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Not a crowd puller

Test cricket is losing popularity because of haphazard scheduling. Gulu Ezekiel writes.

india Updated: Dec 25, 2011 22:17 IST

Cricket's strength, particularly the format of Test matches, lies in its tradition and history. Ignoring and rejecting these unique aspects comes with a heavy price. But does the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) really care?

Both in South Africa and Australia, the cricket calendar is planned in such a way that a Test match begins on December 26, the day after Christmas also known as Boxing Day. In England, the traditional Lord's Test match heralds the arrival of summer's international cricket calendar.

India's much anticipated Test series in Australia gets underway at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) today with the Boxing Day Test match which has become a fixture in the cricket calendar since the 1974-75 season. It has consistently drawn crowds of over 50,000. Early reports indicated that a crowd of over 75,000 could be expected today at the MCG.

At home, the talking point this year was the sparse crowd for Test matches. The sight of vast empty stands during last month's Test against the West Indies at Kolkata's iconic Eden's Gardens was heart-rending. Many reasons were trotted out for this trend, including the poor quality of the current West Indian team.

The trend was slightly bucked at the third and final Test in Mumbai. With their favourite son, Sachin Tendulkar tantalisingly stuck on 99 international centuries, a chance to see history in the making drew reasonable crowds to the Wankhede Stadium. In the bargain, the fans were treated to one of the most exciting finishes in history, proving Test cricket still has the capacity to pull off surprises.

A major reason for poor crowds at Tests is undoubtedly the haphazard scheduling. With the IPL being the new cash cow on the block, the BCCI looks upon Test cricket as the sport's poor cousin and goes through the motions of hosting Tests merely to fulfil its international obligations. It was only after the Indian team attained the ICC World No. 1 ranking in Test cricket in February 2010 (since lost to England) that the BCCI, under intense pressure from the players themselves, shoe-horned a few more Test matches into the calendar last year.

But with the IPL and its unwanted stepchild, the Champions League eating away nearly three months of the calendar, we now have the pathetic situation of a Test match beginning on a Monday when ideally it should be on a Thursday in order to draw in the weekend crowd.

Not long ago, there was a time when Test matches were held in Kolkata during the Christmas/New Year period, drawing a large number of people to the Eden Gardens. Similarly, the BCCI made sure to schedule Tests in Chennai during the harvest festival of Pongal in mid-January.

Some of the most cherished memories of my teenage years spent in Kolkata (then Calcutta) in the 70s was the thrill of sitting in the Eden Gardens bleachers (aka 'nosebleeds'), watching Test matches in the company of crowds upwards of 85,000. The joyous mood of the fans added to the enjoyment of the cricket, for there are few cities in India that can match Kolkata for its Christmas/New Year festive spirit.

Having moved to Madras (now Chennai) in 1980, I had the opportunity to witness numerous Pongal Test matches where the locals would flock to the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chepauk with the traditional two sticks of sugarcane in hand.

Back then the BCCI was in the hands of people who cared for and loved cricket like S Sriraman of Madras, Polly Umrigar and Raj Singh Dungarpur from Mumbai and Bangalore's M Chinnaswamy, all since gone. Today, it is inhabited by businessmen, babus and bean counters for whom commerce trumps tradition and history. A crying shame indeed.

Gulu Ezekiel is an author and sports journalist.

The views expressed by the author are personal.