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By Suresh Menon
Pakistan’s new ‘home’ in cricket might remain that way for a while since it is difficult to see international cricket being played in that country for a long time. The crowds weren’t overflowing but – and this is where we might have been given a peep into the future – there was a fair number of non-partisan fans who turned up to watch two teams they had no emotional stake in.
From neutral umpires to neutral venues may not be a logical step. It was a situation forced upon Pakistan. Yet there is something to be said for delinking matches from the excessive jingoism they generate, and, perhaps more significantly, for taking the sport back to the days before huge stadiums and soulless venues robbed it of some of its character.
Thanks to television (and everything else that administrators can charge money for, as the IPL showed, with the Internet, the print media, and probably carrier pigeons all bringing in funds), gate collection is not as significant as it once was. Or perhaps that is being romantic. But if you can’t be romantic about sport, then why bother?
Attendances for Test matches are falling, so let us ensure that those who do come in can watch a day’s play in a relaxed atmosphere, perhaps in a chair under the shade of a tree – as in the old paintings of ‘A Day at the Cricket Match’.
You will get two sets of supporters everywhere. It does not matter, for instance, where India plays, they are guaranteed raucous and passionate support from the diaspora.
But it is the non-partisan spectator who does not care which team wins so long as the match is competitive and played in the right spirit, who might be the game’s new fan base. Cross-national fandom is not unusual. Sachin Tendulkar is popular in Australia, England, the West Indies, anywhere he plays. An India versus Pakistan match in Australia is guaranteed to bring in the crowds, both ardent supporters of the teams as well as the neutrals.
Even the most fanatic of supporters find it difficult these days to spend five days at a cricket match. Yet, on the occasions that he does visit the stadium (especially in India), he has to put up with huge inconveniences. There is the security which is now part of sport as it is of life, yet it is handled with a particular boorishness in India. Food and water and toilets put off most people for their exorbitant prices or their terrible maintenance. The fan is the least important element of the cricket match, and has been for years now.
Matches on neutral grounds will mean that India will not have to indulge in competitive stadium-building of the kind that saw the Wankhede Stadium being built a stone’s throw from the Brabourne Stadium because of the fragile egos of some people. It will mean that rather than build concrete jungles, officials can swing the other way, knock off the stadiums and transplant trees and greenery.
So many of our stadiums began their lives as charming, inviting places to watch cricket in with trees and knolls and grass but then the bottom line dictated that it would be all about the bottoms’ line. The Keenan Stadium in Jamshedpur, for example, was one of the prettiest grounds in the country. Not any more. Even Hamilton, New Zealand, once an attractive ground with a quaint press box has succumbed.
During the recent Test at Galle, the ground was one of the main characters in the drama, with its fort in the background, the sea nearby and large open spaces.
Perhaps it is a giant leap from watching Pakistan play Australia in England to assuming that South Africa playing Sri Lanka in, say, Mysore is what cricket needs. But if that happens, the spectator will not complain.