I began writing this even as the unflappable VVS Laxman, yet again, demonstrated his uncanny ability to rise to the occasion, to shepherd the tail, and to win for his team matches that were written off as lost. The backdrop to my piece, therefore, is yet another come-from-behind win scripted by this most unassuming of cricketers - a great climax, a photo-finish ending, and yet another compelling chapter in the history of India-Australia Tests.
Not to rain on this parade, but mixed in with the euphoria of the win and the manner of it is a sadness that so few people chose to come to the stadium to watch the drama unfold. There was a time when Tests filled stadiums in India; today, unfortunately, there are very few takers for this format.
While researching this column, I stumbled upon a few interesting backgrounders that help understand this phenomenon better, and that lead to the conclusion that the BCCI should take the lion's share of the blame for this public apathy, which owes to its step-motherly treatment of Test cricket in the country.
The BCCI might argue that "we're giving the market what it wants", by which it means its traditional cash cow the one-day international, and its recently discovered golden goose the T20. Of late, the BCCI has discovered a fascination for India's position at the top of the Test rankings, and that fascination has had a role to play in its scheduling of Tests this year.
That obsession is not a bad thing, in and of itself, for it could result in more Tests being played [remember that the original schedule called for Australia to play 7 ODIs; it was the BCCI that pushed for the scrapping of a few of those, and the insertion of two Tests into the itinerary], and that in turn could be a catalyst for renewed interest in Tests in this country. India could well end up balancing Tests with the other commercially more viable formats better, and that is a good thing, too.
The problem though is that the BCCI's fascination with Tests is largely dependent on India's pole position in the rankings; if India were to lose this, it is very probable that the BCCI will lose interest, and go back to its preferred ODI-T20 scheduling with a vim. What the BCCI is doing, for whatever reason, is scheduling more Tests; what it is not doing, however, is using its marketing infrastructure to make Test cricket an attractive/lucrative phenomenon.
The public apathy for Tests boils down to certain factors which are totally within the BCCI's control. Here are some relevant numbers, courtesy the MCC's World Cricket Committee of which the likes of Rahul Dravid and Steve Waugh are members - numbers that might help you understand how we have missed the bus in marketing this format. As per the committee's report on 'Cricket Viewing in India', the good news is that the "share of cricket (as a proportion of all sport watched on TV) has increased from 2007 onwards with the introduction of the Twenty20 format". In other words, T20 has in fact brought more fans to the game, and its increased consumption patterns have come at the expense of ODIs and importantly, of Test cricket.
The report says, "In 2009, 11% of all cricket watched on TV in India was Test cricket, a decline from 33% in 2004" -- a fact that should serve as a wake up call for administrators and fans alike. You can't fault the broadcasters, for their persistence in providing quality Test cricket has been met with a genuine discontent from the viewer's side. Take this statistic, for example: "Despite the greater quantity of Test cricket on offer, the average amount of Test cricket viewed per person was 175 minutes, 77% less than the average of 770 minutes of T20 that were viewed in 2009."
I might be reaching, here, but I suspect that the IPL-driven deals that lead to India touring Sri Lanka virtually every two months could have had an impact on viewer interest.
The report, which is fairly comprehensive, says among other things: "better the opposition, more the interest" is a myth that deserves to be busted. The Test match leg of any series played in India (unless involving Australia or Pakistan) gets a lesser TV Rating than the One-Day leg - and this is true even for Tests involving the likes of South Africa and England, not teams you want to sneeze at.
The viewer, in my opinion, is not put off as much by the nature of the opposition as he is by the appalling nature of the wickets on which some of these Tests are played - wickets that negate all possibility of a real contest between bat and ball. Take Chennai 2008 (vs South Africa), or Ahmedabad 2009 (vs Sri Lanka) as examples - as a spectator, why would I want to sit through five days that yield over 1600 runs, for about 20 wickets? And then there are wickets on which 22 wickets fall in a day - now, I'm a fan of great bowling and believe that batsmen should have to really work for their pay, but when it is the wicket, and not the bowler, that causes the batsman's downfall, it becomes not so appealing a spectacle.
In sum, what makes Test cricket a compelling spectacle is a wicket that provides something for everyone: value for a batsman's shots, turn and bounce for spinners, pace, movement and bounce for the quicker bowlers. A recent example is the track prepared for the 2009/10 Ranji final between Mumbai and Karnataka at Mysore, which in my book is the best wicket India has seen in recent times. And it is the BCCI's failure to prepare and provide more such wickets that is largely responsible for the fall in spectator interest in Test cricket as a spectacle. The BCCI needs to take note, and incentivize curators to produce wickets that do not just keep the interest in Test matches alive, but take it to the next level.
Then there is the problem of scheduling, which involves both calendar planning and choice of venues. Unlike countries like England, Australia and South Africa, who believe in maintaining long held cricketing traditions in terms of venue allotment, India's scheduling policy is complex and to a large extent depends on Board dynamics and moody politics. Let alone venues, tours are not confirmed till two months before the proposed dates - which impacts adversely on pitch and ground preparation. In an ideal world, your Test calender is designed at least a year in advance, so as to facilitate greater marketing and ticketing opportunities, and thus create the much required buzz to attract people to the stadium.
As a corollary, it does not help that in recent times, Tests are squeezed into the calendar as an afterthought, and we end up playing big opponents over two-Test series - a proceeding that devalues the nature of the competition and leads to lesser interest levels. Couple this with the policy of allocating Tests to lesser known venues like Mohali and Nagpur, as opposed to the traditional Test centers, and you could say the BCCI has done pretty much everything wrong.
This might sound elitist, but I firmly believe that Tests must be played only in the traditional venues of Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore, and maybe Hyderabad as an addition. The key to picking these venues is that they attract a healthy crowd - and there is nothing like a packed stadium to create a buzz around the game.
The problem is, the BCCI really doesn't care whether you go to the ground or not - its ideal world is where everyone watches from home, because TV channels pay the board hefty license fees. Until 2006-07, Cricket Australia had a broadcast policy which said that unless the ground is sold out, there would be no live broadcast on TV in that particular state. It is a good policy, ensuring attendance. A corollary is pricing policies that make watching Test cricket affordable, so that families can go without fracturing their budget; equally important is taking care to ensure that the facilities at the grounds are of high quality - the lack of basic seating, toilets, water, and food makes watching Test cricket in India an exercise in endurance, and no fan these days wants to pay money for substandard facilities when he can watch from the sofa in his living room.
The larger objective should at all times be to encourage as many people as possible to watch the game live at the venue, and to help develop grass-roots cricket by streamlining revenues that are generated through international cricket. I am not too sure if this would work in a market like India, but the BCCI needs to explore these options and more, to find ways to bring people back into the stadiums.
In conclusion, I find it ironic that for decades, we have moaned the fact that our Test teams don't compare favorably with the best in the world. Now, just when we have learnt to win both at home and away, and created a Test team that is competitive against the best in the world, short-sighted policies are driving the spectator away from the grounds instead of into them. I believe the time has come where we decide to embrace this format wholeheartedly, give our stakeholders/fans much more than they deserve and also, keep ulterior motives away while determining the future of Test cricket in India. For a format that has stood the test of time, India is an important market, and I genuinely believe that if our administrators chose to lead responsibly rather than to bully, we could regenerate interest in Test cricket in this country and give the format the platform it deserves. Of course, we know that the market decides - but it is up to us to give the market a better product, to enable it to decide well.