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Sport without spectators is like curry without spice

Frankly, watching a match without spectators is as appetising as curry without spice. Playing in front of empty stands can be terribly uninspiring for players too. In fact it is an affront to talent as well as sport.

mumbai Updated: Jan 13, 2017 00:26 IST
Ayaz Memon
‘When I reached Gate 11 a good 90 minutes before the match was to begin, it was already choc-a-bloc with people, mainly youngsters, trying to get in. There was buzzing excitement all around, the refrain unmistakable: “Dhoni! Dhoni!”’
‘When I reached Gate 11 a good 90 minutes before the match was to begin, it was already choc-a-bloc with people, mainly youngsters, trying to get in. There was buzzing excitement all around, the refrain unmistakable: “Dhoni! Dhoni!”’(HT file photo)

The flavour and mood of the first warm-up match between England and India on Tuesday at the Brabourne Stadium — the last in which Mahendra Singh Dhoni led a team in India colours — took me hurtling a few decades back to my schooldays.

When I reached Gate 11 a good 90 minutes before the match was to begin, it was already choc-a-bloc with people, mainly youngsters, trying to get in. There was buzzing excitement all around, the refrain unmistakable: “Dhoni! Dhoni!”

Two queues streamed out from Gate 11, one headed in the direction of Churchgate Station, the other towards Marine Drive, going past Pizza By The Bay located on the ground floor of Soona Mahal, also renowned for the banners of Nana Chudasama giving his take on the state of the nation.

Pizza By The Bay has an illustrious past. It started originally started as Talk Of The Town and had some of the best musicians performing there. It then became Jazz By The Bay, followed by Not Just Jazz By The Bay, till pizzas took over, reflecting the changing palate of Mumbai, in food, music and lifestyle.

The chaos and crush of spectators outside Gate 11 on Tuesday reminded me of my first Test match at the Brabourne, India versus Australia in 1964-65. We had entered through the same gate, but the queue then had extended to almost where Asiatic Stores is located now.

As we neared the entrance, the rush swelled, clothes got soiled and tempers soared. It took a rugby-like scrum to get past the turnstiles, profanities were thrown around with abandon. But once inside, all hassles were forgotten as the magic of cricket took over.

The longest queue I have stood in for a cricket match was when India and West Indies played at the Brabourne in 1966-67. The Windies boasted Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Conrad Hunte, Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Lance Gibbs among others. India had marquee names in Tiger Pataudi, Abbas Ali Baig, Chandu Borde etc.

The star-cast was irresistible. Mumbai was gripped by cricket madness weeks before the Test. We managed to get tickets for the East Stand, and on the first morning had to join the line outside Oval Maidan, beyond Eros cinema! The remaining days of the match we were at the Brabourne at 7 am.

There were glimpses of this fervour on Tuesday last though I did not have to stand in queue: being a commentator has its privileges. But there was the same tingle of excitement I had felt when going for my first match.

Frankly, watching a match without spectators is as appetising as curry without spice. Playing in front of empty stands can be terribly uninspiring for players too. In fact it is an affront to talent as well as sport.

Dhoni, of course, was the lodestar in Tuesday’s match. He is a folk hero of modern India and his appeal transcends cities and states. He will draw audiences everywhere: like Sachin Tendulkar before him, and what Virat Kohli is beginning to do now.

What was interesting, however, was how the match had been marketed. Not so much by spending on adverts, largely through social media, but highlighting Dhoni’s achievements, lacing it with some nostalgia, building it up as an unmissable event.

It was a trifle gimmicky no doubt but spectatorship in sports is driven by hero worship. Sometimes this might appear a little over-the-top. But I think the check and balance is intrinsic: you can’t build a mediocre player into a hero.

It also helped that entry was free on Tuesday. By now it is clear that tickets have to be reasonably priced even for international matches — with perhaps school kids getting in free — and the bulk of the revenue has to be sourced from other avenues.

While T20 has a ready audience, the longer formats — especially Tests — are grappling with dwindling spectatorship, even in India unlike in the previous millenium.

Tuesday’s match, that attracted more than 25,000 people, affords some clues of how this can be countered if there is imagination and purpose.

When I reached Gate 11 a good 90 minutes before the match was to begin, it was already choc-a-bloc with people, mainly youngsters, trying to get in. There was buzzing excitement all around, the refrain unmistakable: “Dhoni! Dhoni!”

Two queues streamed out from Gate 11, one headed in the direction of Churchgate Station, the other towards Marine Drive, going past Pizza By The Bay located on the ground floor of Soona Mahal, also renowned for the banners of Nana Chudasama giving his take on the state of the nation.

Pizza By The Bay has an illustrious past. It started originally started as Talk Of The Town and had some of the best musicians performing there. It then became Jazz By The Bay, followed by Not Just Jazz By The Bay, till pizzas took over, reflecting the changing palate of Mumbai, in food, music and lifestyle.

The chaos and crush of spectators outside Gate 11 on Tuesday reminded me of my first Test match at the Brabourne, India versus Australia in 1964-65. We had entered through the same gate, but the queue then had extended to almost where Asiatic Stores is located now.

As we neared the entrance, the rush swelled, the clothes got soiled and tempers soared. It took a rugby-like scrum to get past the turnstiles, profanities were thrown around with abandon language. But once inside, all hassles were forgotten as the magic of cricket took over.

The longest queue I have stood in for a cricket match is when India and West Indies played at the Brabourne in 1966-67. The Windies boasted Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Conrad Hunte, Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Lance Gibbs among others. India had marquee names in Tiger Pataudi, Abbas Ali Baig, Chandu Borde etc.

The star-cast was irresistible. Mumbai was gripped by cricket madness weeks before the Test. We managed to get tickets for the East Stand, and on the first morning had to join the line outside Oval Maidan, beyond Eros cinema! The remaining days of the match we were at the Brabourne at 7 am.

There were glimpses of this fervour on Tuesday last. I did not have to stand in queue: being a commentator has its privileges. But there was the same tingle of excitement that I had felt when going for my first match.

Frankly, watching a match without spectators is as tasteless as curry without spice. Playing in front of empty stands can be terribly uninspiring for players too. In fact it is an affront to their talent as well as the sport.

Dhoni, of course, was the lodestar in Tuesday’s match. He is a folk hero of modern India and his appeal transcends cities and states. He will draw audiences everywhere: like Sachin Tendulkar before him, and what Virat Kohli is beginning to do now.

What was interesting, however, was how the match had been marketed. Not so much by spending on adverts, largely through social media, but highlighting Dhoni’s achievements, lacing it with some nostalgia, building it up as an unmissable event.

It was a trifle gimmicky, but spectatorship in sports is driven by hero worship. Sometimes this might appear a little over-the-top. But I think the corrective check is intrinsic: you can’t build a mediocre player into a hero.

It also helped that entry was free on Tuesday. By now it is clear that tickets have to be reasonably priced even for international matches — with perhaps school kids getting in free — and the bulk of the revenue has to be sourced from other avenues.

While T20 has a ready audience, the longer formats — especially Tests — are grappling with dwindling spectatorship. Tuesday’s match, that attracted more than 25,000 people, affords some clues of how this can be countered if there is imagination and purpose.

Also read: History forgotten is legacy wasted