators are expected to spend 45 hours over five days?

He smiled, pointing out that I also couldn't carry my pen. I didn't bother to ask what threat a pen posed.

Of course, there was no facility to deposit the cell phone at the ground. One of the security officers suggested I go back to my hotel and return later. "It's a Test match, you have a lot of time."

Quantity has superseded efficiency in the classical Indian approach to security. As Aakar Patel recently wrote in a no-nonsense piece, the layers of security at Indian airports seem to suggest a basic lack of trust in these very layers. There was no point in remonstrating with the security at the stadium. They were almost apologetic, and they were merely following instructions of someone who had got wise to the point of stupidity after the terrorists had done their job.

I was lucky that I knew people in the press box and that journalists were allowed to take their phones in. A friend came down and took custody of my phone and I merely had to pass through three more checks before taking my seat, almost behind the sightscreen.

It was only when I looked around that I realised how fortunate I was. The biggest stands at the ground were to my left and my right. And they were open to the elements. Fans in some parts of the world welcome roofless stands because the sun feels nice in New Zealand and England. There are grass banks in South Africa and Australia that are open. But the only possible explanation for leaving fans under the sun in India could be to give them a taste of the conditions the players endure in the middle.

India, we are breathlessly told, now boasts of 43 international grounds. Indeed there are some excellent new stadiums in India. Facilities at Bangalore have got better, Chennai has become excellent as has the Wankhede. Care has been taken to get rid of the pillars that obstruct view and build adequate toilets. So can a dozen not be found where spectators aren't subjected to melting under the sun? Or can money not be found to put roofs over every inch of the grounds where spectators are expected spend 45 hours over five days. And can the non-negotiable terms for certifying a ground to be worthy of international cricket not include basic spectator comfort?

To watch fans stream in to watch Test cricket over the weekend lifted the spirits, but to watch them seek shelter from the sun with their handkerchiefs was depressing.

Why can't cricket take care of those who sustain it with their love?

In which other business is the consumer not the king?

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on March 5, 2013, 18:37 GMT

    Samit, Thanks for writing this. I was thinking since long, why not anyone pointing situation of fans in the ground ? I live in Ahmedabad and I went to watch Ind Vs Aus quarterfinal match of WC 2011, which was played here in Ahmedabad. Even before first inning ends, food and tea in the stand were finished. I was there in the stands for more than 10 hours, without any food.

  • challagalla on March 5, 2013, 0:54 GMT

    Right on Sambit. I stopped watching cricket live about 20 years back simply because of an horrendous experience at the old Lal Bahadur Shastri stadium. In an age where railways accept etickets on your cell phone imagine these guys expect you to change your online booking to a paper ticket 20 klms from the stadium. Ridiculous. I know the new stadium at Uppal is a major improvement on the old one , yet my children tell me its not a pleasent experience. Parking is a major hassle , food is another and simply passing through the layers of security is another.

  • wrenx on March 5, 2013, 0:32 GMT

    Nice piece. I think it's another variance on the theme of sports administrators becoming more and more divorced from the game's enthusiasts, who they are meant to support. It's not so dissimilar in mindset from say Giles Clarke, who believes that the single biggest threat to cricket is illegal streaming. Mr Clarke has expertly identified a group of people who are so enthusiastic about a struggling sport that they will go to great lengths to watch and enjoy it when it is not available to them by conventional means, and instead of embracing them and finding a way to reach out, he's busy branding them as criminals and trying to give them the boot. I wonder if that definition includes Darren Sammy, the West Indies captain who recently tweeted a request for a streaming link when he couldn't watch his team play! Administrators around the world are doing a poor job of serving the fans

  • yogikanna on March 4, 2013, 23:27 GMT

    It is absolutely ridiculous that "ESPNcricinfo is not considered worthy of media accreditation by the BCCI". ESPNcricinfo is so widely read, why would the BCCI discriminate against it? Anyways, something good came out of it, Samit got to endure the difficulties faced by Indian spectators and write about it. I am still apalled by the fact that the BCCI and the IPL Franchise are willing to shell out millions of dollars on Players, while they shy away from spending any money on basic infrastructure and amenities for the paying public. That said the only two test matches I have watched were in Chennai Chepauk Stadium and both were pleasant experiences; but I got luck as I received free tickets from sponsors, and the stadium was so empty that we got to pick really good seats.

  • YoBro on March 4, 2013, 21:36 GMT

    This takes me way down memory lane to a day long time ago in Dec 1987, when as an 8 year old, my dad, who was a loyal fan of the WI team and Viv Richards in particular, took me with him on his motorcycle to watch the tourists play the Board President's XI at the Indira Priyadarshini Stadium, Visakhapatnam. I was so excited that day because it was the first time I was going on an 'outing' with my dad (and what's more, he reserved this occasion exclusively for me - my sister was left to stay home with my mom!). But as the day wore on, in barely a couple of hours, I distinctly remember feeling disillusioned by the scorching heat and the rest I don't remember. My dad told me later that I fell asleep on his lap because of the heat. It saddens me that, 25 years later, nothing has changed.

  • dummy4fb on March 4, 2013, 20:02 GMT

    Very nice article Sambit! One addition, watching cricket or officiating cricket under the sun is way tougher than actually playing cricket where you run around the field. Trust me the spectators undergo ridiculous conditions sitting on those stands where it feels like the sun eats into your system. I remember watching Harbhajan get 90 of his century, but that was the most torrid experience I ever had on a cricket ground just because this modern newly constructed stadium forgot to consider the element which completes an international cricket match - 'the spectators'!

  • HyderabadiFlick on March 4, 2013, 19:58 GMT

    I have watched 3 days of the test match and going to the 4th day and expecting hot sun and I pity the people who stand on the square boundary stands of the stadium, no mercy from the sun and of course the way people are treated in India is much to be desired. I have been to a couple of Baseball and American football games in the U.S. and sometimes I feel if BCCI is really the richest board in the world at the moment. For the test match we are not allowed to take water inside nor they sell the water inside. we had to drink the tap water on all 3 days and had a difficult time keeping our self hydrated.And I surely pity the people sitting on the square boundary stands where the man supporting Sachin was standing.There was a time I felt very sad for them that I'm sitting in the shade and no issues for me. These things make you feel guilty even without you being the culprit - God Bless BCCI & Indian cricket.

  • Sudhir65 on March 4, 2013, 18:19 GMT

    The conclusion and saddest part of the story is that Indian authorities can not even do simple things right. Or perhaps they do not want to.

  • Smithie on March 4, 2013, 18:04 GMT

    Can cricket lovers expect the courtesy of a response from Mr Srinivasan?

  • ToTellUTheTruth on March 4, 2013, 17:36 GMT

    India shining...with the glistening of the fried citizens in those stands. Never will watch a game at the stadium in India. I went to England to watch a test match between India and England, but couldn't care less to attend a single day's play (be a test or a odi). The one and only time I tried, we were lathi charged. After spending good amount of money on our tickets, we came home with bruises from the police. BCCI couldn't care less about the spectators. They are busy with nitpicking fights with media outlets such as Cricinfo. They would rather show their muscle than use the same to protect their most valued asset....the paying publich. Shame on HCA.