When the dust settles, and the BCCI takes stock of its grand efforts of hosting India’s first-ever pink-ball Test with so much pomp, a pertinent question needs asking on the basis of the fantastic turnout at the Eden Gardens – why can’t these efforts be replicated for red-ball Tests?
In the lead up to this fixture, there was a feeling that this pink makeover of the format was at the heart of luring curious masses to the stands in such massive numbers. It was the extra factor that created all the intrigue, and the host board and home broadcasters could milk the novelty. Fair play to Sourav Ganguly and CAB then that they went all-out in turning the city pink too, in their quest to generate interest by whatever means possible.
They succeeded, in bringing more than 60,000 fans on Day 1 and 50,000 on Day 2 as per official numbers and creating the sort of atmosphere that only IPL is blessed within most centres in India these days. Without taking anything away from the format that sells the best currently, it’s an absolute shame – and a big opportunity missed – that India’s current Test domination is witnessed only by about one-tenth of the number of crowds that turn up regularly for the T20 tournament.
It’s also a very curious time for India as hosts of Test cricket, after a recent comment from Virat Kohli about having just five major Test centres kicked up a raging debate. The Indian captain had a point, in the sense that it allows even the away side to be aware of what to expect in terms of conditions even before they arrive in the country – like it is the case when India travel to countries like England, Australia and South Africa.
But considering these big centres in India – Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata and Chennai – aren’t quite starved of cricket in the two white-ball formats, the turnout for Test matches has been rather abysmal. Though the tier II venues in India, like Indore and Ranchi, have responded a tad bit better to the arrival of Test cricket in their city, turning away from traditional venues to solve the problem of dwindling Test crowds is not the way forward.
If BCCI looks closely, it’ll realise that a solution may have been served up by the wild reception to the pink-ball Test. The argument that the format doesn’t excite fans of today anymore may not hold good in an age when there’s limitless opportunity to market it – and a reason to turn Test match viewing into a wholesome experience.
“I think it is very, very crucial to market Test cricket like we do for T20 and One-Day cricket. Because it is not only the job of the players playing, it spreads out to the management, to the cricket board and to the home broadcaster as well of how you portray a particular product to the people as well. Because if you create excitement only around T20 and not so much around Test cricket, then in the psyche of the fan there’s already a certain template that’s established so I think if there’s enough buzz created around Test cricket then there will be a lot more keenness to come to the stadiums,” Kohli said.
Kohli’s use of certain words – like psyche, template and keenness – is rather interesting, and on point. Reception to any format of the game, or any sell-able product in general, is always going to be directly proportional how well it is being put out there for the masses to pick up. By the virtue of having better prospects of being thrill-a-minute, T20I and ODIs have managed to sell themselves rather effortlessly, while Tests have been what many would call an acquired or a niche taste.
It must be said that it makes absolute business sense for a broadcaster to oversell matches in a tournament like the IPL, to attain an appropriate return on investment. But now, as witnessed in the Kolkata Test, there’s also room for the sale-ability of the longest format in the country to be pushed up by a few notches. Given how India is performing at home right now, it will be an exercise that, at best, will revive viewership at the stadiums and at worst, still be a worthy experiment to draw inferences from and move forward in the right direction.
Kohli also believes there are ideas to borrow from some of the other cricket-playing nations to improve the fan experience. He says: “I am a big fan of having more interactive areas for people during the game as you have in venues when we play abroad. There’s something or the other always happening maybe a play area for kids. These small things will really really help. Maybe school kids could interact with team India players during Lunch, be on the field, play with them as we see in other countries as well. I think all these things will really bring the strength into Test cricket and people would want to come and have an experience a Test match. It should be an event where you come and experience Test cricket, not just sit there and watch in the hot sun. I think there has to be more for the fans, I totally agree with that and it has to be marketed well.”
It’s true that venues in countries like South Africa, England and New Zealand are more children-friendly, where kids are often allowed to go play on the field during session breaks, while the pool deck at the Gabba in Brisbane comes as such a great addition to the fan experience.
But what’s also true is that going down the exact same direction will not be feasible in India considering how the stadiums in the country are structured. A lot of restrictions at venues, including basics like carrying water bottles and food of their own, stems from the need for better crowd control. Yet, there should still be an attempt to bounce off ideas from this suggestion, while working around the limitations in the country, to improve the quality of the fan experience.
There are more than 12 months before Test cricket returns to India, a duration in which there’s an opportunity for the BCCI to huddle up and consider picking up Test cricket from the highs of where they’ve left it in Kolkata on Sunday. It’s even more crucial now because Indian cricket finds itself in a record-breaking juncture in Tests while being in possession of one of the best batsmen of the era and the best pace quartet that the country has ever had. The least the fans should be able to experience, and proudly narrate and re-narrate is their ‘I-Was-There’ moment.