Empty stadiums a depressing situation - Suresh Menon Column

2008 Oct 24 by Suresh Menon

To play a Test match before an audience of the proverbial two men and a dog, as India and Australia are doing in Mohali can be pretty depressing.

To play a Test match before an audience of the proverbial two men and a dog, as India and Australia are doing in Mohali can be pretty depressing. The President of the Punjab Cricket Association, I S Bindra has been honest in his diagnosis - our stadiums must improve their facilities to attract the crowds. But his cure is bizarre - build two more stadiums in Punjab.

"We then plan to rotate the matches in these venues as we think the one million Mohali population cannot sustain back to back matches," he has said. When in doubt, build stadiums.

Mohali can start by building covered stands. Despite so much money flowing into the coffers of the cricket boards, spectator comfort is low on the priority list.

Watching an international at most of our venues is a painful exercise. The average spectator must prepare himself for a day of torture, both mental and physical, and it is a wonder he keeps returning. Soon, fed up with the poor facilities and bad treatment, he might not. Perhaps that time is now - it was embarrassing to see the empty stands while Sachin Tendulkar went past what he considers the most significant world record of his career.

I have taken my family to cricket in England, in South Africa, in Sharjah; these have been delightful outings. In India, I hesitate.. "We don't have to provide any facilities; people will come anyway," has been the attitude of the officials, and Mohali showed how wrong they are. Test cricket is already struggling to match the reach and popularity of Twenty20, and our associations are not helping by encouraging the spectators to keep away.

Of course, even an empty stadium guarantees profits, thanks to television. Each centre receives money from the Board, yet the spectator - without whom the game wouldn't exist - is short changed. Perhaps it is time to think of letting spectators in free into one or two stands. This experiment was tried in Sharjah for a while with success. A full house adds to the game and to the telecast; it excites the sponsors who call the shots in so many ways.

One-day cricket has been played at 31 venues in India and Test cricket at 19. Not "to spread the game" as the official clich goes, but as exercises in vote-catching. Some of these centres have dropped off the cricketing map, but the Board's policy of rotation has seen internationals at venues where the paying public is put to great misery. Even in major centres, some of the problems are the same. Why should a ticket holder wait outside for hours and suffer a lathi charge of two before he can get in? Why should he be prevented from carrying bottles of water? Why are the authorities so rude and ready to rough him up at the slightest opportunity? Why are toilets so bad? Why are so many of our stadiums permanently half-built?

Concentrate on a few stadiums that are good rather than many which don't deserve to hold internationals. The Board has a Grounds Committee. Let us have a responsible Spectators Committee which will have a check list and gives a fitness certificate before a centre can hold an international (this will have to be an ongoing process). Make the fan's day out a memorable one.