Test-ing times, but remedies are at hand
To give Test cricket in India a fillip, Virat Kohli says there should be no more than five centres in the country. This has already invited criticism from the cricket administration. However, to go strictly by the numeric value of the Indian captain’s statement is to miss the woods for the trees.
As I read it, Kohi essentially wants to highlight the primacy of the five-day format. This is badly needed globally if Test cricket is not to be blown away by the T20 razzmatazz, and is particularly relevant in India at this point in time.
While Indian cricket—particularly in the five-day format—is at its zenith, spectator attendance has hit a nadir. Consider that just around 50,000 people (give or take a few thousand) attended the three recent Tests against South Africa, and the seriousness of the problem is evident.
The best Test team in the world is in action. It also happens to be the home team. But Indian fans have remained unimpressed. This is more a tragedy than conundrum and demands the urgent attention and assistance of administrators and players.
People of my vintage will recall the days when 50,000 people would attend a single day’s play in some parts of the country. In the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, Test matches in India would be jam-packed, even when second-string teams came touring here.
However, Test cricket languishes now. There were clear signals from the mid-1990s that spectatorship was not as intense as it used to be even a decade earlier, and would slump further unless some remedial steps were taken.
The idea of taking Test matches away from traditional centres to smaller cities and associations was to ensure that the popularity of the longest format would remain intact, if not grow. But if the decline has not been arrested, then something’s remiss.
This is not to suggest that India is the only country where Test cricket is struggling to find fans to fill stadia. The problem’s worldwide. If anything, it’s worse in most countries barring England and Australia.
India’s role in stemming the decline becomes paramount because it has the largest number of cricket followers — and the dosh — to do this. What’s been lacking so far is the imagination and conviction to be in the vanguard in this effort.
The administration has been happy to find succour in data that suggests the following for Test cricket in India has grown. This may well be true in terms of media consumption of the sport. But if it does not find expression in spectatorship, then sport is soulless.
So what can be done?
In the Indian context the problem has to be tackled on two fronts. Firstly, by positioning Test cricket differently and emphatically as something to be savoured. The Ashes is a great example of how a sporting legacy can be established, sustained and monetised over unending period of time.
Equally importantly, the spectator experience has to be made fantastically worthwhile. Nobody will spend good money, and suffer for five days with poor facilities (for food, toilet, parking etc.) on a repeat basis when there are so many options for entertainment available.
There can be other considerations too to popularise Test cricket. Sachin Tendulkar, for instance had mooted free admission for school kids in the last session, which is a splendid idea to initiate the young into the five-day format. Unless they acquire the ‘taste’ early enough, how will they build loyalty?
At the global level, the World Test Championship is a step in the right direction as is day-night cricket. India has ridiculously spurned the latter so far, which will hopefully change now that new BCCI president Sourav Ganguly has spoken in its favour.
The biggest influencers in my opinion, however, are still the players.
Particularly relevant today when so many are giving up on the five-day format for easier opportunities and lucre in T20 leagues and such.
This is where Kohli becomes so important in the current game.
Even as he rides the T20 wave with great success, he’s been pitching even more strongly for Test cricket, leaving no one in doubt which format he finds the most challenging and rewarding.
It is moot if the world’s biggest player making his preference known so emphatically can help salvage Test cricket. But at least it creates a favourable sentiment which provides some kind of hope.
(Writer is veteran sports journalist. Views are personal)