Fervour? You must be joking

Yuvraj Singh (in action in a Duleep Trophy match before empty stands) is a crowd puller only when he plays for India.-V.V. KRISHNAN Yuvraj Singh (in action in a Duleep Trophy match before empty stands) is a crowd puller only when he plays for India.

IT is strange that despite our well-advertised madness for cricket hardly anyone watches matches in India. All of us, from a child in class two to a grandfather aged 80, follow the game on television (and suffer pathetically presented and packaged programmes that attempt to critically analyse action, and carry on for hours) but attendances at grounds are low, the numbers being very unimpressive.

The blunt truth is that people only watch international cricket, and considering that less than 20 matches are staged each season the total attendance at cricket venues in India in a year is shockingly low. Unfortunately, domestic cricket is no draw at all, and unlike football matches in England or basketball/baseball in the US, Ranji games do not attract anybody. Fans ignore Duleep Trophy and Irani Trophy and nobody even thinks of going to an under-22 game. The BCCI rules say first-class games should be ticketed but state associations know gate collections from Delhi playing Himachal Pradesh, or for that matter Delhi playing Karnataka, are insufficient to meet the cost of printing tickets.

Marketing experts link this neglect of domestic cricket to many factors such as low quality of play, absence of stars, poor marketing, terrible ground facilities and the lack of spectator comfort. All of these are correct. Walk into any stadium and you'd never realise cricket is the most popular sport, considered by many to be the nation's passion and religion. Instead of fervour, devotion and respect, what one would encounter is utter neglect and sleepy indifference. In abundance.

With fans missing, stadiums built to accommodate 50,000 or more look sadly deserted and a feeling of dull emptiness hangs over these colossal concrete structures. The tiered stands are unoccupied, with the main pavilion being used by players and stray friends, officials and mediamen. Mohan Bagan playing East Bengal draws a largish crowd, there is plenty of support for volleyball in Kerala but a Ranji game — even one with top stars on display — is a total loss at the box office.

Top-end titillation... Cricket mania in India is limited to international matches. Crowd turnout such as this (at Eden Gardens during the BCCI Platinum Jubilee ODI last November) is almost impossible in domestic cricket.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Surprisingly, though cricket is crazily cash-rich, there are scant signs of its commercial clout at domestic venues. Grounds where Ranji Trophy matches are played have no advertising, no promotion, no sponsorship or endorsements and cricket, in a weird way, is pure and unadulterated, as it must have been in the princely era of Ranji and Duleep themselves.

Yet, seen from this perspective, the recent Challenger Trophy tournament was interesting as it combined the old with the new and, in the process, created a unique cocktail. Most current stars were present but matches were still played to empty galleries; cricket was gripping, much was at stake for established stars and young exciting prospects but spectator response was more thanda than the performance of Dev Anand's films.

Oddly, Challenger Trophy turned out to be a commercial success — corporates put in money and the games were covered live on TV, all this because the event delivered viewership. Which reinforces several commonly held theories: One, we will not buy tickets for domestic cricket, even if it features Tendulkar and Dhoni. Two, there is money to be made from cricket even with empty galleries. Three, international cricket is always a sell-out, even if Tendulkar and Dhoni are absent.

When India played Sri Lanka at Mohali, barely a few weeks after the Challenger, the scene was dramatically different. The ground was overflowing, the stadium packed to capacity as everyone in town and the neighbouring cities wanted to gain admission. This resulted in a classic case of the demand-supply gap where too many were chasing too few tickets. Such is the magic of ODIs (understandable because it provides sport, entertainment, fashion and snob value) that everyone wants to watch, and be seen watching cricket. That is why rich companies buy exclusive seating for their guests at obscene prices, college students demand cheap tickets, and this frantic quest for admission normally dominates all other preparation before the match.

One related issue in this race to get in is the battle for securing free passes. The correct invite demonstrates clout, contact and connections, and power is measured on the shortest distance principle: the most privileged must disembark closest to the main entrance and sit, if possible, on the laps of the players. In this power game, importance depends on how close one is to the VVIP car park and the player's enclosure. With pressure mounting at the time of matches (due to requirements of the public/media/sponsors, and the vast commercial activity that surrounds cricket) officials have responded in different ways. Centres like Mohali have jazzed up, creating modern, slick, showpiece facilities — it has done to cricket venues what multiplexes did to collapsing cinema houses. Mohali has set the standard by showing concern for the average spectator whose comforts are normally ignored and yet perfecting cricket match management — it really lays out the red carpet for guests, players and corporate partners.

By marketing the game cleverly it makes serious money, not least because it controls free passes (given only to those who provide service and benefits in return) and organises ticket sales efficiently. Under this arrangement, children and students get cheap tickets but others have to pay handsome amounts for good seating. High-priced boxes have been created, most snapped up by private companies so that these seats are given out to their favoured invitees. This is convenient for all — the cricket association makes money and companies dole out favours to ones who count. No wonder the air-conditioned lounge tickets, each costing Rs 10,000 and more, sell out first!

Now Jaipur has raised the bar by aggressively offering high-end tickets (for the exclusive Chief Minister's box) for over a lakh of rupees each, and that too only by invitation! Jaipur broke tradition by selling the advertising space around the perimeter of the ground directly (instead of making a bulk deal with agents), and got into a peculiar situation where they had more bookings than they could accommodate.

Which shows that mega events like ODIs have immense glitter and glamour but setting up a grand stage for the likes of Sachin, Sehwag, Dravid and Dhoni to perform requires a lot of hard work. If a fraction of this effort is directed into domestic cricket perhaps more would come to watch. Who knows?