Nirupam Guha's face clouds when asked about progressive myopia --- a condition that's been a part of him since he entered junior school. “I won't be able to place a finger on the year, but I can assure you it did not happen overnight, quite like the drop in cricket ratings,” says the 40-year-old, adjusting the thick glasses, which lend some severity to an otherwise pleasant face.
Though he passes it off on the genes, Nirupam will have to take a share of the blame. When not playing ball at the Maidan, the head stayed bowed, the eyes scouring page after page. “In the 1970s, with little else on offer, books were the only source of information,” says the sports buff.
The advent of television did wean many away from books, but for Nirupam, reading and live action at the Eden was what mattered. As time passed, his voracity for reading grew and with cricket galloping past other sports, the trips to Eden became more frequent. But the strain also had a cascading effect on eye power. But there are no regrets. “Spectacles could never come between me and my love for sports,” says the corporate honcho.
The remorse lies elsewhere. Sparsely-occupied stands during Tests is a phenomenon he had come to accept with some difficulty, but the shocking turnout during the ODIs against England, caused something to snap within. “When Pietersen raised his bat in acknowledgement (during the T20 in late October), he could only point the bat towards the dressing room.”
Clear as daylight
The poor turnout was hardly surprising given the non-stop, and at times, senseless cricket India have played post the World Cup. Lifting the trophy after almost 28 years led to an outpouring of joy on the streets, but the euphoria took a hard knock with the whitewash in England. The series was billed as one of the greatest clashes, yet the capitulation led experts to remark that probably “India even at their worst would have fared better”.
“It's not difficult to understand why interest is dying,” says Mukul Kesavan, historian and author. “The ODIs against England were senseless as we had just played them and done badly. If the idea was to see the desis flock to the stadium in anticipation of revenge, it was silly.
“The BCCI presides over a random amount of cricket and there's an attempt to cram in different formats. What we have is an out-of-control calendar, yet, the Board’s hunger for TV revenue stays insatiable.”
If the health of Test cricket is a cause of concern, the spillover to the shorter formats is perhaps more worrying. The weary fan was yet to recover from a lengthy World Cup when the IPL took off. The lure of the lucre made the top names turn out and many of them concealed injuries. The effects were soon felt as quite a few of them either broke down or pulled out on the tours to the West Indies and England.
The beating against England still fresh meant it played a crucial role in determining the fan's leaning. Sure enough, the ODIs against the world's No 1 Test side drew a blank as the metros gave a thumbs-down to the series.
Kesavan feels the slowdown is not a national phenomenon. “The recent series between Australia and South Africa was a well fought one, yet to see empty stands in a contest involving the world's top teams is scary. The problem is widespread and was apparent even when Australia took on New Zealand.”
The West Indies may have lacked star appeal but the matches, barring the ODI at Chennai, were sold out. The BCCI would be smiling that its ploy of taking cricket to the Tier-II centres was bearing fruit, but opinion is divided.
“Unlike the metros, which have their fill through the year, moving out to the smaller centres is a temporary phase. In two years' time, fatigue would be apparent. Besides, how much lower can we go? Perhaps, to the gram panchayat level! The only way to retain cricket's novelty is to have less of it,” says Kesavan.
On a recent business trip to Europe, Nirupam took time off to visit stadiums, and the experience was an eye-opener. “We in India bank on patriotism and our ability to make up numbers. The loyalty is there but it may not be enough to drive the fan to the stadium in these days of growing prosperity. When one has the option of watching the action at home or in the comfortable environs of a lounge bar, why go to the stadium to be pushed around by rude policemen and then go without food,” he asks.
No connect with fans
While most cricket stadiums in India have a capacity of 50,000 and above, poor on-ground facilities and mushrooming of alternatives like Internet and quality TV coverage is making it difficult to fill the grounds. A look outwards shows the world is moving towards smaller venues (Juventus have just inaugurated a 41,000-capacity stadium), which are easier to fill.
“Apart from boastful talk of being able to fill up a lakh or more, all that Eden has is plastic seats. While we take fans for granted, soccer clubs in Europe run yearlong programmes to ensure the fan base stays intact,” he says.
It is well documented that gate revenue forms a miniscule portion of the earnings of the BCCI and state associations, which rely mainly on TV revenue.
Kesavan, who is at Ferozeshah Kotla every time a match is on, manages entry as he gets tickets the “Delhi way”. “I happen to know a friend who knows someone else who gets me a pass with the best possible view.”
For lesser beings, standing in winding queues at authorised outlets is the way out. More often than not, the exercise ends in disappointment, but does anyone care?
“Why should the DDCA (Delhi & District Cricket Association) worry about people not turning up? As long as the TV revenue is coming in, it's fine. The sale of tickets is not monitored and outlets like banks siphon them off to oblige their clients,” said a top DDCA official, who refused to go on record.
Ear on the ground
Indian football may be far from challenging cricket's supremacy but the All-India Football Federation (AIFF) is watching the developments with interest and taking baby steps to capture eyeballs.
While tie-ups with Ten Action and regional TV networks have ensured that almost all I-League are beamed live into households, steps are afoot to cover all India matches. “Cricket fatigue is here to stay, and we are alive to it,” says Kushal Das, All India Football Federation general secretary.