It’s ironic, but the practice of treating spectators like a bunch of unruly animals at grounds in India started at the venue that was famous for hosting a wonderfully knowledgeable crowd.
At the Eden Gardens Test in 1999, the last rites of Mohammed Azharuddin’s team during the historic trip by Wasim Akram’s Pakistan was completed before empty stands. Spectators had been smacked around and kicked out of the stadium by the police after irate and incensed fans rained plastic bottles on the ground.
True, it was not the lot that used to set the stands alive with their passionate support, intelligent appreciation of the game and witty remarks — that breed started becoming extinct from the early 90s — but the incident that left hundreds injured also sparked the start of an era where the paying public became the last concern of organisers.
Eden Gardens is just an example. It’s the same story in most BCCI centres and the experience is worse when it comes to non-metros. In most places, traffic and transport go haywire and the situation becomes nightmarish during day-night matches.
Scores of people walking miles — as non ‘VIP’ vehicles are not allowed beyond a certain point and point-to-point pick-up buses are a rare luxury — is a familiar post-match sight in Cuttack, Visakhapatnam, Vadodara, Kanpur and many more places.
This is merely a chaotic end to a day of torment. It starts early when spectators make their way to the stadium in the midst of an overabundance of security personnel through narrow and littered approach ways even in the bigger cities. Things turn genuinely nasty once they are in.
Carrying water bottles and food is banned in most places and forget the quality of what is available inside, there never seems to be enough either. Prices are steep and there aren’t adequate outlets, so to get a sandwich or a drink equals walking into a battle. The toilets are always in sync with the larger picture of disorder and most places forget there might be women spectators around.
The power of the idiot box
The bosses of the world’s richest cricket board have lots of differences among themselves which often lead to vicious feuds, but when it comes to not caring for the fans there has been no noticeable difference between AC Muthiah, Jagmohan Dalmiya, Ranbir Mahendra or Sharad Pawar. They are loaded with concerns bigger than that of the paying public, which makes India the only country where nobody cares about the spectators, who should be the most essential stakeholders in sporting spectacle.
It wasn't so bad when spectators were actually treated as an important part of an international match, but things started changing ever since the TV viewer became the real consumer of the show. This revolutionised cricket business like never before and unfortunately for those who go to the grounds to watch, they became unimportant. They too must be blamed for complying and accepting what they are subjected to, for the BCCI would never have got away with this had they protested the facilities available or staying away.
"I won't deny that there has indeed been a change in our priorities," said a senior working committee member of the BCCI. "Gate money is negligible in comparison to what we get from TV rights and that may have shifted our focus a bit, but security concerns have also forced us to accept a lot of things. There were many instances of fans showering the ground with bottles (the ODI series against West Indies in 2002 was marred by a surfeit of such incidents). We could hardly say anything when police said these objects wouldn't be allowed."
This member, who didn't want to be identified, still felt it wouldn't be fair to say that the state associations were oblivious to the problems the public face. “There are places where fans can have a great time at the ground and most state units are trying to improve facilities for them, many new stadiums are being built that will cater to fans. But I admit that a lot more can be done and the onus is more on local associations than the BCCI. The Board can at best set a guideline and monitor that they are followed." The BCCI has not started thinking on these lines yet.
Yet, things are not all hunky dory for those who prefer watching cricket on television. The deluge of advertisements not only robs the viewers of what happens between overs, it often trims an over by a ball. As it is, the space on a screen is drastically reduced with logos of several kinds getting fixed places, and now, the growing number of pop-ups adds to the irritation. Of late, the non-availability of the channel beaming live cricket in several parts of the country has compounded the woes.
The Board can't be directly blamed for this because it's the responsibility of the broadcasters to ensure better viewing, but are those selling TV rights with great zeal interested in knowing what practical problems viewers face? The answer is no. "These issues have never been discussed at our meetings," said the member of the working committee. "We thought the companies who secure telecast rights would look after these things, but have seen that this is not quite the case. To my knowledge, no initiative has been taken on our part to address this problem. To be honest, we never thought that such a problem would crop up. Now that it has, it should be dealt with."
That was encouraging but there is a huge difference between "should be dealt with" and "has been dealt with". In its overdrive to market the game like never before, the BCCI bosses — doesn't matter which camp they belong to, this has been an issue for some years now — have never cared about those who watch. The spectators crowding the stadiums are the first victims and TV viewers too are gradually feeling the pinch. Well, when will things change? Who knows? The bosses have other, more serious issues to contend with.