Skipper Virat Kohli’s appeal to BCCI is probably the gentle nudge BCCI president-elect Sourav Ganguly needed to sort out a long standing grouse against hosting Tests in the cricketing backwaters of India.
The sooner Ganguly acquiesces and brings Test cricket back to centres with a cricketing culture, the better for all concerned, particularly players, administrators, fans and media.
Kohli probably has had his fill in playing Tests in second tier cities Ranchi, Pune, Rajkot, Nagpur, Dharamshala and the like that at the end of the Ranchi Test, he remarked that Tests should be played only in “strong Test centres”.
The first folks who would jump with joy if “strong Test centres” were chosen would be administrators of second tier cities.
Hosting a Test has its own share of worries, right from getting the spectators stands, washrooms, dressing rooms, umpires room, media centre, referees box, Board enclosures, officials’ area, car parks, various lunch rooms, catering areas and the stadium itself wiped scrupulously clean for six to seven consecutive evenings – i.e. after close of play and before shutting down the stadium each evening. This includes two days before the start of Test to five days of scheduled play.
An army of cleaners needs to be supervised and goaded into working diligently and efficiently after close of play. But this is only part of the logistics that needs to be activated every day for seven or more days. There’s security, crowd control, hospitality, garbage disposal, transport units, medical units, army of volunteers, ticket booths manning, selling, ticketing personnel in various stands, besides overseeing working of stadium gate staff, food stalls, constant water availability, etc. Then there is a posse of groundsmen who would be needed to get practise pitches and nets organised before play and after play every day and of course the main pitch and outfield.
All these personnel need to be trained, supervised, motivated, fed and activated for service every day for up to seven days, unmindful of the fickle nature of spectators who may decide to attend in thousands or simply stay away. Actually, that’s the tough part in hosting Tests: after all the preparations, the crowds may simply not turn up.
This is in direct contrast to the task of hosting ODIs and T20Is. The crowds are guaranteed while all the hard work by various committees and personnel is confined to just a day or two, at most.
This is one reason why small centres or tier two cities prefer to host white ball cricket rather than Test matches. On the other hand, bigger and regular cricket centres with their years of experience are better at handling these issues.
However the major cricket centres too want to host white ball cricket as often as possible. The BCCI in a bid to buy peace with every unit decided to have a rotation policy whereby some tier two cities too were upgraded to be in the mix for Test matches. At the last count, there were 28 Test centres in India. Is it any wonder then that centres with a glorious cricket tradition, Mumbai and Chennai, last hosted a Test match three years ago.
Even the other major centres have not really hosted the best of opponents in Tests of late. Bengaluru hosted Afghanistan in June 2018, Eden Gardens and Delhi last hosted Tests two years ago against Sri Lanka. However, the conduct of several IPL matches annually in these centres has somewhat quelled their grouse at being sidelined.
The issue really is with the rotation policy to host matches. If a centre declines to conduct a match, it goes to the bottom of the rotation queue. Besides, there is no guarantee that it would get a better Test next time around. So, virtually all centres take whatever match is allocated to them. The huge guarantee money that BCCI pays to the host association is the salivating lure for hosting any match.
Occasionally, rotation policy is done away with for various reasons: pollution (Delhi), Sachin Tendulkar special farewell series (when Kolkata and Mumbai were specifically chosen), Pakistan (they can’t play in Mumbai), etc.
The current angst against matches in tier two cities is the lack of crowds. It must be remembered that when IPL franchise cities (Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata, Punjab, Jaipur and Hyderabad) were identified and sold, it was based on a survey that also looked at spending power and additionally the willingness to spend. Whether the smaller centres have these qualities after hosting an IPL match or two every season is uncertain.
Other factors that are a dampener in tier two cities are lack of numerous high quality hotels close to the venue. These are a must not just for players, but officials, administrators, television crew, sponsors, media and a whole lot of supporters and fans. These smaller cities also do not have much by way of entertainment after the day’s play for supporters, fans and others, especially those visiting to watch Tests.
The major cricket centres with a robust cricket culture like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata and Delhi have their stadium right in the city, unlike newer centres, and also have scores of options by ways of hotels, restaurants, watering holes and entertainment. It is also easier to fly in and out of these cities. These are some of the reasons why they consistently score over tier two cities and are hence make better venues for Tests.
Nevertheless, it is an undeniable fact that BCCI and state units need to be open to marketing Test cricket, irrespective of where it is played.
Those days when fans queued up and slept outside the stadium to buy tickets are long gone. BCCI must now aggressively sell the game, especially to youngsters if they want to see packed stadium in Tests again.
They would be extremely short-sighted if all that they were concerned about was revenue from television and other media rights. Empty stands could put off a lot of folks, not just viewers. Wake up BCCI! The skipper has a point.