"Kya solid aawaz aaya re (what a nice sound of ball hitting bat)," remarked a teenager standing in the uppermost tier of the North Stand. The afternoon sun was on the wane now, the daylight had softened and the shadows were lengthening on the field. VVS Laxman had turned his wrists to slap Darren Sammy between the man at short midwicket and the one at midwicket, who stood in awe as the ball slipped past him like a butterfly, quietly, for a four. It was a high-quality stroke and Laxman received hearty appreciation from the 20,200-strong crowd that had been in their seats from early in the morning.
The teenager's comment was one usually muttered by coaches and students during training. The quality of the noise signifies the richness of a stroke. Finer points these. And so, to hear the youngster utter those words made it clear that the cricket fan - a breed feared to be endangered based on thin crowds seen at Test matches around the world - is still healthy and, critically, young. That might just ensure Test cricket has a future.
The spectator-numbers at the Test match at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai have been impressive, and with Sachin Tendulkar 38 runs short of becoming the first batsman to score 100 international centuries, the best turnout is expected tomorrow.
On the first day the turnout was 12,300, with 8000 daily tickets sold. On Wednesday, as the West Indies batsmen batted out a second straight day, the number dipped to 11,000, out of which 7300 were daily tickets. But today, as India came out to bat, the number had risen to 12,000 daily tickets sold.
The clamour for tickets became so intense by noon that the Mumbai police had to resort to a mild lathi charge to disperse the fast-increasing crowd. So how did Test cricket suddenly become a box-office hit? The obvious and primary reason for the huge numbers was Tendulkar. But he was also playing in the first two Tests of this series, in Delhi and Kolkata, and the crowd in both cities had been sparse.
At Feroz Shah Kotla, a complicated sales-system of tickets sent fans back home disgruntled. Prices were reasonable: the cheapest daily ticket was priced at Rs 100, while a five-day ticket for the best seat in the ground, in the South Club House at the ITC End, was Rs 4000. But on the first day, the ticket-office at the Kotla was closed without explanation and only 11,000 fans were in a stadium that has a capacity to seat around 45,000. Things appeared even more confusing on the second day, with chaotic scenes at the point of sale: the branch of a nationalised bank located on a nearby road. Still, only an estimated 14,000 fans turned up.
At Eden Gardens, tickets were available at windows around the ground with five-day ones priced at Rs 500, Rs 1000 and Rs 1500, and daily tickets at Rs 50, Rs 100 and Rs 150. Yet Rahul Dravid, Laxman and MS Dhoni made centuries and raised bats to a virtually empty stadium.
Daily tickets for the Test were priced as low as Rs 50 (East Stand) and season tickets for vantage viewing points like the North Stand (behind the bowler's arm) and the Vithal Divecha Pavilion (midwicket) were slashed to Rs 500 and Rs 600 respectively
The Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) had made an announcement in advance offering large discounts to the fans. Daily tickets for the Test were priced as low as Rs 50 (East Stand) and season tickets for vantage viewing points like the North Stand (behind the bowler's arm) and the Vithal Divecha Pavilion (midwicket) were slashed to Rs 500 and Rs 600 respectively. The ticket windows were near the ground, making it easier for fans to purchase them. There are a lot of colleges around the ground, and the dirt-cheap price of a daily ticket drew large groups of students. The MCA had learned its lesson after only 13,000 fans filled the 33,000-seater stadium during the one-day match against England in October, for which tickets were steeply priced.
The ticketing strategy was successful. North Stand, the most popular avenue to watch cricket at the Wankhede, was full to the brim, and played the drummer's role as fans beat the hand-railings with empty water bottles to drive away the afternoon reverie. Though they were not as loud, the full-houses at the Vijay Merchant and Sunil Gavaskar pavilions (on either side of the square) chanted the India batsmen's names with religious fervour. Only the Garware Pavilion was dressed scantily, with barely a few hundred people scattered around. Apparently, the Garware Club, which owns the stand, has been involved in a dispute with the MCA, and hence its members decided to opt out. A shame really, considering nearly 4000 tickets could have been put on public sale.
Luckily, those who were present showed how much time they had for good cricket. A young boy of seven, wearing the India blue, stood for long periods holding a banner that read: "We want 3-0, India."
In Mumbai, at Tendulkar's home ground, with cricket's most-famous player on the cusp of an unprecedented feat, the youngster decided to raise support for a whitewash, a phenomenon that occurs as rarely in Test cricket as the opportunity to shake Tendulkar's hand. What was also interesting was that the fans did not just cheer Tendulkar. VVS Laxman's initials formed a perfect rhythm when chanted, as he walked to the centre to delirious chants of "VVS, VVS, VVS." When Rahul Dravid lunged to punch a perfect cover drive to reach 13,000 Test runs, the shouts of "Dravid, Dravid" were as loud as those of "Sachin, Sachin" had been.
Test matches do not just require endurance from the players but from fans as well. Day in, day out, their emotions, their fervour, their noise, at times, spills out onto the ground, acting as a shot in the arm for the home team's players or a painful blow for the visitors. The history of cricket is full of pages where a dormant session has been brought to life by the vibrancy of the crowd. Today, you could sense Darren Sammy, a leader who wears his heart on his sleeve, hungry to have a face-off with the vociferous Mumbai crowd. He looked up for the challenge but each time his bowlers and fielders faltered, which was quite frequently, the crowd's noise only grew louder. That only made Sammy more desperate.
Was today's big turnout an aberration? We can only answer that when Mumbai hosts its next Test. For the moment, the crowds are marching toward the Wankhede. And Friday is already sold out.