Just hours before the start of the second ODI between India and New Zealand in Pune, a sting operation video of curator Pandurang Salgaoncar allegedly agreeing to tamper with the pitch came to light, and it raised doubts whether the game will take place or not.
The controversy saw Salgoancar being suspended, and only after an inspection of the pitch by an ICC observer, the game was allowed to start on time.
While fans battled with heat, overpriced foods in exchange for a chance to see their favourite stars up close, it looked not many of them were aware of the controversy around the pitch and its curator.
Subash, on his first day of the job as helper at the Pune stadium, didn’t have any knowledge of any such incident or sting operation, which framed Salgoancar as willing to tweak pitch for bookies.
Amol, a student in his twenties, had no idea that such an incident happened before the match. When briefed about the incident, Amol said, “Sorry, but I am totally unaware of this story. Therefore, I can’t comment on the controversy."
A middle-aged man from Daund, Shitole was at the Maharashtra Cricket Association stadium in Pune, with a co-worker from company. When asked about the controversy, Shitole said, "I think I heard some guy say it when I was on my way to the stadium, but I couldn’t get around the news on my own."
However, he didn’t see the incident as affecting his viewing experience, adding, "It’s not a big issue."
The alleged claims of Salgoancar in the video, where he is seen claiming the Pune pitch to be high-scoring, didn’t impress Anand, who came to watch the second ODI with his son. While he denied the knowledge of the sting operation on Salgaoncar, Anand, who works in the construction business, said, "I don’t feel cheated, nor does this affect me as a fan. Anyway, you say that curator claimed to make a high-scoring pitch, but that hasn’t clearly happened."
The lack of knowledge in the stands, regarding the alleged pitch-tampering, might well be understood by the timing of the news, which broke early morning on the match day. While the Indian public is known to be interested in being up to date with news, especially when it comes to cricket, it wasn’t the case this time.
It is quite possible that the story would have had made it its way into public’s consciousness if, instead of morning, the news had broken the night before the match. The location of the MCA stadium, which is situated on the outskirts of the city, might also have contributed to the issue. Fans had to travel a fair distance to reach the ground, effectively cutting most of them off from their television sets, where the story broke first.
Many fans at the stadium said that they see this incident as an aberration, without any wider ramifications. A bank employee, Mayur, who earlier came for the India-England ODI at Pune in January, said, “No, not at all,” when asked if the news of the curator as any effect on him, or that if pushes him away from coming to watch the gentleman’s game.
Mayur further declined to see this story in the light of the fixing controversies, which have gripped cricket for over two decades now. He said, "I never believe in all this."
Amit Chabra, who was enjoying the view from Pune’s North Stand, was anguished by the incident, and he sees the incident in a “similar” light to match-fixing. "Anything that affects the outcome of the match is fixing. I hope the BCCI takes some action."
Amit, who had earlier visited Pune for the IPL matches, said, "Yes, of course I feel bad. At international level, such things shouldn’t happen."
“How was he allowed to talk to a journalist first of all? It is bad, spoiling the name of the country, the fans, and the sports itself, it was very bad.”
Wasim Khan, who was on his fifth trip to Pune along with his friends, observed that he "only feels bad when players are involved," while also acknowledging that he didn’t hear about the Salgaoncar controversy.
There were, however, some spectators who, although, very less in number, followed the story before arriving at the ground.
One of them was Purav Shah, a banker in his mid-20s, who was in Pune for his first international match.
"I read the news in the morning," said Purav, who was just outside the stadium, parking his car when he called up his sister.
"My sister asked me, 'have you read the news? Probably the match is going to be abandoned.' I was really shocked."
When he learnt that the toss had taken place, as he had following the game online, Purav was relieved.
"Just recently, we had the Test match with Australia. So knowing the fact that it (pitch) was already under the scanner, it’s not a good thing to happen of course.”
There might still be more to learn about the sting operation and whether Salgaoncar did actually do something wrong, and the facts might become clear once the ICC probe into the incident is completed. For that, one might have to wait a bit longer
But going by the response of fans at the ground, coupled with the visuals of a packed stadium, the controversy, for now, hasn’t had any visible effect on either the enthusiasm, fervor or craze associated with an India cricket match.
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