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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Dravid and the mastery of the struggle (via sidvee)

Excellent cricket post – on the batting of Rahul Dravid.

Dravid and the mastery of the struggle The celebrated writer Amitav Ghosh once said about the process of writing: “It never gets easier; it’s always hard, it’s always a test. I’ve reached a point in my life where if a sentence seems easy, I distrust it.” For many writers, practicing their craft is daily, ongoing struggle. As Susanna Daniel says writing can lead to a state of “active non-accomplishment”. “Stunted ambition. Disappointed potential. Frustrated and sad and lonely and hopel … Read More

Playing for Money

Came across this Hindustan Times article by Soumya Bhattacharya about the IPL, where the author argues that it is infinitely more pleasing to watch our cricket heroes in our national colors, rather than for their respective franchises.

I can understand the sentiment, and where he is coming from. I’d much rather root for Sachin all the way, than realize with every scintillating shot that he’s pushing my team, his opponents this time, inexorably towards defeat. But Mr Bhattacharya quickly moves to reasons that leave me baffled, and no longer able to support his position.

At the beginning, Mr Bhattacharya recognizes that a Tendulkar innings at the IPL has every bit of class as any of his international gems, but:

Why was it that this innings (71 not out from 48 balls) gave me not a fraction of the delight that those innings [some of SRT’s great ODI innings] had? Because those were proper international games. Because Tendulkar was playing for India rather than for a league side. And we all know where we stand when India plays cricket, don’t we?

This bit above can be understood: he realizes that the quality of the opposition is not as good as in international fixtures, and hence the diluting of the pleasure quotients. But the next bit of reasoning is more baffling:

We know, too, the frisson of pride and honour that illuminate a player’s best performances when he plays for the country.

[…]

For the most part, there is only one big motivation for playing — and playing well — in the IPL: money. In the league, there are many players whose international careers are over (Warne, Gilchrist, Kumble, Ganguly).

The money from this is all they can make out of playing cricket now.

He doesn’t prefer watching the players at the IPL because they are playing for money? As opposed to…? These guys are professional sportsmen – they are supposed to be playing for money! Would I be fair to reject the posts that Mr Bhattacharya writes for the Hindustan Times because he’s getting paid for them?

Also, it’s a long stretch to imagine that money is the only factor. Yes, money is a factor, of course – they won’t play for free. However, there’s much more at play here. Retiring from international cricket is very different from retiring from all forms of cricket – indeed many players continue on the domestic circuit long after they bid adieu to their national colors. That’s because there is a very significant difference between maintaining international levels of physical fitness and competitive sporting skills, than having to maintain them for 8 weeks of the year for a domestic competition.

International retirees are playing the IPL not just for the money (does Mr Bhattacharya really believe a Sourav Ganguly or a Shane Warne needs a couple million dollars more doing something that they would otherwise not do at all?). They are playing because they still believe they can compete (whether they actually can, is a different question), and it is still manageable for them to maintain themselves for a few weeks every year, and be on the touring circuit away from their families.

A Sachin Tendulkar innings or a Sourav Ganguly masterpiece is exactly that – an artist doing his magic. It doesn’t matter which stage he chooses to display his craft.

Cricket, and its politics, from the Enlightening Mark Richardson

The Indian cricket team is in New Zealand. The last time they were there they were routed 2-0 in the Test series, and 5-2 in the ODIs, thanks largely to green top wickets that assisted swing and seam movement like no other set of pitches in the world. Evidently it’s not expected to be any easier this time.

Mark Richardson does not think so, apparently. He asserts in his column at Cricinfo that what will play on NZ Cricket’s mind is the fact that the all-powerful Indian Cricket Board – the BCCI –  should not be angered by preparing pitches which will “show-up” an apparently great Indian batting line up. Says he:

New Zealand Cricket knows on which side their bread is buttered. Ergo, expect more favourable conditions for the Indian batsmen this time round

Hm. Interesting. The idea seems to be that sport itself is less important nowadays than being in the good books of the BCCI, and evidently it’s all the fault of the rich and powerful BCCI.

Well, thereafter Mark Richardson explains that this sort of situation will demand that the cricket pitches be absolutely perfect – so that while India is not at a distinct disadvantage, neither is NZ at a disadvantage thanks to India’s huge batting might.

Richardson describes what the pitches will need to be like:

So the people under the most pressure may in fact be the ground staff. Nothing but perfect cricket conditions will suffice for this tour. In the ODIs we want conditions that provide for quality strokeplay, but ones that don’t turn Iain O’Brien and Co into cannon fodder. In the Tests we need a session or two of movement, followed by a batsman-friendly period, and then some turn and variable bounce later on.

Hm. Yes, very difficult, that, and very unfair to NZ. And it’s all the fault of the rich and powerful BCCI.

But, hey… wait a minute, wait a minute, Wait A Minute! Let me see…

–  Session or two of movement. Seam friendly – check.
–  batsman friendly period. Batsman friendly – check.
–  turn and bounce. Spin friendly – check.

Huh! Come to think of it, isn’t that what every cricket pitch is supposed to be?

Aren’t all the pundits quick to renounce modern ODI tracks where batters have field days and spinners in particular, and bowlers in general, are murdered?

Aren’t Indian pitches renounced by visiting teams because they are spin friendly and batsman friendly, but not seam friendly?

Aren’t all cricket pitches advsised to have exactly the conditions that Mark Richardson talks about?

If modern ODI tracks are renounced because they are bad to bowlers (and hence not a sporting track), and if Indian pitches are renounced if they are bad to seamers (and hence apparently not sporting tracks), why, oh why, should the NZ pitches of six years ago NOT be renounced because they were excessively seam friendly and very difficult to bat on? (In the second Test, neither team managed to touch the 100 run mark in their first innings – Mark Richardson says so himself in his column.)

And now that the pitches are supposed to be more batsman friendly (and hence, in this case, more sporting), it’s supposed to be only to appease the Indian Cricket Gods? I’d say they’d better be more sporting tracks than six years ago, if NZ expect to have any viewers at all!

Mr Richardson, NZC is responsible for its pitches, and for the quality of cricket possible on them. The pitches of 2002 were atrocious, and hopefully the ones on this tour will be better.

And no, Mr Mark Richardson, none of this is the fault of the rich and powerful BCCI.

Of Indian Cricket Crowds

I was watching the India-England test match (well, more hearing while I worked than seeing, but anyway) when Michael Atherton asked on air why Indian stadia have seen sparse crowds of late. The discussion pointed out that this has been a trend in most cricket centers, with perhaps the effect being somewhat less in the larger metros such as Kolkata and Mumbai.

Allow me to put forward a possible reason. Poor administration. Watching cricket in India is not fun to the spectator, it’s more an ordeal. More and more people find it better and indeed easier to watch their cricket on the telly rather than turn up at the stadium!! The stadia are cramped with as many seats as possible, which, as you can imagine, results in not-very-comfy seating arrangements. The facilities are atrocious, unless you are seated in the VIP stands. The food facilites aren’t great. You’re not allowed to bring even water with you from the outside. And the ticket prices are humongous.

It has come to such  a pass that Mr IS Bindra of the Punjab Cricket Association recently commented that the BBCI has been short-changing the public for all these years; now perhaps the public is starting to get it’s own back.

Yes, Mr Bindra, that is indeed the reason. I am from Kolkata, home of the Eden Gardens, and yet I have never made the effort to go buy a ticket at Eden Gardens. It’d be too expensive, and then not worth it.

‘Buy one get one free’

Cricinfo quotes (the page updates with the latest quotes, so you might have a bit of digging up to do to see the quote itself, depending on when you read this post):

“In his case, I think we got him like free for something we bought.”
TC Mathew, the Indian team manager for the tour of Sri Lanka, isn’t impressed by Paddy Upton, India’s mental conditioning coach

Sep 7, 2008

Appropriate comment, coming from the Manager of the team – that too before a tour starts?

Cricket vs. Hockey

‘Now when the Indian cricket team does well, people sing the ‘Chakde India’ song’, says former India hockey player Dhanraj Pillai.

The idea seems to be that India focusses only on Cricket, and ignores all other sports. The idea seems to be that that’s really unfair, that India should in fact follow all sports equally.

Pray why should that happen? It is not a secret that India does not produce the best athletes in the world, for whatever reason. When you have a team that is capable of being the best in the world, then why should attention not focus on that team? When you compare cricket with other sports, why do you forget that India has been far more successful in cricket than in other sports (that in fact should be a cause for concern, because really India has not been consistently successful in cricket either).

When was the last time the Indian hockey team did anything of note on the world stage? Whatever it achieves are always in the Asian competitions. Olympics? Zero. World Championships. Zilch. And still you expect India to follow hockey?

India has in fact been cognizant of rising talent in other sports. Jyoti Randhawa is a household name, even though he still has a long way to go before he challenges for the world championships. Sania Mirza has caught the Indian imagination ever since she showed glimpses of being right up there in terms of talent. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi are still household names, long after they’ve stopped being the Indian Express. Narain Karthikeyan was in the limelight as long as he was showing signs of being in the F1 circuit as a race driver. He’s not in the news now because he is the test driver for his team now, and not the race driver. Vishwanathan Anand is well respected, and well known, even though he does not generate as much passion as stars from other sports, because really, chess is not a passionate sport, but far more a thinking one.

Simply being the national sport does not by default hand it the right to being the most followed one. Be good at what you do, Indian hockey players, and India will take note. Till then, we’ll all sing Chak De India whenever India does well, be it in whatever sport.

Hattrick!!

Guess what…Australia are champions of the world again. As far as cricket is concerned, at least!!

Yesterday was the World Cup final, and as has become customary, they simply demolished their opponents, the Sri Lankans. The same Sri Lankans, who were thought to be the only ones capable of giving the Aussies some resistance, the same Sri Lankans with the well balanced team, yes, the same ones with four quality wicket taking bowlers. Well, what happened? Australia piled 281 runs in 38 overs!! Thanks to the brilliance of a certain Adam Gilchrist, who hammered 149 runs off 100-odd balls.

How is it that anyone facing Australia simply loses it? A team plays well throughout the tournament, and when faced with the Australians, they simply crumble?? This is what happened to India in the last World Cup final, and this is what has happened to Sri Lanka in this one. Why?

Isn’t there any team who can actually beat these guys?? And I’m not talking about inconsequential bilateral series, such as the one that New Zealand won a few weeks before the Cup. In big tournaments, when it matters, where are the players?

Where is the rest of the world? Will the real challenger stand up please??

India’s World Cup Debacle…

Well, India are out of the prestigious Cricket World Cup.As is the norm with the Indian mentality, the knives are out, Greg Chappell and Rahul Dravid are sure to lose their posts (at least, they will, if the media have their way!!), and once more India does not know which way the future lies.

But before that, there are certain issues here. Greg Chappell, it seems, is not very intent on taking too much responsibility for these losses: his reasoning seems to be that India did not field the side that he had been advocating all along!! Suresh Raina, it seems, simply had to be there… Well, for one, how many players did he not get as he wanted? Suresh Raina he wanted, he did not get. Virender Sehwag he did not want, but did get. Sourav Ganguly… well, let’s just say he was a compromise.

But, now, just have a look at the stats… Sourav Ganguly has been one of the few batting mainstays in the Indian line-up since his return. Even in the World Cup, he got scores in two games out of three. Virender Sehwag got in only on the insistence of Rahul Dravid… and got scores in two of the three innings. And surely, even the best in the world can very well get out to a Murali doosra??

And what, pray, did the other ‘deserving’ players do?? Yes, the ones that Greg Chappell was proud to have in his team… the Sachins, the Yuvrajs, the Dhonis, and yes, the Dravids? It was on these batting mainstays that all of Greg Chappell’s methods were tried and tested, all the processes put into place, all the flexibility in the batting order discussed, all the military mode fitness exercises practised. And all this, for what??

And then there’s the question of strategy. Why was Robin Uthappa chosen? Probably because Veeru Sehwag’s form was in question. However, the question was never one of whether Sehwag can bat; we all know he can very well bat; it was rather a question of him feeling good about his batting, and the ball hitting the middle of his broad bat. Well, when Sehwag seemed to be back in his elements after the Bermuda match, why not open with Sehwag? You have a certain Irfan Pathan in your squad, who can bat as well as he can bowl, and who has benefitted the most perhaps from Guru Greg’s lessons; why not play him at seven, instead of Uthappa at the top? It’s not that Uthappa left a blazing trail in the earlier matches! You have a certain Sreesanth in your ranks, who is perhaps one of the best finds of recent times. When Ajit Agarkar does not seem to be in touch, why not bring the energetic young man into the squad? And then there is someone called Dinesh Kaarthick, one of the most promising prospects, according to Greg, waiting in the wings; why not give him a game? You have, in Sourav Ganguly, one of the best opening batsmen of all time, someone known for his clean hitting. Why ask him to hold his wicket and play the long innings, when you know that he can very well tear any opposition apart, and yet play plenty of long innings??

I seem to remember Greg saying before leaving for the WI that ‘current form’ in the West Indies would decide the playing XIs. Well, current form in the Bangladesh and Bermuda matches suggested a lot… why weren’t they incorporated? Who takes responsibility for that?

Mr Chappell indicated to a certain member of the media, that he was not happy with the squad to the World Cup. This was during the Sri Lanka series, which preceded the trip to WI. Well, could it have been the case that since he did not have the squad that he believed would do well, he was convinced that India would in fact not do well??

Questions, question, questions… where are the answers? Does a major change of guard, such as changing the captain and the coach, provide all, or even any, of the answers?

Cricket, Money… and spectators

The India-West Indies cricket series started today, amid a lot of conjecture and hype around Sourav Ganguly’s return, and Sachin Tendulkar’s batting position, not to speak of India’s preparation for the World Cup. In short, this was a match (and the entire series) that everybody was waiting for.

It turned out that the match would be telecast, “Live and Exclusive”, on Neo Sports, which, hold your breath, only gives out a CAS specific feed!! Maybe someone forgot to tell Neo Sports that many parts of India have yet to implement CAS, and it might be a good idea to telecast for the rest of the cable-TV population of India, who pay out of their pockets to see these matches too. Even the newspapers ads from Neo Sports only boast of a minuscule small-print, yes, decidedly minuscule, when you consider the small print meted out by the rest of the field, declaring that the feed would be CAS specific. It’s almost as if they don’t want their prospective viewers to watch their game of cricket!

But perhaps the buck stops, as it always does, with the BCCI. Yes, money is important. Yes, sponsors and telecast rights form a major portion of revenues collected by the Board. But what use is a match telecast that only a small fraction of viewers can watch? Even while being alert to the amount of money that they earn, should they not try to ensure that the maximum possible number of people can actually watch these matches?

Some would argue that under this logic only free-to-air channels should get telecast rights. But the point made by non-free-to-air channels is fair enough: namely, that free-to-air channels simply do not generate enough revenue from advertisements alone to sustain their business of telecasting matches. Indeed, major tournaments that are watched by the entire nation, such as the World Cup, are telecast by the national broadcaster, Doordarshan, in addition to the paid channels, of course with a payment to the “Exclusive” Channel.

This situation, anyway, is different. Neo Sports is a pay channel; only, it has chosen to telecast only for the CAS section of the population. It is not a case of affordability here: even those who are ready to pay the money, are unable to subscribe, because the technology is simply not there!!

Perhaps Neo Sports should wake up to the fact that not everything about India is Neo after all.