The Ugly Stepchildren of Indian Cricket

Test Cricket is dying. Or so we have been told for many years. It was dying at the turn of the 20th century. It was reportedly on its last legs when the Kerry Packer revolution took hold. The scourge of matchfixing was definitely the death knell. The new kid on the block, T20, has certainly made sure Test Cricket won’t last long. Every time there is a cricket match in India with half empty stands, boilerplate articles pop up on all cricket websites proclaiming the demise of Tests. And so on.

Yet, Test cricket has soldiered on, primarily because the gatekeepers of the game – the administrators, generally did their jobs, or at least, stayed out of its way. However, Tests face a new threat, and this time it is real from those running the game actively seeking to cripple the most important factor for the future of the game: The fans wanting to witness it in flesh and blood, so that they can tell stories to their grandkids one day, of having watched a Sachin Tendulkar spectacular sitting in the North Stand of the Wankhede Stadium or a MS Dhoni special while sitting in the D Stand in Chepauk.

In the last 20 months, I have had the opportunity and privilege to watch Test cricket in 9 venues across four continents. My best experience was at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and the worst, by a country mile, was at Wankhede Stadium. From getting tickets, to security checks, to facilities inside the ground, and the general way the paying customer is treated, these venues were as remarkably different as day and night.

Last week, I was in Chennai to watch the first Test of the ongoing India-Australia series and was hit with a new set of regulations that I hadn’t faced even at Wankhede—I wasn’t allowed to bring in my binoculars. After arguing in the company of fellow binocular-carrying sufferers with the security guards and pointing how ridiculous it sounded to not allow binoculars at a cricket match, I made it in, although I avoided the whole hassle for the following days by leaving them back in the safety of my hotel room.

The travails of the daring adventurer that is the cricket fan wanting to watch the action live at the stadium are quite well known, including one by Sambit Bal of Cricinfo yesterday. A friend of mine remarked rather ironically during the Chepauk Test, “Well, if things continue the way they are now, stadium going experience in India could soon just mean that you stand in line outside the stadium for a few hours to buy the ticket and go through the cavity search security checks, and head on back home to watch the match on TV, sat on the living room sofa.” He might be right.

Why wouldn’t the BCCI and the State Cricket Associations have any concern to enrich the experience of the fans willing to put themselves through so much crap to watch a cricket match? Here is a theory: The financial interests of BCCI are secure through the 6-year, $700 million contract they signed with Star Cricket in April 2013. Their income isn’t going to be determined by the hoards that come through the turnstiles. In fact, it is more beneficial for them if more fans stayed home and watched the cricket on TV, which will then add to the value of any future contracts that they may enter with the broadcasters.

As to the State Associations, they get a guaranteed chunk of money every year handed out by the BCCI. Therefore, they are also not reliant on the gate receipts, and don’t have to worry about the fan experience in the stadium either. The responsibility of ensuring the stadium going fans are well taken care of is that of the local cricket associations and hence BCCI wash their hands off of it. However, as the central organization that is in charge of running cricket in India, BCCI has to shoulder the majority of the blame.

If the other BCCI product, IPL, and its franchises could bend over backwards to ensure the fans keep flocking the stadiums for the two-months long whackathon, it should be possible for the BCCI to take care of the fans that show up for India’s premier cricketing product – international fixtures, especially Tests.

BCCI has the power to make the state associations accountable by holding part of the annual payout contingent on the international venues generating substantial revenues through gate receipts. This would be the motivation they need to actually address the concerns of the stadium goers, such as releasing the tickets early, making them available online, publicizing the events and of course, the facilities inside the arenas.

Now who can tie the bell around BCCI’s neck? Right now, there isn’t any motivation for them to change their ways. It becomes the responsibility of the media organizations, the writers, and the bloggers, to keep pushing till the BCCI is moved to act on it, on something that is so obvious. It would be nice if when the BCCI President makes himself available for a rare interview, at least one question is posed to him on the plight of the paying public.

Crowds outside Chepauk on Day 3 India v Australia, looking for tickets and trying to make their way in.

Crowds outside Chepauk on Day 3 India v Australia, looking for tickets and trying to make their way in.

During the Chennai Test, I had the opportunity to watch the match from the general stands for three days and from the TNCA Club box seats on the other two days. The luncheon affair in the club seats could rival the menu of any Indian wedding with more than 10 items served including Bisi Bela Bath and ice cream, while on the other side of the ground, there were a couple of Coffee Day stalls pushing Vegetable Puffs and containers of cold Biryani.

If the TNCA can arrange for wedding food and all other luxuries for one section of the crowd, they surely can deliver for the rest of the crowd better services than they do now. After all, it isn’t just the Ambimamas who support cricket; it is the masses who are ready to put themselves through the draconian security detail and the punishing sun that keep the heart of Test cricket in India beating. They deserve better.

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