Beware the Indian stadium experience

Regardless of the perpetual flex of its financial muscle, Indian cricket is terribly backward in its treatment of its spectators, writes Sharda Ugra.
Indian fans cheer during cricket match. File(AP)
Indian fans cheer during cricket match. File(AP)
Published on Feb 24, 2021 08:13 AM IST
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BySharda Ugra

On February 24, Chitan Sheth will make his way to the Motera Stadium with his 11-year-old daughter for the first day of the India v England pink ball Test, in the hope that the new Motera is free of its ghoulish past. Sheth, perfumer by profession, club cricketer and indefatigable Indian cricket spectator, has spent a quarter of a century enduring the many hellholes of old Motera.

Like Amandeep Singh Nanda has at Green Park, Kanpur and Mohali. Like Hari Adivarekar and friends at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore. Or anyone else who has paid for aam aadmi tickets at an Indian cricket ground.

The effusive multimedia #thefansareback from the India v England Chennai Test is Indian cricket’s window dressing. Our spectators are mere filmic “cutaways”—fillers, backdrops, spools of footage for variety on match day, easily tossed aside or ignored, be it on cutting floor or in the packed bleachers of our cricket grounds.

Also read: Motera from the archives, one last time

For the Chennai Test, the tropes returned full stream: fans queueing up to buy tickets, pouring into the stands, completing the colourful, clamourous backdrop to our cricket-watching experience.

In Chennai, reality for some however, did match the effusive montage. Like Ashwin Kumar. The 21-year-old psychology student travelled more than four hours by bus from his hometown Chidambaram, arriving at a friend’s home the day before the Test. He had a Rs750 season ticket for the I Stand (lower tier) and watched two days of play. It was Ashwin’s first Test, and while he couldn’t carry anything other than his ticket, wallet and phone, the seating was “more than comfortable.” Water was freely available, food was reasonable and he even had the freedom of using a single “outpass” to step outside the venue if he wanted to eat elsewhere. “It’s not allowed in ODIs, but the Test was a great experience. Plus I got my favourite Ravichandran Ashwin’s first innings fifer.”

Full marks, Tamil Nadu Cricket Association.

That description is enough to make fans elsewhere weep at the civilised normalcy of everything.

Something that should be available at all of India’s 25-odd active international venues, but sadly, is not.

Nanda has been one of those crazy kids standing outside Green Park in Kanpur or Sector 16 (the old CDG stadium) from 4am for a 10am start. The kind who “would just die to get any kind of ticket to get in and see the stars”, or pay four or five times the price of the cheapest ticket – Rs500 for 100 his highest, “even if was only standing room inside.” Today his son Harnoor plays under-16s while he runs a mobile distribution business in Chandigarh. His spectatorship has included police brutality against those in the cheapest seats. Green Park has today crumbled into irrelevance but Mohali, more lenient security-wise during the IPL, can still make for a brutish experience—long treks for water, a toilet and rubbish food.

Photographer Hari Adivarekar has bought match tickets at Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium for almost three decades. At the Chinnaswamy, “there is no attention paid to any sort of comfort, for the spectator. Other than just giving bare minimum and saying take this, like a pig, eat from your trough and be happy.” He too has queued for the cheapest seats, square of the wickets on either side, for which the lines were “way more intense.”

Also read: Motera - Welcome to the world's largest cricket stadium

Online ticketing has made things simpler, but even in the more expensive N Stand opposite the pavilion, “you have to be lucky if when in a group of three or four you don’t get a seat that isn’t broken or bent.” On the scale of Indian public toilet horrors, Chinnaswamy’s were “as bad or even worse” than those at his boy’s school. The word he uses for the average Indian cricket spectator’s matchday: dystopic.

Like Sheth’s Motera odysseys. Around two km from the ground, the trek begins. Therefore, arriving early to source parking at a random housing society’s compound is vital. Then it’s a mile-long maze of multiple security checks to the baking cement bleachers without shade. “It was terrible, all the toilets were stinking, you had to stand in line to get food for an hour… absolutely pathetic.” At the 2011 World Cup final, no flags were allowed in, even if without rods or poles. “Because of the sheer number of fans we have,” Sheth says, “we are taken for granted.”

India’s millions of cricket fans, says Adivarekar are, “just fodder for the spectacle being monetised through advertising… you are kind of livestock to be herded in for the spectacle. Look at the masses of India who are crazy about cricket… turn away from the spectacle, zoom into those masses and…it’s apocalyptic. Other than when you are focused on the action, you’re not in heaven, but hell.”

If you think that’s over-reaction, try buying the cheapest ticket and watching the next ODI in your town.

Regardless of the perpetual flex of its financial muscle, Indian cricket is terribly backward in its treatment of its spectators. Sheth’s first live cricket experience outside India was at the 2019 ICC World Cup at Lord’s, leaving him “amazed” at the organization—“like they wanted fans to come. Here they know the fans are going to come anyway so they don’t bother.” Sheth was grateful that old Motera’s concrete bleachers were replaced by bucket seats in 2011, a mandatory condition for every ICC World Cup host.

What each of these fans did say is that the IPL makes for a much better experience for the fans. More noisy, but with a little more breathing room and polish for water, food and toilets. Personal experience: only after the Delhi Daredevils arrive did someone clean the loos at the Kotla media box.

I ask them what their charter of demands would be if BCCI president Sourav Ganguly was listening. Across the board, the first response is a muffled laugh, somewhere between, “as if” and “stop joking.” Their answers were simple, identical, doable. Skullduggery-free ticketing, easy access into the ground, clean facilities, proper seating, enough clean toilets, affordable food and water, exit passes.

“It shouldn’t be that if I go to get food or go to the toilet,” Nanda says, “someone else occupies my seat or even if I can exit the ground, I can’t get back in without a big hassle.” Another suggestion is a section of the stands for women at the matches without male companions. As Adivarekar puts it succinctly, “to be treated as a partner rather than a commodity used to woo advertisers.” And there lies the chasm between awareness of a shameful but easily solvable situation and Indian cricket’s favourite word now: intent.

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Friday, July 01, 2022