Pune: Mayank Agarwal has scored a mountain of runs in front of empty stadiums at the domestic level. From there, he has progressed to the international arena, earning the right to play in front of loving crowds.
It has turned out to be a different story, though. In Visakhapatnam, he scored a maiden test hundred and converted it to a double. He raised his arms to a half-empty ACA-VDCA Stadium. In Pune, it went a step further. As he celebrated the wondrous feat of back-to-back hundreds, there were only 4000-odd fans present at the MCA International Stadium to cheer for him. It ought to hurt.
Was it that odd a sight? Probably not, for Test attendances have been dwindling for some time now. Plus, the BCCI opted for weird scheduling in this Test series with none of the traditional Test centres (Bengaluru, Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata or Delhi) granted a game. Even so, the Indian team was touring overseas for the better part of 2018, so this series provided a wonderful opportunity for tier-two centres to host games and for fans to see their heroes in flesh.
Let it be said here that although stands at Visakhapatnam weren’t full, there was a decent crowd in everyday, partly helped by the fact that school kids were allowed free entry on all days. There seems to be no such provision in Pune because, well, the ground is simply inaccessible to school-going kids.
There was a time when the VCA Stadium in Nagpur used to be the least accessible cricket ground in India. That crown rests comfortably with Pune now, with the MCA International Stadium in Gahunje some 20-25 kilometres away from the city centre.
Sure, there are challenges getting to and from Nagpur still. Rajkot is another example of a stadium with such issues. Even the ground in Visakhapatnam isn’t an easy location for cricket. The common thread with all four aforementioned stadiums is that they are situated on national highways. Nagpur, Rajkot and Vizag are situated on heavily-used highways with ample shortstop public transportation available. Pune lacks in this area deeply.
Getting to the ground, with lack of public transport and twisted roads next to the Mumbai expressway, is simply not easy. Radio cabs will help you reach there but there is no confirmation of a return journey from an isolated locale in the Ghats (hills). Of course, getting to the ground via either your cab or private car isn’t a walk in the park either, as this writer found out on day one.
The MCA has made proper transport arrangement for journalists to and from the city. However, there are times when some media personnel travel on their own. On the way to the ground on day one morning in a radio cab then, one faced three checkpoints. The policemen at the first checkpoint deflected the car to the second checkpoint, where the road was blocked further. Fans arriving in their private cars had to park there and walk to the stadium – 3 kilometres away.
I directed my cab back towards the first checkpoint and this time they let us through. Stopping at the third checkpoint was obligatory, and then you walk towards the stadium – 500 meters. On reaching there, I was denied entry at gates 1, 2, 3 and 4, despite wearing a media pass. Why? Because I was carrying a bag with my work laptop in it!
Finally entering through gate 5 (a total walk of 2 kilometres from the third checkpoint), it was time for reflection. If pass-wearing media personnel had to face such issues, imagine the plight of the common fans. No bags, no water bottles, no food items, hell, not even umbrellas were allowed into the ground on match days. It was almost as if they didn’t want us — media or fans — to come to the ground.
The MCA stadium is an open ground, apart from the grandstand. There is no protection, neither from the sun or the rain, both of which are in plenty in Pune currently. How are fans expected to sit through an entire day of Test cricket without such facilities? When pointed out on Twitter, a lot of fans who have attended cricket matches in Pune, complained about lack of proper food or water.
While other rules (regarding food, water, umbrellas, coins, cameras, bags, etc.) are consistent with other cricket grounds in India given security issues, it is gobsmacking that the MCA Stadium doesn’t have proper stands for protection from the weather. Some people cite Mohali as an example, but that is a relatively old stadium. This ground in Pune hosted its first international game in 2012. It is astounding that the authorities neglected such an important aspect of spectator experience in this modern age.
Maybe the concerned authorities should ask themselves — why would anyone bother with Test cricket when simple and basic facilities aren’t made available? In fact, take this example and extrapolate to ODIs or T20s (including IPL games). If a lower number of fans (you cannot expect a full-house for Tests anyway) face such indifference, imagine the chaos that transpires for white-ball games.
Some people would argue against giving such matches to tier-two centres, or ones with such teething problems such as lack of transportation. Well, that’s not an agreeable solution for two reasons. One, there are a few cricket grounds overseas which are outside city limits but reasonable transport arrangements are made by cricketing and local administration authorities working together. Southampton, for example, where on match days, there are buses ferrying people from the city centre as well as two local train stations.
It is the second point that is of far greater concern, however. Fans from traditional Indian cricket centres cannot simply shrug off such indifference towards fans at tier-two centres. Simple because they are one entity — as Indian cricket fans, they too face issues of food, water, washrooms, access for disabled and lack of shade in traditional centres.
Eden Gardens in Kolkata, for example, has horrendous food arrangements. Chennai, for instance, still doesn’t have two of its grandstands open because they don’t meet safety standards. How are matches hosted there still? Delhi and Mumbai are easily accessible but have teething problems regarding over-priced food and clean water availability. Apart from major grandstands, certain sections in Kolkata, Delhi or Mumbai do not have shade either.
Bengaluru, at present, is arguably the best cricket ground from fans’ point of view, but it lags by miles in comparison with international stadia abroad. Whether it is the grand MCG (Melbourne), the historical Lord’s (London) or even Basin Reserve (Wellington), a small ground only used for Test cricket, facilities like proper and reasonably priced food stalls, free drinking water, ample amounts of sunscreen, proper access for disabled and shade from weather elements are taken for granted.
Meanwhile, in India, the focal point of the cricketing universe, why is all of this too much to ask for, that too in 2019? The answer is simple — pure apathy towards the paying public who are key stakeholders of Indian cricket.
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