Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo
The cliché about attendances in domestic matches is that they are watched by three men and a dog. When I walked into the swank Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium on the first morning of a Ranji game between Hyderabad and Mumbai last month, I was greeted by three scorers and a black stray, Bunty, which spends its days around the pavilion. A handful of journalists joined later, and a few dozen spectators turned up to watch a boring draw on a track meant to kill bowlers.
Every shot reverberated around the empty ground, every batsman reaching a milestone was greeted only by a few shouts from his team-mates in the dressing-room. A young cricketer looking to entertain, had no one to entertain.
That was perhaps an insignificant league match, but even at the Chinnaswamy Stadium for the semi-finals only about a thousand, at best, turned up on a Sunday to support an exciting young Karnataka team that had swept all before them. Even the presence of Rahul Dravid couldn't entice more people to the ground. And with the home side not looking for the win after taking a massive first-innings lead, there was nothing to interest even die-hard followers on a desultory final day.
The only purpose served by such a day is to skew a player's statistics, making it harder for lay fans to judge his worth. For example, Anirudh Singh tops Hyderabad's batting averages this season with 52.33, but 103 of his runs came against the bowling might of S Badrinath, Dinesh Karthik, Abhinav Mukund and other Tamil Nadu batsmen on the final day of an already dead match. Take out that innings, and his average drops to a more prosaic 35.67.
There are already murmurs that, with the advent of the IPL, some players are reluctant to go through the Ranji grind. Contrast the easy cash and maniacal support from the stands in those games against the empty seats and the occasional purposelessness of a Ranji match, you can start to see why the four-day game may pall for a few cricketers.
More matches like the final at the Gangothri Glades in Mysore will certainly check that trend. The buzzing atmosphere was one familiar to anyone who has attended an India limited-overs game, and the stadium was filled to capacity on each day. A fast bowler runs in to bowl to the crescendo of the fans' cry and Karnataka's appeals for caught-behind or lbw are echoed by a baying throng. Not something the average first-class cricketer experiences regularly.
On Thursday, the combination of a riveting finish and Sankranti ensured a packed stadium at the start of play itself. The unlucky ones found themselves trees to perch on, and others watched from embankments rising behind the stands. Only one half of the Gangothri Glades has stands, the other half has a perimeter fence, which also had people clinging on. When Manish Pandey was blazing away, a Mexican wave got going and even those by the fence joined in, somehow managing a hands-free balance.
Soon after, there was shocked silence for a few moments at Pandey's dismissal before the crowd rose for a standing ovation for the youngster - a fitting postscript to a memorable innings.
Post-lunch, with the game on edge, Sunil Joshi and Stuart Binny were applauded for every ball they left alone; every delivery they got bat on ball was met with roars of approval, and for boundaries even the man precariously hanging on midway up a lamp-post screamed and waved a tiny red-and-yellow Karnataka flag.
There were some disagreeable bits of behaviour from the crowd as well. When they found out the umpire had wrongly ruled Amit Verma's caught-behind, the officials were greeted with the unimaginative chants of "down, down umpires" as they walked to the pavilion for lunch. Once Karnataka lost the thriller, similar shouts were directed at Robin Uthappa, who had failed in both innings, by a section of fans searching for a scapegoat.
Overall, though, the absorbing match provided two key lessons for the organisers of the Ranji Trophy - make pitches result-oriented, and the future of the tournament is in the smaller cities, where crowds aren't sated by regular international cricket.