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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Better marketing to survive for test cricket

A friend of mine, now about forty, wistfully remembers the time when he was much younger and was taken to watch a Test match at the Eden Gardens (“obviously...all five days!”). It was quite an event for him as indeed it was to all of us when our turn came. You waited for it, you analysed the opposition, you picked the players you wanted to follow, got excited if one of them fielded at the boundary in front of you and told your dad what you liked and what you didn’t over dinner.
Another friend recalls the time his father told his teacher that it was more important that his son went to Chepauk to watch Venkataraghvan bowl than it was to attend just another day at school. He didn’t tell me what the teacher’s reaction was, presumably the father hadn’t bothered (anyone who objected to a young boy watching cricket couldn’t be right anyway!).
Just to put the era into perspective, my elder brother used to study in Kolkata; it took a couple of days, sometimes more, to ge there from Hyderabad and we didn’t know he had reached safely until an inland letter arrived.
As you can imagine, much has changed since and yet when the Eden Gardens had just a few spectators dotting its vast stands this week, there was widespread despair. “Not in Kolkata” they spluttered into their Darjeeling tea but I’m afraid an occasion that was a rite of passage, an initiation into the endless world of sport and joy for a young man, was largely ignored. Dravid and Laxman, on whom ballads might be composed in Kolkata, hit centuries and must have searched for fans to raise their bats to. This wasn’t Kanpur or Mohali....this, sadly, was the Eden Gardens.
Yes, you could say the Test match started on a Monday (any further proof that cricket is now largely a television sport?), that there had been holidays earlier, that there has been far too much cricket to follow, that the Kolkatans too needed to go to could say all that and more. But the Eden Gardens is one of the homes of cricket and it was at home that Test cricket had been spurned.
It was also a week in which Haroon Lorgat formally announced that the World Test Championship had been put back to 2017. Poor Peter Roebuck said a lot could change in a week and this is five years away. The ICC is disappointed, many players are disappointed, the romantics are disappointed and yet, as the Eden Gardens showed, they don’t count.
Outside of certain pockets, people don’t want to watch Test cricket. They know the scores, they follow the game on the internet, glimpse at the television from time to time but that’s it. I am increasingly fearful of the fact that people talk about the glory of Test cricket like they talk about world peace and Mother Teresa; because it is a nice thing to be heard saying.
There are still a few marquee series left but those are too few. If half the Test-playing world doesn’t interest audiences then there is a problem and it has to be addressed by looking it in the eye rather than through romantic, wistful writing that all of us have indulged in at one time or another. Maybe Test cricket is only played by fewer teams, maybe, as has been suggested by some former Australian cricketers, you play lesser, but better, Test cricket or maybe you seek to market it more humbly.
In India, maybe we could start by making the act of going to a cricket ground pleasant. Security is something we cannot wish away, it is a grim fact of life in our part of the world where distributing hatred doesn’t seem too difficult, but maybe we can make everything else easier. Like buying tickets, getting parking, organising public transport otherwise, providing decently priced food and, the most difficult, providing clean seats to sit on.

Test cricket is in a buyer’s market and the sellers are struggling to come to terms with that.

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