India seek to lift Tests out of darkness
In the subcontinent, the moment the floodlights come on, dew becomes a factor, no matter the time of the year. It increases manifold during wintersUpdated: Nov 19, 2019 09:30 IST
Rajkot hosted its first Test in November 2016 in its new stadium on the Jamnagar highway, some 20km from the city. A few weeks earlier, India had elbowed out Pakistan to become the world’s top-ranked Test team. The stage was set, opponents England were top notch, and the venue was making its debut in the format. India too were playing well. Still, the crowds stayed away. Home boy Cheteshwar Pujara hit a century and raised his bat to near-empty stands; this despite the organisers bringing in bus loads of schoolchildren to boost attendance.
Those were telling signs that after 142 years, Test cricket was looking jaded. The symptoms had begun to show way before. There were empty chairs in Sachin Tendulkar’s final Test at the Wankhede Stadium in 2013.
But India were busy setting their cricket house in order in the Supreme Court. The focus was on BCCI’s new constitution and drastic reforms. Meanwhile, the health of Test cricket deteriorated. Australia played in Pune, Bengaluru, Ranchi and Dharamsala in front of far from packed houses in 2017. South Africa got whitewashed last month with bucket seats staring at them, in Pune, Visakhapatnam and Ranchi. In between, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and West Indies played Tests in India and not one venue drew turnouts to write home about.
Indore hosted its first Test in 2016. Packed terraces cheered Virat Kohli’s double ton against New Zealand. But during the last Test at the Holkar Stadium, which ended in three days on Saturday, India and Bangladesh drew a daily average of just around 10,000 fans.
India have historically been averse to revolutionary changes in cricket. India were the last to embrace T20. They sent a team of youngsters for the first World T20 in 2007. They won it and IPL took off from 2008, becoming one of the first franchise leagues in world cricket.
For DRS too, India had played the first Test trialling the system, against hosts Sri Lanka in 2008, but put it on the backburner, arguing it was not ‘foolproof’ and they won’t use it in bilateral series. Finally, in 2016, India agreed to use DRS, against England. For day-night Tests too, India and Bangladesh will be the last two teams in the World Test Championship to play a pink game, starting in Kolkata on Friday. Only newbies Afghanistan and Ireland are left.
Playing Tests under the lights seems a step in the right direction. “The pink-ball Test is a welcoming sign. It was becoming necessary for us to play day-night Test. The office-going crowd which couldn’t catch Test cricket can now do. Hopefully, the Eden Test will be a historic moment and will be the start of many more to come,” R Ashwin said in Indore.
But will playing under lights alone bring in the office crowd? In the subcontinent, the timings are likely to be between 1pm and 9pm. An office goer, under normal circumstances, can reach the stadium only after 6pm. That means he will be able to watch only the final session, except probably on Saturday and Sunday.
In the subcontinent, the moment the floodlights come on, dew becomes a factor, no matter the time of the year. It increases manifold during winters. So, pushing the timing deeper into the evening may not be feasible. “For starters, you can’t sleep at 9 o’clock anymore in the night,” Ashwin joked.
But the timings could boost TV viewership, and attract the cricket fans that boost prime-time eyeballs during IPL.
The IPL has a certain entertainment quotient that draws people to the stadiums every year. Film stars, cheerleaders, feet-tapping music all play their part alongside the frequency of fours and sixes hit. The ball landing in the stands seems to establish a direct connection between the cricketers and the fans, providing an extra something one watching at home on TV cannot possibly feel. A pink ball flying past the edge of a bat may not invoke similar excitement. For the time though the novelty itself could provide the adrenaline rush Test cricket sorely needs.
“It’s quite exciting. I think it’s a new way to bring excitement to Tests. We are all very excited,” Kohli said.
During the 2014 MAK Pataudi Lecture at the Eden Gardens, VVS Laxman had said: “Day-night Tests might draw newer audiences for its sheer novelty value. People could dash to the ground after the day’s work and unwind for a few hours. Who knows, gradually their interest in Test cricket might be reignited, they might start coming to the grounds more regularly. So maybe day-night cricket is worth a shot.”
Another way Test cricket could stop requiring life support is on the lines Kohli and Ashwin suggested—build traditional venues for Tests, say five across India so that there is a fan connect and a culture is built around the format, like in Australia and England. “The way we go abroad and know the grounds we’re playing in—like the MCG, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane; we know what to expect, what kind of crowd to expect, people know on what dates to expect a match. It is about creating that kind of a culture,” Kohli said.
“The situation Test cricket is in now, we’re all figuring out how to keep it at the top. So from my point of view, five venues was an option, just a vision about how we can get together and revive Test cricket,” he added.
“That’s perennially how Test cricket works in most parts of the world,” Ashwin said. “Even in India, it was like that. But of late, with a lot of cricketers coming from different parts of the country, cricket has grown and has penetrated into every nook and corner, which is a great sign. Hence we have Test matches at various venues. But the understanding of a particular venue and keeping it that way will help the players. Whether or not that’s the right thing to do is something decision-makers will have take a call on.”