Why the stadia are empty

So India is playing a cricket Test-series against West Indies. The latest match was played over this week at Kolkata, at what is traditionally known as a majestic cricket stadium: Eden Gardens. Kolkata is known to be cricket crazy, and mostly knowledgeable and appreciative of good cricket. It is almost taken for granted that whatever be the attendance at other stadia around the world, the Eden Gardens would be packed full for a Test match.

Alas. Eden Gardens was virtually empty. This has got the experts worked up once again, as it has been a concern over the past few years that Test cricket is losing interest and relevance in the modern day and age of T20 cricket.

As is the wont, everyone has jumped on to make an analysis of the situation (as, ahem, I am about to). Of the better of them, Harsha Bhogle quips:

Maybe Test cricket ought to be played by fewer teams; maybe, as has been suggested by some former Australian cricketers, you play less, but better, Test cricket; or maybe you seek to market it more humbly.

All of this, I think, is a case of hacking at the symptoms. The issue, I think, can be summed in one sentence: the focus for all cricket administrators has shifted—instead of trying to keep the game healthy, it’s only about making the most money possible. And no, it’s not one and the same. If you’re trying to make money, you make decisions that hurt you in the long run; if you’re trying to do a good job, the money comes in anyway.

Consider the current series: India is playing WI. When did these teams last meet? Only two series ago! Are the two teams very evenly matched, so that back to back test series, in the two nations, would be exciting? No, West Indies is far, far from its days of being a challenging team. Was there a big difference between the pitches at West Indies and in India, which would test the teams’ talents in different conditions? No, the pitches in West Indies, as well as those in India, are slow, low, and without life.

Why, oh WHY, would then hardworking people flock to see this Test series?

Consider the recent past. India went to England for a long series, comprising all forms of cricket. India came home licking its tail. It won, exactly, nothing. It was a big upset by England, over what is currently a “good” Indian side. Immediately following this series, what happened? England came to India for a series. Again, back to back. Well, in this case at least the teams were both good. But did England play Test cricket when in India? No, they played a bunch of ODIs. What difference did that make?

Why, oh WHY, would then anyone care at all about that series?

Consider the current Indian team. How many players have been on the injury list in the recent past? Look it up, it’ll take you a while to make a list. Virtually everyone has missed series because they are injured—even in the current series, where a bunch of players have returned from injury, Zaheer Khan is out with an injury. When was the last time India played with its first choice XI?

Why, oh WHY, would people throng to support its team, when half the team is injured and unable to play to its full potentials?

The focus, as I said, has shifted from running the game well, to making boatloads of money. Shift the focus back, and watch the difference—

  • Trim the international ODI schedule. Unless the teams are evenly matched, don’t play long ODI series; it become meaningless and farcical.
  • India has stumbled on to the IPL; great! Everyone makes boatloads of money in a short period of time. Keep the international calendar empty before and after the IPL. This allows everyone to participate, without having to miss their national duties, and lets everyone prepare both physically and mentally.
  • Space Test series out. Please, no back to back series between the same two teams! Please, no back to back series with no breaks in between!
  • Stop trying to make “batting wickets”!! Yes, the crowds love adventurous batting. But without a contest, even that becomes predictable and dull. Good batsmen can bat even on challenging tracks—and now it even becomes thrilling!
  • Give players time to rest, recuperate, and recharge their batteries. Cricket is not cricket without its best players!

As with everything else, if the people who run it, and make money out of it, don’t care, it shows. And if no one cares, all the analyses won’t make an iota of difference.

From the same Harsha Bhogle article:

I am increasingly fearful that people talk about the glory of Test cricket like they do about world peace and Mother Teresa: because it is a nice thing to be heard saying.

If you think about it, the line about world peace and Mother Teresa rings true because no one really cares about world peace and poor and destitute children. No wonder!

Make cricket meaningful again; let the fans find a reason to watch. And the stadia will be full once again.

Update: A marquee football (soccer) match (it doesn’t get bigger than East Bengal v. Mohun Bagan in Kolkata football) at Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium drew a 90000 strong crowd. As I said, it’s all about meaningful sport. Kolkata is as crazy about cricket too, but they’re a discerning crowd, and the game has to be meaningful.

(HT to Dad for the info about the football game.)

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