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Sanjay Manjrekar

Cricket needs to put fans first, not players

Day-night Tests are a good idea because they are aimed at addressing falling viewership figures

Sanjay Manjrekar
Sanjay Manjrekar
Empty stands are a pressing concern and any attempt to address it must be encouraged  •  Getty Images

Empty stands are a pressing concern and any attempt to address it must be encouraged  •  Getty Images

I am absolutely delighted that this week we will witness the first ever day-night Test match between Australia and New Zealand. Cricket Australia and New Zealand Cricket have to be applauded for this initiative, especially the Australian board, for it still attracts a fair audience for regular Test matches - the first two matches of the current series notwithstanding - and it's not that the board was left with no choice.
Adapt or perish, the old adage, is applicable to Test cricket today. Just because we see decent crowds at stadiums in England and Australia, it does not mean that Test cricket is still healthy as a spectator sport all over the world. Tests have not been attracting big crowds to grounds for a while now, and what's worse, we have got used to it.
We're used to seeing empty stands even when two major Test nations are playing. Test matches in England and Australia - or the one in Bangalore against South Africa recently - are exceptions to the rule.
When I see black-and-white cricket photos from earlier eras, I look longingly at what's in the background: the stands are jam-packed with people; there is a "crowd blur" as backdrop in just about every action photo of cricketers from the '60s. What a high it must have been for players then.
Add to that viewers spending less time in front of TV screens to watch Test cricket. And can you blame them? The working hours of people are playing hours for Test cricket. Day-night Tests should have come about years ago.
And now that they are finally happening, I believe the only aspect of this first day-night Test we should be looking at is the crowds at the ground and the TV viewership numbers. If those are promising, then this match should start a new trend in cricket. What does Test cricket have to lose anyway?
Ed Smith was right when he wrote recently that players don't often know what's best for the game. The likes of he and I ought to know because we were players once, and as players we realise now that our view of the game was all too narrow.
Test cricket as a sporting concept is a misfit in today's world. We need to ensure it is kept relevant, and one thing that has proved to be a hindrance in this regard is the notion of "players' comfort"
Winning as a team and succeeding individually is all that mattered to us as players, and anything that seemed to be coming in the way of that, well, we resisted it. Players don't like their cheese being moved too much. So it's natural for them to not be as excited by this day-night Test match as those who can see the larger picture seem to be.
Thank goodness Kerry Packer did not seek the approval of the players before introducing coloured clothing and night cricket. Packer was convinced at the time that to catch everyone's attention, cricket had to be jazzed up, so he went ahead and did it.
In April 1997, had the BCCI sought my views as captain of Mumbai, to ask if I was okay playing that year's Ranji Trophy final under lights, I know I would have cribbed a bit. That day-night final in Gwalior turned out to be the most fun I have had playing Ranji cricket. The neutral crowd of Gwalior came in large numbers to the Roop Singh Stadium to watch Mumbai and Delhi play.
Obviously there were cricketing issues in that game, like the longevity of the white ball - the ball was mandatorily changed every 40 overs. Spinners were at a great disadvantage because of this. But it is important to note that it was the Mumbai spinner Nilesh Kulkarni who made the difference in that game, so the lesson learnt is that it's not wise to pre-empt too much in this game.
The goalposts were moved for us in Gwalior, but we adapted and managed to play a good game of cricket that the public enjoyed.
The key word here is "adapted". We somehow tend to forget an important point: when significant changes are made to playing conditions, it's the same for both sides. When it comes to a contest, that is the most vital consideration: that both teams have a level playing field.
For instance, a lot is being said about turning pitches in this India-South Africa Test series, but we have to keep reminding ourselves, amid all the talk, that conditions are the same for both teams. If South Africa are an exceptional side they should find a way of winning on such surfaces.
Test cricket as a sporting concept is a misfit in today's world of quick downloads, fast food and quick entertainment. We need great vigilance and utmost care to ensure it is kept relevant. One thing that has proved to be a hindrance in this regard is the notion of "players' comfort".
When a slow game like Test cricket is further slowed down by the players with their innumerable drinks breaks, it hurts the sport. When despite the 30 minutes of extra time, teams still aren't able to bowl their 90 overs a day, it hurts Test cricket. When play is held up because of damp patches in the far outfield because players could hurt themselves while running on them, it hurts Test cricket. Players going off for bad light even after artificial lights are switched on, and then coolly coming out and having nets is hurting Test cricket.
The more I look at all these issues, the more I am convinced that we are anxious about the wrong people here. We should be thinking about the dwindling number of fans.
When we are competing for their attention with other more popular sports, ones that modern sports fans have more of an affinity for, we should only be focused on what the fans want; all other business can come after that.
For a very brief time I worked with an Indian airline. Like it seems to be with cricket, this airline's efforts were mostly spent on trying to keep its employees happy; making their fare-paying passengers happy was only an afterthought. It's no wonder this airline makes huge losses and needs to be bailed out every few years with taxpayers' money.
So, albeit a little late, the fans will have been put right in the forefront this time, when the Test between Australia and New Zealand is played in Adelaide. Here's to day-night Test cricket!

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here