Indore faces test of its Big Five aspirations

A record of good crowd attendance and a rich cricket history could make this an unlikely contender for a permanent Test venue

Virat Kohli shoots a commercial in Indore before the first Test

Virat Kohli shoots a commercial in Indore before the first Test  •  PTI

Subtle marketing does not exist in Indore. The signboards on stores have roughly the same design language: big, bold text in red, usually in Hindi. A keysmith's store will simply say chaabi, the Hindi word for keys. A medical store's signage will read dawaiyan (medicine). If it says car chalaana seekhiye (learn to drive a car), you won't find a driving school but a solitary instructor. What you see is what you get. Except, oddly, around the Holkar Stadium.
There is graffiti along the walls that lead to the Narendra Hirwani Gate, with themes like satanism, sniper crosshairs, and a sustained bilingual campaign for veganism. But no posters or standees or even plain old banners to indicate that a Test is about to begin in less than 48 hours.
It is no small feat, then, that for the first India-Bangladesh Test, nearly 9000 season tickets had been sold two days before the start. Just before the beginning of the day-ticket sales on Tuesday, Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association (MPCA) CEO Rohit Pandit reckoned there could be an average of up to 12,000 spectators throughout the Test - that's three-quarters of the seats available to the public.
"The stands start at Rs 150 [approx. US$ 2] for a daily ticket. The pavilions are between Rs 300 and Rs 400 [approx. US$ 4 and US$ 7]. So it's pretty affordable. We have received reasonable support from the local spectators," Pandit told ESPNcricinfo. "The turnout for a Test match can't be compared to a limited-overs match. If India are batting first, then 11,000-12,000 spectators could be in the stands."
The low pricing extends to the five-day pass: They start at Rs 315 and go up to Rs 1845 [approx. US$ 25]. Student concession stands begin at Rs 362 [approx. US$5], women-only stands at Rs 420 rupees and a block for people with disabilities at half that price. The best five-day pass here is roughly the same price as a mid-level IPL ticket for one match at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru.
"Basically, the cricket culture is quite big in this part," Pandit said. "We see 2000 people turning up even for domestic matches. We try to keep the ticket price to a bare minimum, so there's not much of a commercial type of approach to ticket prices. Our aim is to create a situation where there could a maximum number of spectators."
Former BCCI secretary and Madhya Pradesh cricketer Sanjay Jagdale, who began work as a cricket administrator in 1983, echoes these sentiments and is not surprised at the expected numbers.
The stadium is in the heart of the city. There's the convenience for people to get into the stadium in say, half an hour. It's a small stadium [capacity 27,000]. So you can get a better feel of the match when you are in the stands
Rohit Pandit, MPCA CEO
"Indore has a very rich tradition and cricket history. Right from the days of CK Nayudu and Mushtaq Ali and Holkar [the name of the former royal dynasty of the region, and also the name of the Ranji Trophy side representing it till the mid-1950s]," Jagdale said. "And it's a city where a lot of cricket is played. With Hirwani, Naman Ojha and Rajesh Chauhan, there have constantly been players who are either playing for India or knocking the doors.
"And they love watching cricket. That is one of the main reasons. The local people are also proud of the Holkar stadium, the Holkar traditions, the Holkar cricket. You must have been to the stadium. There's a lot of local Holkar player names involved, right from CK Nayudu and Mushtaq Ali Pavilions to other Holkar greats. So they're proud of that cricket tradition."
The Holkar Stadium hosted the first of its four international matches in 2006, waited ten years for its first Test - with an average spectator count of 24,000, points out Pandit - and got two limited-overs internationals in 2017. Since then, the Kings XI Punjab have occasionally used it as a second home ground. In the larger map of Indian cricket, Indore is what would count these days as a second-tier venue. With only the odd big match coming its way, the operational aspect of a five-day match is not easy. Among many challenges at the moment for the MPCA is hosting the 30-odd Bangladesh correspondents who will be joining at least twice that number of their Indian counterparts in the press box.
But there is an unspoken opportunity here. One of the significant undercurrents of this Test is that it will be the first one since Virat Kohli sparked a conversation about India having a set number of Test venues during its home seasons. Indore is not an automatic name on a list of five venues for most people - that list is, naturally, filled with metropolitan centres - but it has quite a lot going for it. One of them is the acoustics, especially in this day and age of massive, new-age stadium being put up well outside city limits.
"The stadium is in the heart of the city. There's the convenience for people to get into the stadium in say, half an hour. It's a small stadium [capacity 27,000]," Pandit said. "So you can get a better feel of the match when you are in the stands. In case of the big stadiums, the distance is on the higher side. And you get slightly disconnected from the on-field excitement. This is a 75-yard stadium. This, according to me, also attracts the spectators."
As the man who proposed taking the game to smaller centres during his time at the BCCI, Jagdale thinks Indore has a credible claim.
"I don't think it [empty stadiums] motivates players," Jagdale said in relation to recent matches with low attendances. "Although a lot of people watch on TV, empty stadiums are not good for cricket. And the players also don't enjoy. […] So why only five? It [the current system] promotes cricket in smaller centres. It motivates venues and associations to do well and come up with better infrastructure and better facilities.
"Indore has good facilities, it is directly connected [planes and trains] and there are very good hotels. There's a good stadium and a good crowd response. So why not encourage centres where the response is better and the facilities are good?"
Who knows what levels Holkar Stadium could hit if a blimp said yahaan cricket dekhiye?

Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo