I was surprised a few months ago to see the lack of crowds in an ODI series featuring India. By that I don't mean the lack of full houses, I think it was the sight of empty stands I found somewhat alarming.
India played its ﬁrst one-day international at home in November 1981 when I was nine. Between then and now India have played 227 ODIs at home; the October ﬁve-match series against England, was the ﬁrst time that the grounds have not been full for an ODI featuring the Indian team.
In the summer of 1998, I played in a one-dayer against Kenya in Kolkata and the Eden Gardens was full. Our next game was held in the 48-degree heat of Gwalior and the stands were heaving.
The October series against England was the ﬁrst one at home after India's World Cup win. It was called the 'revenge' series meant to wipe away the memory of a forgettable tour of England. India kept winning every game, and yet the stands did not ﬁll up. Five days after a 5-0 victory, 95,000 turned up to watch the India's ﬁrst Formula
A few weeks later, I played in a Test match against the West Indies in Calcutta, in front of what was the lowest turn out in Eden Gardens’ history. Yes we still wanted to win and our intensity did not dip. But at the end of the day, we are performers, entertainers and we love an audience. The audience ampliﬁes everything you are doing, the bigger the crowd the bigger the occasion, its magnitude, its emotion. When I think about the Eden Gardens crowds this year, I wonder what the famous Calcutta Test of 2001 would have felt like with 50,000 people less watching us.
Australia and South Africa, played an exiting and thrilling test series recently and two great test matches produced some fantastic performances from players of both teams, but was sadly played in front of sparse crowds.
It is not the numbers Test players need, it is the atmosphere of a Test that every player wants to revel in and draw energy from; my ﬁrst reaction to the lack of crowds for cricket was that there had been a lot of cricket and so perhaps, a certain amount of spectator-fatigue. That is too simplistic a view; it's the easy thing to say but might not be the only thing.
The India v England ODI series had no context (emphasis by Yahoo! Cricket), because the two countries had played each other in four Tests and ﬁve ODIs just a few weeks before. When India and the West Indies played ODIs a month after that, the grounds were full but this time matches were played in smaller venues that didn’t host too much international cricket.
Maybe our clues are all there and we must remain vigilant. Unlike Australia or England, Indian cricket has never had to compete with other sports for a share of revenues, mindspace or crowd attendance at international matches.
The lack of crowds may not directly impact on revenues or how important the sport is to Indians, but we do need to accept that there has deﬁnitely been a change in temperature over, I think, the last two years.
Whatever the reasons are – maybe it is too much cricket or too little by way of comfort for spectators. The fan has sent us a message and we must listen. This is not mere sentimentality. Empty stands do not make for good television. Bad television can lead to a fall in ratings, the fall in ratings will be felt by media planners and advertisers' looking elsewhere (emphasis by Yahoo! Cricket).
If that happens, it is hard to see television rights around cricket being as sought after as they have always been in the last 15 years. And where does that leave everyone?
I'm not trying to be an economist or doomsday prophet – this is just how I see it.
ON SAVING TEST CRICKET
There is a place for all three formats, though, we are the only sport I can think of which has three versions. Cricket must treasure this originality. These three versions require different skills, skills that have evolved, grown, changed over the last four decades, one impacting on the other.
Test cricket is the gold standard, it is the form the players want to play.
The 50-over game is the one that had kept cricket's revenues alive for more than three decades now.
Twenty20 has come upon us and it is the format people, the fans want to see.
Cricket must ﬁnd a middle path, it must scale down this mad merry-go-round that teams and players ﬁnd themselves in: heading off for two-Test tours and seven-match ODI series with a few Twenty20s thrown in. Test cricket deserves to be protected, it is what the world's best know they will to be judged by.
Where I come from, nation versus nation is what got people interested in cricket in the ﬁrst place. When I hear the news that a country is playing without some of its best players, I always wonder, what do their fans think?
People may not be able to turn up to watch Test cricket but everyone follows the scores. We may not ﬁll 65,000 capacity stadiums for Test matches, but we must actively ﬁght to get as many as we can in, to create a Test match environment that the players and the fans feed off. Anything but the sight of Tests played on empty grounds.
For that, we have got to play Test cricket that people can watch.
I don't think day-night Tests or a Test championship should be dismissed.
In March of last year I played a day-night ﬁrst-class game in Abu Dhabi for the MCC – and my experience from that was that day-night Tests is an idea seriously worth exploring.
There may be some challenges in places where there is dew but the visibility and durability of the pink cricket ball was not an issue.
Similarly, a Test championship with every team and player driving themselves to be winners of a sought after title seems like it would have a context to every game.
Keeping Test's alive, may mean different innovations in different countries – maybe taking it to smaller cities, playing it in grounds with smaller capacities like New Zealand has thought of doing, maybe reviving some old venues in the West Indies, like the old Recreation Ground in Antigua.
Read the full speech here