At midnight Indian time on October 20, the official Twitter handle of the Board of Control for Cricket in India tweeted birthday wishes to Virender Sehwag with a video clip. The now 41-year-old played a glance towards square leg for a single and held his bat up in celebration as the spectators at MA Chidambaram Stadium, Chennai cheered him on. It was a run-fest on an atypical Chepauk pitch but that had not deterred fans from turning up in huge numbers to witness history being made: Sehwag’s 319 against South Africa on that March day is still the highest score by an Indian in Tests.

Cut to a few hours later on October 20. The scene is Ranchi. The opponent is the same. Another Indian opener is the center of attention. The batsman is Rohit Sharma. Enjoying his elevation to the top of the Indian batting order, he was playing the best red-ball innings of his life. And on Sehwag’s birthday, rather fittingly, he hit a six to reach his double century and finish with his career-best score.

Plenty of similarities in the two scenarios but one major difference: the crowd in Ranchi was but a fraction of the turnout in Chennai in 2008. A scintillating Rohit Sharma innings was playing out in front of sparse crowds.

In the days following India’s 3-0 whitewash of South Africa (that saw Virat Kohli’s men set a new world record for home dominance in Tests), the discussion has centered around the poor turnout across the three matches in the series. The spectator count was below par in Vishakapatnam, Pune and Ranchi, prompting Kohli to make an interesting observation: host Test cricket in India only in five venues.

“It can’t be sporadic and spread over so many places where people turn up or they don’t, so in my opinion, absolutely. You should have five strong Test centres that teams coming to India know that this is where they’re going to play.”

— Virat Kohli

High time?

While the increasing list of international standard venues in India speaks about the rise of infrastructure the game has witnessed in the country, this series brought into focus the flip side and Kohli’s suggestion has certainly started a debate on the topic.

“Five centres... not too many or two few,” said Faraz Baig, a 33-year-old IT professional who has travelled around the country (and in Australia, England) for watching India play Tests. “Take Mumbai for instance. The last Test at Wankhede was in 2016. We are in 2019. Will that happen in any other major Test playing nation? Durban, Melbourne... they host a Test every year. If you are talking about number of venues, England has plenty but they have designated Test stadiums and you can see how it helps [in attracting crowds].”

“I’ve always thought that’s a good idea. Having set centres yields to more intense games and story-lines,” said Madhan Rajasekharan, a 31-year-old Business Analyst from Chennai currently working in Bengaluru. “As fans, we always expect something different, exciting every time [when India play] from a Perth or Durban Test. Having so many different venues takes that continuous charm away. Especially, if tier 2-3 cities end up having one test in five-six year, I don’t think fans want Test cricket sort of entertainment in such poor frequency.”

The charm of Test cricket is the narrative that can be woven around it and to this day, Indian fans await a Lord’s Test or Melbourne Test (followed by Sydney) with great anticipation.

Most Tests hosted in India

Venue Matches hosted
Eden Gardens, Kolkata 41
MA Chidambaram Stadium, Chepauk, Chennai 32
Feroz Shah Kotla, Delhi 34
Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai 25
M.Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bengaluru 23

Baig, who has watched matches in Melbourne, Sydney and Lord’s apart from multiple venues in India, adds: “Test match venues have character... something that takes years and years to build but can be lost in no time.

“Now Mumbai has not hosted a Test match since 2016, and we have waited so long since then that Kohli has scored four more double centuries after that. I am not sure the next time a Test happens in Mumbai, that innings will be remembered as fondly as it should be. And the character of the stadium is not about just its facilities. Grounds around India all have their unique qualities... different soil, different conditions. It’s that sort of thing we miss out on when there are so many venues hosting Tests.”

Another advantage of having a set calendar for Test cricket for a travelling fan like Baig is the ease of planning.

“Scheduling is a big part of this, too. I can plan, say, six months in advance if I know a certain venue is hosting a Test at a given time of the year: like Melbourne and Boxing day. Some predictability will help travelling fans a great deal. Yes sure, do not fix the dates. But knowing that a Diwali Test will happen in a particular city, or a Pongal Test in Chennai...this will generate character around a Test match,” he added.

It’s not that simple

As always, however, there is more than one side to the debate.

“There are pros and cons. You will definitely get good crowds at the big venues and Test cricket will continue to be relevant,” said Vipul Yadav, one of the members of popular Mumbai-based fan group North Stand Gang who calls for a balance while choosing venues for Test cricket. “Unlike England and Australia, we are a very diverse country in many ways. There was a time in India when cricketers would only come from a few pockets — Mumbai, Karnataka. That is not the case anymore. So traditional centres are not exactly powerhouses. Stars come from everywhere.”

Part of the problem during the South Africa series was all the three venues were so-called non-traditional ones. All three venues were hosting just their second ever Test matches. In fact, the last 10 Test matches in the country have been hosted by 10 different venues.

“I don’t really see [how having five dedicated venues helps] if the number of spectators is the only concern,” said Snehal Pradhan, former India international cricketer-turned journalist. “Why deprive of smaller centers of Test cricket? It’s certainly feasible if the administrators decide to go with it but it’s not a good idea for everyone, I’m not sure.”

Having covered the women’s game closely, Pradhan was witness to a poor turnout for an ODI series between India and England (after the epic World Cup final) at Wankhede Stadium while centres like Vadodara and Surat have welcomed the women in blue with open arms. What Mumbai failed to do, Vadodara managed in 2018 by going out of the norm to market a women’s game being hosted in the city.

“I have always said that for women’s game to grow in India, we need to host matches in tier-II venues that have accessible stadiums. I am certain that if Indore hosts a men’s Test, the stadium will be packed for five days because the venue is bang in the middle of the city. Incentivise people to watch — through scheduling and stadium experience,” said Pradhan.

Incidentally, when Indore hosted New Zealand in the country’s *502nd Test, the terrific turnout received a lot of praise from players and fans, but the match was marketed well by the Board. Clearly, it’s not as simple as selecting a big-name venue to guarantee footfall.

“This India-South Africa series has perhaps for the first time made it obvious to those running the game that extra efforts need to be made if you are taking Test cricket to the non-major venues. You can’t just let popularity of the game take care of people turning up anymore,” said Pradhan, who played 10 international matches for India.

The Pune Test, especially, witnessed some stinging criticism this time around for lack of proper facilities for fans while the accessibility to the venue has always been a problem. Pradhan, who is from Pune and Vipul, a regular Test cricket watcher both rue the difficulties in getting to the stadium — a problem exacerbated during a Test match, compared to an ODI or T20I.

Not just about the brand

But, unfortunately, such problems in India are not restricted to a Pune or a Ranchi.

“I have watched Test matches at Chinnaswamy Stadium (Bengaluru) and Kotla (Delhi). Both are big centers but the fan experience was completely different,” said Tareque Laskar, a 38-year-old sports analyst from Bengaluru. “I have attended most Tests at the venue since my first one in 2005 (versus Pakistan) and there is a great turnout on most days. Chinnaswamy’s infrastructure might not be top-notch but the watching experience is good.

“For instance, fans are allowed to step out of the stadium and return without hassles. But when I had gone for a Test in Delhi, the rules were far too strict, about moving in and out of the stadium, what you can carry. It’s tough to manage five days with those sorts of restrictions and just being a venue in a big city doesn’t guarantee better fan-experience,” Laskar added.

Delhi and Mohali are two such big-name venues that have come in for criticism for not having the greatest atmosphere inside the ground, despite being mainstream stadia. Most venues in India do not take that aspect seriously. Even if there is character and history associated with a stadium, not enough is being done to bring that out for a fan.

Vipul, who is a brand manager currently based in Mumbai, pointed out: “Dharamsala (one of India’s most recent centers) is hailed as this most picturesque venue but it is a struggle to get to the stadium. The connectivity from Delhi is horrible, and it gets worse on matchdays. And in Pune, after attending one match in 2013, I decided I am never attending another match there unless it’s India-Pakistan or a World Cup match.”

Pradhan admitted as much: “Until now if [organisers] were wondering if promoting a Test match was even necessary [in venues like Pune, Ranchi], people have voted with their feet during this South Africa series. If the fans are not taken care of, they will not turn up at the stadiums. They will rather watch it on their television.”

As newly elected BCCI president Sourav Ganguly explained in his first press conference, this is not a problem that is easily understood. When the Bengal association president says a venue like Eden Gardens is unsure of what to expect for a Test match despite seeing terrific numbers during the IPL, you know there is more to this issue than meets the eye.

One thing is certain, if the health of the game is truly the concern in this discussion going forward, it should not merely come down to which of the venues in India are the biggest names and, thus, best-suited to have the right to host Tests. It should be one where the fan’s interest is at the heart of. As things stand in India, Test cricket is not just a test of cricketers’ caliber at the highest level but also a test of a fan’s patience and their love, above and beyond. The game should not take that for granted.

(In the second part of this article, we will look at possible solutions to improve the fan experience and, therefore, Test viewership at venues in India)

(Clarification: The article originally said Indore hosted India’s 500th Test. That was Kanpur, while Indore hosted the third match of the series, India’s 502nd.)