Watching the batsmen hopping on the Kotla pitch from the comfort of an armchair in Bangalore, it was difficult not to feel concerned. Yet it was also difficult to shake away a nagging thought at the back of the mind – was the wicket really that bad? If it was, why wait till the 24th over before calling off the match? The last time such a thing happened in India, 12 years ago, the match was called off in the third over.
Batsmen have got so used to having everything in their favour – the tracks were such featherbeds throughout this series – that they probably felt cheated at the Kotla. Had the series been even or the Sri Lankan score at 83 for one, would the game have been called off with such alacrity?
The answer may well be yes. But it is interesting to examine the questions all the same.
Television has a way of feeding on itself, reinforcing opinions and converting them into facts. The breast-beating is infectious, and others similarly ensconced in their respective arm chairs tend to fall into line with the prevailing thinking and endorse the television experts.
Sri Lanka’s reluctance to play on was perfectly understandable. The series was decided, their team was in the dumps at 83 for five, and there were other series coming up that required the players to be fit. Already skipper Kumara Sangakkara had lost a chunk of his players to injury on this tour. Motivation to play on must have been low.
The match referee, of course, cannot take all that into consideration. His brief is simple: is the pitch dangerous to life and limb (even if there isn’t an express bowler on either side)? Everything else, the state of the series, the strength of the crowd, the repercussions of any decision, is irrelevant. Like Indian courts which award a death penalty only in the “rarest of rare” cases, it is safe to assume that match referees call off a game only in such extreme cases.
What the Kotla fiasco highlights is the increasing distance between the authorities and the paying public. In the priority list of the richest cricket board in the world, the comfort of the paying spectator is somewhere at the bottom. Of course, at the Kotla, the term ‘paying spectator’ is an oxymoron since so few spectators actually pay to watch. In the Capital, everyone knows someone who is related to someone who went to school with the chap who knows the neighbour of the minister whose son can always be relied upon to cough up a free pass or two.
Most internationals at the Kotla begin with the civic authorities threatening to shut down the stadium because it does not have a fitness certificate. The water authorities threaten to cut off the water, the electricity board threatens to switch off the power. It is only after a judicious distribution of free passes that the stadium is miraculously declared fit again.
The public, as always is taken for granted. They come to watch a cricket match on a Sunday, and there is no cricket match to watch. And we complain of declining support for the game.
In Kolkata, during the fourth one-dayer, there were no tickets available for the paying public. As the Cricket Association of Bengal explained, large portions of the stadium were being renovated, and passes had to be set aside for the members and clubs. Not surprising. It is not the public which elects the office-bearers of the CAB, but the members and clubs.
Regardless of how the International Cricket Council reacts to the Kotla embarrassment, will the Indian board take a decision to drop the venue for a period of time?
But it is not only the pitches. Board committees are pretty efficient about checking out the security, player comfort, dressing rooms at the venues. What is lacking is a committee comprising cricket fans who know the hardships of watching a match from badly-constructed galleries often open to the elements, without proper water or sanitation or edible food.
The pitch fiasco is a direct slap in the face of the spectator. But so too are the shortfalls in the conveniences that make for comfortable viewing at the stadiums around the country. So long as the spectators don’t complain, they will continue to be treated like they don’t matter. A Sangakkara can walk into the field and stop a match. Can a spectator do that to make a point?