Last week, after defeating the almost comatose South Africans in a series that was drab and dreary, Virat Kohli told media-persons that Test matches should ideally be played only at four or five main centres in the country. The three Tests played against the Proteas were at Visakhapatnam, Pune and Ranchi. What he said made a lot of sense and I only hope Sourav Ganguly, who was India’s skipper for over half a decade and is now BCCI president, is listening.
Both the squads, the home team and the touring one, spend at least three days preparing for a five-day Test match. Each of those squads consists of around 15 players and another 15 support staffers. Add ‘wives and girlfriends’ to that list and you have a 40-member team each. A huge media contingent also travels to each of the Test match centres with the teams, and one can only imagine how big a crew is required for television coverage of Test matches. Therefore, providing top-class hotels, healthy and nutritious food, good travel facilities, entertainment and what have you to so many people in small Indian cities isn’t easy.
Kohli, in his post-series briefing, also mentioned the fact that small centres did not attract big crowds for the five-day version of the game. Has anyone, the BCCI and cricketers included, given a thought to why even the die-hard cricket fans do not like to travel to small cities for Test matches? The few top-class hotels are usually occupied and the rest are not worth staying in. Travel – usually long distances – is a concern and getting good food is another major problem. Add to this the less-than-ideal facilities in the stadiums, security high-handedness and various other restrictions and you know why the grounds aren’t even half full during Test matches in such cities.
Leave aside the smaller cities; even stadiums in metros like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai etc aren’t spectator-friendly. Most of these so-called international arenas don’t have enough parking spaces; their seating is uncomfortable and the less said the better about facilities like washrooms, cafes etc. While stadiums in other countries are getting ‘smarter’, with apps for ticket-booking, stadium guides, car-parking facilities, and ordering food and beverages, Indian administrators treat spectators as if they don’t matter. When will we get high speed Wi-Fi, virtual viewing of the game from different angles, slow motion replays, updated stats and technical analysis of the game which are now made available to the paying spectator in Western countries, on their mobile phones?
The last time I watched a Test match in a stadium was in February 1993, more than 25 years ago. Believe me, I am a traditionalist and I just love the nuances and the intricacies of the five-day match. Nonetheless, I haven’t found it worth the trouble to drive to town, park my car a kilometer away, walk down to Wankhede Stadium, stand in a queue for an hour, get frisked by the ill-mannered security men at the gates and then sit watching the match for six-odd hours in uncomfortable, plastic seats.
I don’t know if things have improved in the last few years, but the thought of sitting among 35,000 people, cheering and shouting, in the claustrophobic confines of the stadium was for me a nightmare. I have therefore found my living room couch more comfortable. What’s more, I can get my forty winks when the batsmen go to sleep at the crease.
That Test match in 1993 was between India and England. Ten of us from my company, under my ‘inspirational’ leadership, were given free tickets to the North Stand, including official transport. Our duty was to hand out A3-sized paper sheets to spectators so that they could write catchy slogans on them. The company’s logo was printed on one corner of the sheet and whenever television cameras picked up a slogan, the company derived mileage. One of my slogans, “Bring back Boycs, Heyhoe Flint”, after England had lost six wickets for 118 in the first innings, was discussed on TV by Geoff Boycott himself. Another caricature I had made of Mike Gatting, with the slogan, “Hey Gatt, you’re too fat”, had Mike Atherton guffawing from third man and had ‘Fat Gatt’ himself glowering at us.
The last one-day match I watched at the Wankhede Stadium was the World Cup 1996 humdinger between India and Australia. A couple of months before the match, a crane had fallen across the ground, spilling oil and causing a huge indentation on the field. With only a few days left for the match and the organisers thinking of shifting the match elsewhere, my company had taken upon itself the challenge of getting the outfield back in playing condition. A team of civil engineers and horticulturists worked day and night and got the ground ready in time for the match.
As a reward for the outstanding work done, we were given special MCA Pavilion passes for the World Cup match. I travelled to the stadium with my general manager who was a cricket buff. A chain-smoker, he asked me on the way how we could smuggle in some cigarettes. We worked out a plan. He placed a few cigarettes in his shirt pocket and told the security personnel that he didn’t have a lighter or match-box. I carried a few match sticks in my wallet along with a match-box top. When there was a tense moment in the match, my boss would hop into the washroom and smoke a cigarette and return to his seat. We cocked a snook at the haughty security personnel when we left the ground, after the match.
It was in 2010, I think, that I ‘watched’ an Indian Premier League (IPL) match from the ultra-luxurious President’s Box at Wankhede Stadium, thanks to an invite from Dilip Vengsarkar. With friends to chat with, I don’t remember seeing a single delivery being bowled, though it involved the Mumbai Indians. Speaking of Vengsarkar, I was witness to his brilliant knock of 100 against the likes of Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Winston Davis and Wayne Daniel in November 1983 at Wankhede Stadium. I also saw K Srikkanth being run out by John Emburey, in an earlier match, when the former strolled out of the crease, absentmindedly, after playing a defensive shot.
In one Test match, when I was in the VIP stands at Wankhede Stadium, there were two people with wads of Rs 100 notes in their hands sitting next to me. They were wagering over things like how many runs Vishwanath would score off the next ball, or whether Bedi would get a wicket off the fourth ball of the over. The beginnings of spot-fixing, I guess.
On another occasion a member of a ladies’ kitty party circle in my housing complex asked me for passes to an IPL match. When I told her that the match wouldn’t be interesting and that I would get her passes for a better one, she said, “Who wants to watch the match? We just want to have fun!”
The profile of the cricket spectator is changing. If some come to the stadium for the fun, there are others, more discerning, who look for the intricacies of the game. For both it is value for money; the money that goes into the coffers of the cricket board! Therefore, it is time the BCCI and its various associations realised that the spectator is ‘king’. Without them, there can neither be a Virat Kohli nor a Sourav Ganguly.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, coach and sports administrator, he believes in calling a spade a spade
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