Let's get those fans to the stadium
As a cricket lover, I've had many 'I was there' moments the kind you want to live to tell your grandchildren about. I was there when India won at Perth in 2008 to become the only team from the subcontinent to defeat Australia at the WACA. I was there when thousands of Australians leapt to their feet to give Tendulkar a standing ovation at the SCG as he got to a 100 in a Test that was to be marred later by Monkeygate.
Ever since they arrived here three weeks ago for the Test series, we have been inundated with reports of England's extensive preparations for this tour, of India's deliberate strategy to keep spinners out of the warm-up games, of MS Dhoni's men thirsting for revenge and of England's determination to win their first Test series in India in almost 28 years. Hours of television footage and hundreds of newspaper columns have been painstakingly devoted to documenting and discussing every net session, press conference and team activity.
Then you have the cringe-inducing 'Kya India baja paayegi England ki band?' television promos, on high-rotation on ESPN and Star Cricket, and it's quite clear that the media has collectively whipped up quite a frenzy to promote India's cricket season at home. But am I the only one who thinks the official broadcasters and cricket journalists are more excited about this series than the cricket-viewing public?
I let out a chuckle when I read the report about Andy Flower, England's coach, orchestrating 'crowd noise' for the team's practice sessions during the three-day pre-tour camp in Dubai. The idea was to get the batsmen used to playing in the sort of cacophonous conditions they would experience in Indian stadiums. But if evidence of some of India's most high profile Tests at home over the last few years is anything to go by, then England don't have much to worry about.
Sourav Ganguly's farewell Test in Nagpur in 2008, against Australia, was played to embarrassingly empty stands. A 45,000-capacity stadium where not even 10,000 people showed up to watch a riveting Test, the final one of a hard-fought series. There was hardly any support for VVS Laxman when Hyderabad's Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium hosted its inaugural Test in 2010. As it turns out, that was to be Laxman's only Test at his home ground. And in a country obsessed with the anticipation of Sachin Tendulkar's 100th hundred, the turnout for the India-West Indies Test last year at the Kotla in Delhi was nothing to brag about.
Television viewership for Test matches is on the decline too so it's not like people who choose not to come to the ground are watching it on telly. And do not be fooled by carefully manipulated pictures of the telecast you watch at home (if you are watching at all) because broadcasters are working really hard to make sure you don't see how empty the stadium is by constantly focusing on sections of the stadium that happen to have a smattering of fans.
As a cricket lover, I've had many 'I was there' moments - the kind you want to live to tell your grandchildren about. I was there when India won at Perth in 2008 to become the only team from the subcontinent to defeat Australia at the WACA. I was there when thousands of Australians leapt to their feet to give Tendulkar a standing ovation at the SCG as he got to a 100 in a Test that was to be marred later by Monkeygate. I was there when India chased down 387 against England in Chennai to reach an emotional win following the 26/11 attacks. I could go on and on. I have many such moments. And memories. Dating back to the time I was 13.
There are also moments I will always regret missing. The ones I wish I had been there for. Like watching Laxman and Rahul Dravid at Eden Gardens in 2001 (I was away at university in Toronto and tracking it ball-by-ball on the Internet, night after night). I wish I could've watched Brian Lara writing poetry with his bat as he took West Indies to a near-impossible win against Australia at Antigua in 2003.
I wish I could have watched the West Indian pace quartet breathe fire in Australia and England. Or watched Vivian Richards tease opposition bowlers as he chomped his chewing gum and looked right into their eyes. I envy my dad when he talks about how he will never forget watching Wes Hall and Roy Gilchrist bowling to Pankaj Roy at the Brabourne Stadium in 1958, who flinched and shut his eyes as the ball zipped past because there were times when he just couldn't sight the ball. Or how he still vividly remembers Ramakant Desai's dismissal of Hanif Mohammad for a duck courtesy a diving catch by Polly Umrigar in the slips in 1960. I wish I could've watched those matches and those moments with him.
Only Test cricket with its several passages of play, languid pace and many moments of deliberation allows cricket lovers the chance to really soak in the drama and tension, feel the rhythm and mull over the game, session-by-session, over by over, ball-by-ball. I love the romance of Test cricket but our kind is increasingly becoming an aberration among a new generation that follows the tiddlywinks of Twenty20 and English Premier League football.
Of course we can criticise the BCCI and accuse the board of not caring enough about the bums on seats because they have already made a profit even before a ball has been bowled. Can they do more? Sure. Can the state associations do more? Absolutely. Like having free shuttles to ferry ticket-holders to grounds that are outside city limits like in Nagpur and Hyderabad. They could make it a more enjoyable fan and family experience by organising activities at the ground. And allowing school children in for free, as Sachin Tendulkar suggested some time ago. They most definitely can do more to ensure there are enough toilets for women. And enough drinking water and food for everyone.
But the onus is on us too. The very stadiums that we passionately argue offer a terrible spectator experience are packed for one-day matches and irrelevant IPL ties. We talk about how Test matches should be day-night affairs to get in more crowds. But what about catching Test cricket on the weekends? I would love to hear from you on what would make you want to come to the ground to watch a Test.
You lost your chance to bid Ganguly farewell. You never got a chance to say goodbye to Dravid or Laxman. Will Sachin Tendulkar play the last few Test matches of his career to empty stands? I really hope not.