On Tuesday, when R Ashwin went to pick up his man-of-the-match and series awards during the presentation ceremony, he couldn’t help but make an observation right at the beginning of the interview. Diverting the attention from his own stupendous performance in the three Tests against New Zealand (27 wickets), he thanked the crowd at Indore for turning up in big numbers on all four days.
"First things first, I would like to thank the crowd of Indore, coming out in large numbers. This reminded me of Test matches in the 1990s and early 2000s, when I used to go and watch them," he said.
The sight of a packed stadium in India for a home Test should never be unusual, but for a format that’s trying to play catch-up with T20 and the IPL in terms of numbers – crowd figures being one of them – the attendance register at the Holkar Stadium in Indore is a massive thumbs-up.
And it was not just restricted to the match days – in the lead-up, reportedly there were numbers of 4000 and above turning up to watch the players at practice.
Earlier this year, when the BCCI announced that the 2016-17 home season would consist of a whopping 13 Tests (for the first time since 1979), jaws dropped. On the one hand, it seemed like excessive indulgence, as an aggressive response to criticism that the 'BCCI doesn’t care for Test cricket'. India’s poor results away from home and the impact of the IPL drove many critics to question the board’s priorities. On the other hand, it sought to dispel the myth that fans themselves are turning away from the format.
Which brings us to the other newsworthy item of that announcement -- six venues hosting a Test for the first time. All six have hosted international cricket in the past, but never a Test (Indore the latest ticked off the list).
Anurag Thakur, then the BCCI secretary, spoke of the need to take Test cricket to smaller cities and spread the net wider across the country. Occasionally when the IPL comes to town, the stands are filled, but why not give the fans something to look forward to during the home season, over five days rather than one, or three and a half hours?
At the Indore stadium, with a capacity of up to 30,000, crowds of 15,000 and above showed up daily. The turnout at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata for the second Test were relatively underwhelming, though it wasn’t unusual either. Over the last decade, we have seen disappointing numbers at established venues like Kolkata, Mohali, Nagpur and Ahmedabad, raising the question – harsh as it might sound – of whether they were deserving of the honour of hosting games. Distance from the city and inadequate shelter for spectators are to blame for a couple of those venues, so would you blame the fans for that?
Where the BCCI can also take a cue from Indore is scheduling Tests based on festival holidays, and possibly reviving traditions. Till the late 80s, the New Year Test in Calcutta and Pongal Test in Madras (mid-January) were annual events. Stadiums were packed despite inadequate facilities in many stands, and the energy was sustained even if the game was dull. It helped that the Indore Test was played over an extended weekend, thanks to the puja holidays. Given the buzz in the lead-up to the Test, the numbers weren’t surprising – dead rubber be damned.
The response to Test cricket in the newer venues in India will continue to be good in the immediate future because the format is still a novelty. But with the pool growing wider, it also means that the wait for the next Test carnival in town will get longer. The healthy side to that is that Test cricket will remain a novelty in these parts, bringing with it more anticipation and enthusiasm.
In traditional Test powerhouses like England and Australia, that have designated home seasons (a template Thakur spoke about creating for India), the format pretty much sells itself. But even in cricket-crazy India, Test cricket is a product that needs to be marketed in certain parts. Giving a smaller city a share of the pie is a sure shot way of getting the right numbers without having to hard sell the product.
Over the course of the next five months, we will see how the other five newbies – Rajkot, Vizag, Pune, Ranchi and Dharamsala – match up. But the Indore Test showed there is still hope for Test cricket to draw crowds in India and that is heartening.