By Nishad Pai Vaidya
Eden Gardens symbolizes Indian cricket in much the way the Eiffell Tower symbolizes France or the Pyramids symbolizes Egypt.
The craze and passion for the sport in India is visible when 90,000 plus fans watch cricket in the humungous arena. However, the ground hasn’t hosted matches as frequently as it should be in last few years. It also lost out on the India-England World Cup game. It retained its other fixtures of the tournament - all of them involve the minnows. The huge arena will be relatively quite compared to the times it overflowing with emotion when India is playing.
The fact that the Eden Gardens is just hosting the minnow games not only signifies the delay in getting it completed but also a problem with the choice of venues. India is known to have a rotational policy in the allotment of games to stadiums. This rotational policy not only applies to the allotment of ODIs but also to Tests. When Test matches are held at the smaller centers we do not see the crowds coming in.
Let us take the example of the India-Australia Test series held last year. The first Test at Mohali was a thriller, but the stadium was filled no where to its capacity. Even as India closed in on a famous win, the attendance was disappointing.
Compared to that, the second Test at Bangalore was attended by a huge crowd and they witnessed Sachin Tendulkar taking India to a fantastic 2-0 clean sweep of the Aussies. When New Zealand toured after the series against Australia, they played their Test matches at Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Nagpur. Only the Hyderabad Test match saw crowds coming in strength, but the other two Tests were played in front of near-empty stands.
The fact that the crowds do not come to watch Test matches at the relatively smaller centres should be a signal to the board to review its scheduling policy. Many times we see Test matches being played in venues such as Ahmedabad, Mohali, and Nagpur with minimal attendance. Whereas the Test matches played in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi attract a lot of spectators.
Why have the rotational policy when some venues do not attract crowds for Test matches? The BCCI can take a cue from Cricket Australia, which schedules most of their Test matches in their main centres. They experimented with Darwin and Cairns to increase the popularity of the sport in the smaller centres, but it did not work.
Hence, the two grounds haven’t hosted Test matches since 2004. Hobart is another venue that doesn’t attract too many spectators for Test matches and thus not many games are scheduled there. It is just once in a while that we see a Test match being played at Hobart. An Australian summer generally finds two teams touring and they play their Test matches at the major centres - Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
The England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) also maintains a policy whereby each touring team plays a Test match at their home of cricket - Lord’s.
Lords, The Oval, Nottingham, Manchester and Leeds are regular venues for England’s Test matches. Chester-le-Street and Cardiff are the smaller centres and do not host Test matches on a regular basis.
The BCCI has much to learn from the English and Australian cricket boards. They shouldn’t designate the major venues as special. Venues such as Bangalore, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Delhi should be given the status of Tier One venues. These venues should host most of the Test matches. What helps most of these venues draw crowd is the fact that they are in the heart of their respective cities. Thus, after lunch or even when there is a brilliant passage of play, people flood in from the nearby offices and residential areas.
The small remainder of the Test matches can be spread out amongst the smaller centres such as Hyderabad, Mohali, Ahmedabad, Nagpur and Kanpur. The stadiums of these cities are pretty much on the outskirts and hence not many people are enthusiastic to travel all the way to watch a Test match.
On most occasions a team tours India for a three-match Test series. Out of the three Test matches, only one is generally played at any of the major centres. I think that the BCCI should reconsider this policy and should host at least two of the three Test matches at the major venues. One Test match can be held at any of the smaller venues so that the Test match enthusiasts of such cities are not starved of the opportunities to witness the longest format.
It will keep Tests alive as the matches at the major venues attract huge crowds. It will also help build a stronger Test match culture in such venues as we see in England and Australia. The players would also get the feel of the atmosphere which won’t be restricted to ODIs and T20s but also Test matches.
Many players dream of playing Test cricket at a ground like the Eden Gardens. The almost empty stands during this World Cup at the Eden Gardens indicate a much larger issue than the punctual completion of work. This issue needs to be addressed to ensure the passion for Test match cricket lives on.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya, a 20-year-old law student, is a club and college-level cricketer. His teachers always complain, “He knows the stats and facts of cricket more than the subjects we teach him.”)