Pity the paying public
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?"
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