Ringside view: The last chance

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Published: November 29, 2015 12:39:39 AM

In Mohali, it was an exercise in emptiness. Fans came on the first day in Bengaluru to honour their ‘home boy’, who was playing his 100th Test.

In Mohali, it was an exercise in emptiness. Fans came on the first day in Bengaluru to honour their ‘home boy’, who was playing his 100th Test. They started to leave as soon as AB de Villiers was out, ignoring India’s dominance over world’s No. 1 team in the longer format. Normality returned in Nagpur, where only a handful of spectators went through the turnstiles despite the fact that the hosts once again had South Africa on the mat. Test cricket doesn’t sell in this country, but low turnout is not just India’s problem.

Only a few weeks ago, Pakistan and England had been playing an exciting series in the UAE with large swathes of empty seats greeting them. At Gabba, during the ongoing affair between Australia and New Zealand, Ryan Harris did a farewell lap with no one present in the grandstand to appreciate a very good international career. England remains the sole exception, where attendance reportedly touched half a million over the five Ashes Tests last summer. But the fact of the matter is that Test cricket is 138 years old and on ventilator. Only England’s support can’t keep it alive.

To be honest, a sporting contest that starts at 10 o’clock (9.30 in India) in the morning, goes on till 5 in the evening and meanders along for five days shouldn’t have any relevance in today’s context. Test cricket still remains the Holy Grail for players and righty so because from their point of view, it is the ultimate test of skill and character. But why should fans care? Why should they adjust to the need of others? They’re the real custodians of the sport and adjustments should be the other way round. The pink ball Test under lights at Adelaide Oval is the first step in that direction.

Virat Kohli has rightly described it as a “landmark event”. “I’m glad two teams have actually agreed to play an official Test like that as an experiment. Credit to Australia and New Zealand both that they’ve decided to do this. Hopefully it will be better for the game. It will be a step which we all might remember few years down the line. Let’s hope so.”

Rahul Dravid, too, sounded pretty optimistic. “I’m excited about it. I’m looking forward to how it goes. I’ve played it myself in Abu Dhabi for the England County champions versus the Rest of England four years ago. I quite enjoyed it. I didn’t have an issue seeing the ball. We need to try things. We need to experiment. At one stage we keep talking about how Test cricket is diminishing in value and we need to say, look we are doing something that gets hopefully more people to the stadium. People still follow Test cricket. They still watch Test cricket. But not many people are coming to the ground and we need to find ways to bring them to the ground,” said the batting legend.

For far too long, administrators have taken the fans for granted. Since its inception, the game had revelled in pseudo-conventionalism. The late Kerry Packer shook it and shaped its future through his World Series Cricket in the 1970s. In just two seasons he had changed the game forever. The revolution had an impact on the longer format, but the benefits were largely restricted to limited-overs cricket. Creation of the IPL, too, was a watershed moment. It brought in a whole new generation of fans and gave the game a massive financial boost. The rise of the IPL, however, coincided with the fall of the classical format. Good that the administrators took note. They eventually realised that Test cricket couldn’t survive only on TV rights money. The International Cricket Council (ICC) had twice thought about organising a World Test Championship, but broadcasters were not warm to the idea. Test cricket will find very few backers in the near future unless it gets a new set of live audience.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar has beautifully explained the reasons behind the fading appeal. “Test cricket as a sporting concept is a misfit in today’s world of quick downloads, fast food and quick entertainment. We need great vigilance and utmost care to ensure it is kept relevant. One thing that has proved to be a hindrance in this regard is the notion of players’ comfort.

“When a slow game like Test cricket is further slowed down by the players with their innumerable drinks breaks, it hurts the sport. When despite the 30 minutes of extra time, teams still aren’t able to bowl their 90 overs a day, it hurts Test cricket. When play is held up because of damp patches in the far outfield because players could hurt themselves while running on them, it hurts Test cricket. Players going off for bad light even after artificial lights are switched on, and then coolly coming out and having nets is hurting Test cricket.

“The more I look at all these issues, the more I am convinced that we are anxious about the wrong people here. We should be thinking about the dwindling number of fans.

“When we are competing for their attention with other more popular sports, ones that modern sports fans have more of an affinity for, we should only be focused on what the fans want; all other business can come after that,” Manjrekar wrote on Cricinfo.

To be precise, the day/night matches are Test cricket’s last chance. Recommendations came from the MCC World Cricket Committee back in 2009. That it took six years to organise the event was not a surprise. Things move slowly in the cricket world. But now that it is here, it should become the norm. The observation might sound a little presumptuous, for concerns exist. Ricky Ponting appears to be very sceptical, successful trials at first-class level notwithstanding. Traditionalists are sniggering at micromanaging the pitch to preserve the pink ball. Ignore them for sake of an ‘Ashes-like’ crowd that thronged the Adelaide Oval to witness history. The first session of the first-ever pink ball Test went along well, but we can only make a proper assessment after five days.

It won’t be flawless. But it’s just the beginning and modern-day technology can take care of the problems. The two Trans-Tasman neighbours deserve a huge round of applause for supporting the experiment. It’s heartening that New Zealand now want to play floodlit Test matches in Bangladesh as well.

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