Why Tests have become crowd-repellers

Test cricket still holds an appeal among spectators in England and Australia that is absent elsewhere. There is something to be said for the grounds and the match-day experience here, where a visit to the cricket is akin to a day-long picnic. A day at the Test match is a time to relax, with food and drink. There is also the matter of tradition, something all Test-playing nations would do well to consider.

The first day of the Ashes Boxing Day Test of 2013 was a record sell-out with 91092 spectators streaming in.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Stuart Binny says that crowds for T20 cricket come to see the bowlers getting hit and not taking wickets.   -  SPORTZPICS/BCCI

On Boxing Day 2013, a crowd of 91,092 poured into the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the start of the fourth Ashes Test. It may have been a dead rubber, but there was, it seemed, little dimming of public enthusiasm as Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris tore England to shreds.

That was the largest crowd for a single day of Test cricket, and the largest ever official tally at a cricket match (a record subsequently broken by the World Cup final of 2015, watched by 93,013 persons).

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“It’s yet further evidence of the sustained drawing power of Test cricket and Melbourne’s undisputed reputation as the capital of Australian sport,” the Cricket Australia CEO, James Sutherland, hurrahed.

Two years on, the Boxing Day Test between Australia and West Indies drew a total of 127,069 people through the turnstiles over the four days, the lowest total crowd for a Test match at the MCG in 21 years. On day four, only 7161 persons turned up, the lowest crowd for a Boxing Day Test at the venue in 30 years.

Those numbers were probably a reflection of the quality of the opposition Australia was facing: a West Indies team, shorn of its stars, that has been in decline for a long time now. “Worst Indies”, the Herald Sun called the side. It is difficult to disagree.

 

It was hard to miss the contrast with the Big Bash League, which was running parallel to the West Indies Tests. Seven out of eight venues in the BBL broke all-time domestic attendance records, with 80,883 attending the Melbourne ‘derby’, between the Stars and the Renegades.

The Women’s BBL clash between Melbourne Renegades and Sydney Thunder drew 14,611 spectators, more than twice as many as those that watched West Indies on the final day of the second Test. Indeed, the first Test in Hobart drew only 15,343 over its entire duration. “The Big Bash League has changed the dynamics a lot, and let’s be open, all over the country it has cannibalised the demand for international cricket,” Sutherland admitted to ABC Radio late last year.

>Read: Mahela Jayawardene calls for drastic changes

This problem of falling crowds for Test cricket is not unique to Australia alone. The 2015 Boxing Day Test in Durban, with South Africa hosting England, drew poor crowds again, with only 5670 walking in on the final day. Earlier in the year, the first Test between South Africa and India in Mohali was played before empty stands, with an estimated 1000 people attending the first day’s play. In the UAE, where Pakistan hosts visiting sides, there are routinely more people in the press box than in the galleries.

Test cricket has for long been in decline as a spectator sport. Its appeal to the average, modern fan is limited, compared to T20 cricket. There are a number of issues at play here. T20 cricket is packaged, marketed and sold better. It is increasingly seen as an evening’s entertainment, some sort of carnival to be attended.

T20 has its own ways and methods, with little resemblance to Test cricket. “People don’t pay money to come and see you get wickets,” Stuart Binny said last month ahead of the IPL final in Bangalore. “People pay money to see you get hit out of the ground. We (bowlers) have taken that in our stride.”

There is also the question of pricing. In the BBL, a family ticket (two adults and two children) begins at AUD 42.50 (approximately 2100 INR). In contrast, a single adult ticket for a reserved seat on the first day of the 2015 Boxing Day Test at the MCG cost AUD 40. Prices in England can often be higher. In April, Cricket Australia slashed ticket prices for its 2016-17 season, the outcome of a review following the disappointing turnouts in the home series against New Zealand and West Indies. Entry-level tickets were limited to a maximum of AUD 30 for adults, 10 for children and 65 for families.

>Read: In the Caribbean, only T20 sells!

Falling numbers have also to do with the quality of the cricket. How many good Test-playing nations are there, to keep audiences engaged? Test cricket needs greater context and more good contests.

There are bright spots, of course. More than 560,000 fans attended Test matches in England in 2015, helped no doubt by the Ashes. The New Year’s Day Test in Cape Town drew 85,235 spectators, breaking the all-time record for Newlands. The first day-night Test between Australia and New Zealand in Adelaide drew 123,736 spectators over only three days. It had, of course, to do with the novelty of Test cricket under lights, but it was also a pointer to the future. This year, Australia will host two more day-night Tests, against South Africa (Adelaide) and Pakistan (Brisbane). India is in talks to host a day-night Test of its own.

It cannot be denied, though, that Test cricket still holds an appeal among spectators in England and Australia that is absent elsewhere. There is something to be said for the grounds and the match-day experience here, where a visit to the cricket is akin to a day-long picnic. A day at the Test match is a time to relax, with food and drink.

There is also the matter of tradition, something all Test-playing nations would do well to consider. The Boxing Day Test at the MCG is an event, as is any Test match at Lord’s. The attendance at the New Year’s Day Test in Cape Town this year had perhaps as much to do with tradition as the nature of the contest. The nurturing of, and respect for, this tradition is sadly lacking in India.

Since May 2009, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Mumbai, four of the venues which routinely draw the biggest crowds at Test matches in India, have hosted a combined total of 12 Tests. Over that same period, Lord’s alone has seen 16 Test matches. In the 2016-17 season, the BCCI will take Test cricket to six new venues: Rajkot, Visakhapatnam, Pune, Dharamsala, Ranchi and Indore. Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Mumbai will all get only one Test each, of the 13 India is scheduled to play at home. It would be an immense surprise if the six new centres see packed houses.

“Maybe some of these centres where people come up to see Test matches can be given preference over some other centres where people don’t come in large numbers to watch Test matches,” M. S. Dhoni said after the 2010 Test against Australia in Bengaluru. “After all, if taken in the right sense, we are the performers in the circus, but you need the circus to be full.”

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