Breaking ground: Tests at new venues

The spectator response and the overall conduct of the matches in Pune, Ranchi and Dharamsala — all new Test venues — during the India-Australia series are critical for the future of the longest version of the game in India.

A view of the picturesque Dharamsala Stadium, which will host the final Test of the India-Australia series. The venue is expected to offer the best playing surface of the series.   -  PTI

When Sachin Tendulkar suggested taking cricket to new venues, he was making an important proposition. The idea was to create a positive ambience for Test cricket to survive. Playing in front of empty stands can be a demoralising experience and Sachin knows that better.

Test cricket was facing the challenge of attracting spectators to the venues. Measures had to be taken to preserve the popularity of Test cricket.

It is not that the lack of spectator response is a new trend in international cricket. Watching Sunil Gavaskar’s innings during the India-Australia Test in Adelaide in 1985-86 on YouTube, you can see empty stands. The spectator count on the first four days projected on the screen reads a dismal 8,441, 8,741, 7,109 and 4, 091.

The administrators have been facing the problem of wooing spectators to venues for a long time now. First, the advent of limited-overs cricket (50 overs) had threatened the popularity of Test cricket, and now it is the Twenty20 format that has begun taking away spectators from the five-day game.

Test cricket in Australia and England has seen the administrators experimenting with new venues though they have stuck with traditional centres such as Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney (in Australia) and the Lord’s, The Oval, Old Trafford, Trent Bridge, Edgbaston and Headingley (in England).

For India, the current season has been a path-breaking one. Thirteen Tests at home gave India the opportunity to add new venues to its list of Test centres, and the trend was set in motion when Indore hosted the match against New Zealand. It was a roaring success, as Indore made a spectacular start as a Test venue.

In recent times, India and Australia have worked in tandem to provide some entertaining cricket for the fans, and the decision to play Tests during the forthcoming series in Pune, Ranchi and Dharamsala clearly underlines the importance of taking the game to new venues. It is to the credit of the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) that of the four Tests in the series, three are to be held at new venues. It reflects the BCCI’s desire to promote the game at smaller venues. It is indeed laudable that Australia has agreed to play a series in India with no Test match being played at traditional centres such as Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai.

For Ranchi, the Test should come as a reward for the hard work put in by the Jharkhand Cricket Association, headed by Amitabh Choudhary, a retired police officer. Ranchi is a developing city and M. S. Dhoni is among its famous residents.

The organisers of the Ranchi Test are all geared up and expect India and Australia to produce cracking cricket. The response to limited-overs cricket at the Jharkhand State Cricket Association International Stadium complex has been overwhelming with packed galleries. Having a capacity of 39,000, the organisers are looking forward to making a successful Test debut. According to the locals, the pitch is expected to be conducive to Indians even though no instructions have been issued on the kind of surface that is to be provided. The pitch is expected to have bounce and assist the spinners on the last two days.

For Pune, which will host the first Test of the series at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium on February 23, it will be a huge moment. Former Test cricketer Chandu Borde would be among the proud locals when the first ball is bowled in the Pune Test. The limited-overs games have seen full house at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium, but the organisers would have to make extra efforts to attract spectators for the Test match. While the Ranji Trophy matches in Pune failed to attract local fans, empty galleries for the first match of the India-Australia series would be a poor advertisement for Test cricket.

The challenge, here, lies in preparing a pitch that would facilitate exciting and engaging cricket. Bounce could be a factor, but the curator is understood to be working on a sporting pitch where the bowlers get to make an impression even as one can expect a run feast.

Dharamsala will host the final Test of the series, beginning March 25, and there is every possibility that the venue would offer the best playing surface of the series.

Sunil Chauhan is the man who has given Dharamsala a very sporting track: a batsman-friendly pitch for limited-overs cricket and a surface with encouraging bounce for the bowlers for the Ranji Trophy matches.

“We are working on giving the teams an ideal pitch for five-day cricket. Those who rely on seam and spin will have good opportunities to make an impression,” said Chauhan ahead of the most important assignment of his career.

Test cricket at venues like Ranchi, Pune and Dharamsala indicates the welcome measures that the BCCI has taken. Cricket Australia too needs to be lauded for being part of the effort in adding new Test venues in India. England too had played Tests in Rajkot and Visakhapatnam, as BCCI added six new Test centres to its list. As former BCCI president Anurag Thakur observed, “I welcome the new Test venues hosting this prestigious format of cricket and their arrival will take Test cricket to every corner of the country.”

The decision to add six new Test centres was taken by the BCCI in June 2016 in order to enable the hosts to prepare well.

There is excitement ahead of the India-Australia series, and the organisers are hopeful that the quality of cricket on offer would match the fare that made the 2001 series between the two teams memorable.

The spectator response and the overall conduct of the matches in Pune, Ranchi and Dharamsala are critical for the future of Test cricket in India.