At Eden Gardens, as India mounted a serious raid on Sri Lanka for an improbable victory in the final session of the first Test, a couple arrived at the Club House upper-tier and sat in the front row. A cop promptly enquired if the young man and woman had adhered to their seat numbers, notwithstanding the fact that amid large swathes of empty seats, numbers looked irrelevant. At a time when all stadium gates should have been thrown open, the cop preferred to sour the stadium experience of two cricket lovers. As India declared and gave themselves a little over two hours to take 10 Sri Lankan wickets, Virat Kohli gestured to the fans to get involved. But the turnout was only about 5,000—too thin to make the atmosphere intimidating. Sri Lanka eventually survived, virtually by the skin of their teeth. Maybe the Eden Gardens of yore would have helped Kohli and company pull off a heist. In 2001, Steve Waugh’s all-conquering Australia had crumbled in front of 80,000 spectators, losing seven wickets in the final session. That was Sourav Ganguly’s finest hour as captain. Kohli missed his ‘12th man’.
Dwindling stadium attendances is a harsh reality in the longest format of the game. But Test cricket is still unrivalled in terms of drama and intrigue. The final session of the first Test between India and Sri Lanka provided further confirmation to that. And then, the Ashes arrived three days later, bathed with a build-up that ‘mauka, mauka’ ad campaigns can never produce. Far too often we hear about Test cricket facing a bleak future. The International Cricket Council (ICC) is working on making the game’s purest format more contextual and exciting. But has anyone spoken to the fans yet about the possible solutions? Test cricket is still well supported in England and Australia. But it has lost its charm in other cricket nations. Fans should be asked why? They must be at the forefront of any changes—four-day matches, day/night Tests, Test league… The biggest stakeholders of the game can’t always be at authorities’ mercy—be it the cop at Eden or the administrators in cricket boards or the ICC.
Between July and September this year, India played three Tests, five ODIs and a T20 international in Sri Lanka. Two months down the line, India are hosting the Lankans for another full series comprising three Tests, three ODIs and three T20 internationals. Ahead of the first Test, this correspondent had asked Kohli if this was an overdose from fans’ perspective. “It definitely has to be taken into consideration because you don’t want fans going away from the game, from watching the game. We have to maintain a balance of how to engage fans and keep players fresh at the same time, and keep cricket exciting and keep it competitive throughout the year. That point will be discussed in future definitely,” said the India captain, adding, “This needs analysis. It has to be done over a period of time by asking the fans who watch the game. It will be better answered by the fans who watch the game if there’s too much cricket being played or repetition of the same series. For us, it’s about playing cricket for the country and we will do what we are presented with every time a new series comes up.” He mentioned that the fans are one of the biggest stakeholders in the game who need to be taken into confidence.
Then, on the eve of the second Test at Nagpur, Kohli spoke about the cramped schedule. “Unfortunately, we get only two days before we fly to South Africa after this series gets over. So we have no choice but to be in game situation and think of what’s coming ahead of us. Had we got a month off, ideally, we would have done a proper preparation in a camp sort of scenario, but we have to make do with what we have.” On the face of it, the ongoing India-Sri Lanka Test series offers little context. Even a 3-0 series loss for the hosts wouldn’t have upset their No. 1 Test rankings. So why are we playing so many inconsequential fixtures? Fans care very little about the ‘friendly relationship’ between the BCCI and its Sri Lankan counterpart and how it can help the two countries in cricket politics. The supporters deserve quality, not quantity. That a nine-team World Test championship from 2019 has been principally agreed upon in the ICC Board is a positive. Then again, the global body would do well, conducting a survey among the fans about the way ahead rather than throwing something upon them.
“I said at (an ICC) meeting that the decline in crowd attendance for Test matches is not because there’s no content. What should be done is a survey. You should find out why the popularity of Test cricket has diminished. For that you will have to interview people who watch T20 games or ODI games. Because there the stadiums are full; so those people are interested in watching the game of cricket. You can interview those people all over the world, asking them why they are watching this and why are they not watching Test cricket. And you will know the reasons. They (authorities) will have to work on those reasons to bring content to Test matches,” ICC chairman Shashank Manohar told The Indian Express during an interview last year. For the game’s global body, it’s time to walk the talk rather than beat around the bush.