Editor’s note: In the first part of this report, we looked at how Virat Kohli’s suggestion to have Test cricket played in only five venues has started an interesting debate. The second part will focus on possible solutions to bring more fans to the stadiums for watching Test cricket.
“First things first, I would like to thank the crowd of Indore, coming out in large numbers. It felt like a Test from the 90s.”— Ashwin Ravichandran, Indore 2016
After finishing yet another Test series at home as India’s best player, Ashwin Ravichandran walked up to the post-match presentation and struck a chord with not just the thousands of fans still remaining at the venue in Indore, but with many watching it on television. The overflowing crowd during the match reminded many a fan of the memorable days when a Sachin Tendulkar century or an Anil Kumble five-for was as well received in red-ball cricket as it was in limited-overs. It moved Ashwin enough to open his acceptance speech, if you will, with a thank you note to the fans.
It also marked the day India received the Test championship mace for being the No 1 ranked side in the world. That New Zealand series, in the bigger picture, will be remembered as just another dominant performance by Virat Kohli and Co but the crowds (especially in Kanpur, for India’s 500th Test, and Indore) were hugely encouraging signs for the health of the longest format in the country.
Three years after that memorable home season, India are still the undisputed No 1 side in Tests, but the discussion after another whitewash at home (this time over South Africa) has centered around the lack of interest shown by fans to come to the venues.
Kohli made strong points about how he was a big believer in having dedicated venues for Test cricket in India but one thing is clear, as we wrote before: the treatment of the fans at venues must improve drastically in India to bring the footfall back up and maintain it. Even Sourav Ganguly admitted in his first press conference as the BCCI boss that this is not a simple issue to deal with.
“It would be wrong to ascribe simplistic causes to this [issue],” said Tareque Laskar, a sports analyst based out of Bengaluru. “There cannot be one reason for people coming to the venues for Tests. In Bengaluru, for instance, I have seen Tests with all levels of opponents and the turnout has been invariably good. Generally, the city has a core audience for Test cricket that will show up for matches. Which is one major factor that needs to be considered whenever a decision is made.”
“In India, the fans are still treated as a nuisance almost. ‘Oh god, why have they turned up.’ Outside India, it’s drastically different, I feel,” Faraz Baig, a 33-year-old IT professional who has travelled around the world to watch Test cricket, told Scroll.in.
Baig strongly believes that Kohli’s suggestion will work to preserve interest in the longer format but he has seen fans being treated badly even at the Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai.
Arbitrary rotation of venues
The Wankhede Stadium – the venue that has hosted the third-most number of Tests in India and arguably the first choice in many a fan’s list should a shortlist happen – has hosted just four Tests in the last decade. That number stands at two for Chennai. Both iconic venues have not hosted a Test since England’s visit in 2016 while the last 10 matches in India have been held at 10 different venues. While we have often heard ‘rotation of venues’ as the reason from the powers that be, it has largely been arbitrary. No one quite understands how Tests get allocated these days.
Contrast this to England, who announced allocation of venues for the period 2020-’24 last year. According to the roadmap, Lord’s will be hosting two Tests each summer for the next five years. While there has been criticism of allocation in England too, it is staggering in comparison to the Indian perspective to see a) forward-planning, b) importance given to an iconic venue.
In that sense, Kohli’s call for designated Test centres has strong logic but how it will be done in India would be anyone’s guess, knowing BCCI’s love for bureaucracy over meritocracy.
“It is definitely possible to look at a scientific methodology,” said 38-year-old Laskar who holds an MBA in Finance and is pursuing a PhD in Strategy. “The BCCI should ideally look to quantify a method in choosing these venues rather than just going by public sentiment. Even a basic survey that looks at how things have been in previous years – tickets sold across venues, level of opposition – will give metrics to decide the best options. Given the resources at their disposal, it’ll be easy to do.”
Extending on that thought, Baig feels a mixture of traditional and non-traditional venues can be fixed the list of five centres but called for the implementation of a gradation system.
“The number – five – is fair but make one of those to be the smaller venues,” said Baig. “Four of them can be from the major centers. Come up with a points system and rank all five venues, every year, based on a few metrics. Grade them. Ideally, one of those five venues can keep on rotating... like a promotion-relegation system. This way all five venues stay on their toes and do their best to ensure a Test match is successful.”
A social occasion
With Sourav Ganguly taking charge as BCCI President, it now seems a matter of when and not if for India joining the list of countries to host a day-night Test. India has been known to join the bandwagon late on cricketing trends in the past and this might turn out to be one of those.
Even otherwise, irrespective of how the venues are chosen and what the locations of the stadium in a city are, the importance of making a five-day watching experience pleasant for the fans cannot be stressed enough. Helping fans with commute to and from the venue, proving basic necessities like water and clean washrooms, having designated fan zones where kids and elders can relax even during the match... these are simple things that a stadium can provide without breaking the bank.
If they cared enough.
For many fans, travelling to a venue to watch Tests is also a chance to meet like-minded people. Some hardcore travelling fans have told this writer that some of the best cricketing friendships they have made in life have come from interacting in the stands at a Test match.
“For me, personally, going to a venue to watch Test cricket has meant an opportunity to connect with fans beyond the game as well. Food, culture, what we do other than cricket, make new friends...all these things make a trip to a venue for five days worthwhile,” said Baig.
Kohli’s suggestion certainly opens up an interesting commercial aspect too. Imagine having the Diwali Test in Mumbai or a Navratri Test (day-night maybe?) at Eden Gardens, year after year. The possibilities of creating storylines around such a Test would be endless for a good marketing mind.
When Mayank Agarwal made his debut in front of nearly 75,000 fans, it meant a whole lot to him. It was Boxing Day. It was the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Maybe, in a few years from now, it could happen in India as well when a packed stadium is a possibility on a social occasion surrounding a massive Test match.
All these suggestions are merely the start of a brainstorming that needs to happen in the offices of those who run Indian cricket. So much more could be done for Test cricket to return to the days when fans thronged the stadium and Ganguly, having seen the highest-of-highs in his tenure as the captain, can be at the forefront now as the BCCI President.