Test of fans

Monday, October 6, 2008

Most cricket enthusiasts across the world agree that India is the new nerve centre of world cricket. So much so that this debate — whether the balance of power in world cricket has shifted to the east — is now almost a non-starter. This is more so with the billiondollar IPL attracting players from all over the world to India. With the Australians staying on to play the four-match Test series despite multiple terror blasts across the country, there’s little doubt over India’s growing financial might. However, does financial might translate into global supremacy? In other words, because we control global cricket’s finances, can we aspire to be cricket’s new nerve centre? This is especially pertinent because Indians hardly ever venture out to see domestic fixtures like the Ranji or Duleep Trophy, nor do they show any keenness in watching other great cricket contests like the Ashes. While the IPL, and to some extent the ICL, have certainly captured the nation’s imagination, it is to be seen if that’s at the cost of Test or one-day contests. If in the forthcoming Test series against Australia — certainly the mother of all contests in contemporary cricket — any of the four Test venues remain even half full, it would be a serious blow to India’s claim to being the leading cricketing nation in the world. A country, which only appreciates Twenty20 cricket, can hardly aspire to the coveted pole position. It’s like saying we only watch Bollywood item numbers and give everything else, including classical music, a miss and still claim to be real connoisseurs of music. While not comparing the various forms and acknowledging that each has its own merit, there’s little doubt that a composite appreciation of cricket’s various forms is essential, more so if an India-Australia Test series is in the offing. Just look at England, where cricket is a poor fourth in the popularity charts in comparison to rugby, tennis and now the Olympics, Test cricket still has its niche audience. Hence, we have full or near-full houses every time India plays there. Tickets for the Ashes, scheduled for July-September 2009, are already nearly sold out and the ECB is gearing up for a windfall cricket season. In Australia, too, during the 2007-08 India-Australia Test series, most grounds witnessed near-capacity crowds during the four Test matches. While the Boxing Day Test saw a crowd of 70,000-plus on days one and two, Sydney was packed to capacity in the new year Test. Perth and Adelaide, too, had their fair share of crowds. By contrast, Eden Gardens, which has traditionally been a venue where no seat is left empty, was more than half empty when Pakistan played India in November 2007. Coming at the back of India’s T20 triumph in the inaugural World Cup in South Africa, this statistic is most worrisome. Some of our cricket legends, including Sunil Gavaskar, have expressed concern about an overkill of India-Australia contests. Such an argument is not without its problems. Come 2009 and the nation will be enamoured by first the IPL (scheduled for April-May) and then the Twenty20 World Cup in England in June. It can be conjectured that cricket fans will savour three months of non-stop Twenty20 action. One doesn’t need to be a TV analyst to suggest that for all of these three months, fans across the country will be glued to their television sets and soaps and serials, staple viewing in the evenings, will face stiff competition. Again, the fact that ESPN paid a whopping $975 million for the rights to cricket’s Champions League, yet another Twenty20 competition, proves that the appeal of cricket’s newest format to Indians. If continuous Twenty20 cricket can retain its charm and also grow in appeal with time, why is it that Test matches between two of the world’s top sides, played at intervals of almost a year, need to fear the prospect of overkill? Finally, this series is already being touted as perhaps the last where India’s Fab Four don India colours together. Having served Indian cricket for well over a decade, these legends are nearing the end of their glittering careers. The least Indian fans can do is to fill the grounds in saluting their monumental achievements. Every Australian ground was packed to capacity in honour of Adam Gilchrist once he had made public his intention to retire at the end of the India series earlier this year. And Steve Waugh’s retirement Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January 2004 was historic. Such emotionalism has hardly ever been witnessed in the cricket arena. India’s Fab Four deserve no less. In a country, which claims to be cricket’s new home, the chance to watch them in action for the last few times should be unrivalled. There are two enthralling contests lined up over the next month. The first will be played between two of the world’s leading cricket teams. The second is no less serious a contest involving millions of Indian cricket fans and their ability to appreciate all forms of the game. Let’s hope that the Indians can win both these battles.


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