It can be very disquieting to watch Test cricket in a stadium whose vastness gets amplified because it is empty. You get the feeling of attending the funeral of someone who has been abandoned by the world.
Never has India had a stadium which is almost perfect to a fault. With no world-class facility missing, it is simply a marvel built by the state association, whose president Shashank Manohar is also heading the Indian Board. The tragedy is that it could well turn out to be a tomb built in memory of the sport called Test cricket.
Why are the crowds ignoring a contest between two highly competitive teams? Is the surfeit of cricket taking its toll on the fatigued spectators, who now get only tickled and excited by the slam-bang shorter version of the game?
Perhaps the intricacies involved with the longer version of the game require patience and understanding lacking in those who are now being fed on junk food. No longer do they feel the need for an elaborate main course to satiate their appetite.
Even if all this is true, it still does not explain this sudden and swift drop in spectator interest. There were more people watching the Indian team practising at the old stadium in the heart of the city than those who have finally turned up to watch the live contest. Why?
Here in Nagpur, the new stadium is almost an hour's drive from the city. Lack of public transport does not help and the tickets, though priced around Rs. 750 to 1000 for the majority, are being sold only for the full five days. No daily tickets, no concessions.
I am not sure if the cricket board, which has its coffers overflowing with millions, is losing sleep over a few thousands not turning up to watch Test cricket. It doesn't really matter to them because they have already made their profits and are no longer dependant upon a large turnout to help them make money.
They have built these amusement parks at huge costs and know that the real entertainment value lies in T-20, where the crowds make even the biggest stadiums look small. And, in any case, they have a captive TV audience from which they make their real money.
When each state association in India is getting around Rs. 25 to Rs. 30 crore a year from the profits made by the Board, why should they bother whether spectators come or not?
When Punjab Cricket Association built a magnificent stadium at Mohali over a decade ago, the world applauded. India had never seen a modern cricket facility like that, so what if it was built at a place with no cricketing tradition. The lack of spectator interest gets reflected in the fact that Mohali found it difficult to fill the stadium even during IPL matches. Had they built a stadium in their traditional centres such as Patiala, Amritsar or Jalandhar, they would have never faced the embarrassment of having to ferry schoolchildren to make the ground look somewhat filled up.
In Nagpur, we are told that within a few years the city would have expanded and this stadium would not be surrounded by vast empty spaces but by a throbbing multitude. Suffer a bit now for a bright future ahead.
Possibly true. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear. If Test cricket has to survive, the Indian Board has to make serious efforts to attract crowds and not create conditions that will make even the most passionate supporter of the game say, to hell with it.