The Eden crowd was India’s unofficial 12th man day after day, match after match. For teams touring India, it was an intimidating atmosphere to deal with; for the home side, a vibrant Eden meant an adrenaline lift.
How things have changed! Last week’s second Test against the West Indies was India’s first Test here since their dramatic victory against South Africa in February last year. Sachin Tendulkar was on the cusp of a 100th international ton, Kolkata heroes Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman were in the mix, as was Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indian captain whose wife is from the City of Joy.
For the entire duration of the three-and-a-half-day Test, the fans were conspicuous by their absence. The buzz was hardly noticeable, the stands scarcely populated even though the capacity of the stadium is now only 67,000. It was a surreal feeling – to be at the Eden, to be part of an excellent Test match, and yet to find that the excitement was missing.
Sadly, no solace can be drawn from the supposition that this was an isolated phenomenon largely because of the Monday to Friday scheduling of the Test. Last month, India arrived at the Eden sitting on a clean sweep against England in the one-day series. There were no more than 20,000 people at the ground. Three days later, at the same venue, India and England played out a one-off T20 international. The stands – less than half full.
It’s a disturbing trend that is not unique to Kolkata. Across the country, fans have consistently been avoiding the cricket grounds for the last few months. The euphoria of the World Cup triumph has dissipated, the heroes of seven months back no longer the same on-field drawing cards even though they generate hysteria everywhere else that they go.
Is this spectator apathy a result of an overdose of cricket? Unlikely. The World Cup ended in early April, the IPL in late May. Between May and September, there was no cricket in India, and the Champions League in September was staged only in Hyderabad, Chennai and Bangalore. The venues for the England one-day series – Hyderabad excepted – had had no cricket for at least six months; strangely enough, it was Hyderabad where the game was best patronised, even as Mohali, New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata drew no more than modest crowds.
Is it because the fans have become disillusioned after India’s pathetic performances in England? Certainly not. Outside every hotel where the team has been put up over the last month and a bit, people wait patiently in their hundreds, hoping to catch even a momentary glimpse of a Tendulkar, a Dhoni, a Yuvraj. The first sighting triggers mass hysteria. At airports, the players are mobbed by even the prim and proper, requests for autographs and photographs flow in unabated.
It won’t be simplistic, therefore, to interpret that neither cricket, not cricketers, have lost their charm. Perhaps, it is safe to surmise that it is the experience of going to a cricket match that no longer appeals to even the die-hard Indian cricket fan.
For long, cricket administrators in the country have given the paying spectator the short shrift. They have taken the biggest stakeholder in the game for granted; collectively, the paying spectator has now decided to hit back, leaving the administrators scrambling for excuses without climbing down from their ivory towers.
Watching a cricket match ought to be a pleasurable experience. People throng the grounds because they want to have a good time, watch an even contest and hopefully a home victory, and enjoy the trappings that come with being a part of an international sporting contest. In India, going to a cricket ground is little short of torture; in some ways, you are punished because you are a cricket enthusiast!
The first stumbling block is procuring tickets. Several centres across the country sell only season tickets for Test matches, and wait until the last minute before putting out daily tickets on sale. Those tickets aren’t always available at counters in the ground, but at various different outlets far removed from the venue, making it impossible for anyone to come to the stadium on a whim, if you like.
The joy of having, somehow, finally, managed a ticket quickly gives way to frustration, exasperation and eventually anger when you wait in the queue to gain entry. Yes, security ought to be a consideration, but overzealousness and a lack of common sense combine to prevent any item apart from the clothes you are wearing and, of late, the ubiquitous cell phone, from being brought into the ground. No eateries, not a bottle of water, no umbrellas, no this, no that…
Once inside, the seats are dirty and untended, the washrooms stinking and unkempt, the food expensive, the roof non-existent. It’s a list that can go on and on. What’s amazing is not that suddenly, the fans have decided they have had enough, but that for all these years, despite the numerous hurdles that prevented them from enjoying a day out at the grounds, the paying spectator still braved every hardship to turn up and cheer for his team.
Cricket associations across the country, flush with the pie that comes from sponsorship and television revenue, have increasingly tended to ignore even the basic requirements of the man at the ground. Gate revenue is no more than a drop in the ocean these days, except in ICC events such as the Champions Trophy and the World Cup, so administrators have done little to make the paying spectator welcome.
“Empty stands – disappointing but really, who cares? We make our money elsewhere.” It’s that arrogance and imprudence that has now come back to bite the administrators.
For all the revenue you might generate, nothing is more embarrassing than staging an international cricket match in front of a near empty house. For long steadfastly ignored and viewed as an outcast, the common man who has made the game what it is today is hitting back. With a vengeance. Time to take stock, surely?