Cricket and packed stadia go hand in hand. The atmosphere in an Indian city in the event of a match, be it the metropolitans of Mumbai and Bangalore or second-tier cities like Cuttack and Mohali, is comparable to any other festive season. Such is the frenzy of the game that when the papers report the itinerary of a touring team, every individual flips to the sports section with a prayer that his city be blessed as one of the venues, with a fixture of any format.
No one would have imagined though that such a day would come, when people will be even ignorant of an upcoming series, let alone the team or the venues of the games. Blame it on the crowded calendar, and more importantly, a meaningless crowded calendar. A long IPL season getting underway less than a week after the Nation was crowned with the World Title, a ‘low-profile’ tour to the Caribbean following immediately after, a humiliation in England, a fitting revenge at home and another ‘low-profile’ series against the Windies. All this, within a matter of eight months.
Whether a ‘high-profile’ tour Down Under will salvage some interest in the game, with a win in Australia long due for a team that has deserved it for quite some time now, remains to be seen. But this was bound to happen after such an overdose of repetitive bilateral series. Ultimately, it led to empty stands, declining enthusiasm for the game and a sharp drop in viewership for channels.
The BCCI has considered hosting tests in non-test venues and smaller cities to revive interest in the game, which may be a wise proposition given that Cuttack and Indore saw packed stadiums against the West Indies whereas Mumbai and Kolkata had paltry turnouts amounting to just a quarter of their capacities.
Let us look at the bigger picture now. Consider the example of football. A game in which a season lasts for three-quarters of a year sees no fall in turnouts at any point of the year. Season-ticket applications take years to result in a successful booking. Old Trafford becomes houseful on every match day, regardless of Man United playing a lowly Wolverhampton Wanderers or a derby against Man City. Even an uninteresting fixture against a lower league side in the Carling Cup will see 70% of the stadium filled. Why is that so?
The answer lies in the format. Football, apart from pre-season warm ups and International matches once in a blue moon, hardly sees any ‘friendly’ encounters in which there are no stakes for either team to sweat it out for. Whether it is the domestic League, the domestic Cup or the European Championship, every fixture has significance. A Liverpool fan will stay up at night to watch his side take on Norwich City, because every win will give them three vital points. Similarly, every win in the Cup takes them to the next round and in the Champions League it takes them closer to Continental glory.
Do we see that in cricket? Does a 4-0 humiliation in England have any bearing when we travel to Australia? The whitewash is now done and forgotten. A win in Australia will be celebrated for a couple of days. This explains why an overdose of the sport without any benefit leads to a decline in interest.
The question is, can cricket head the football way? Answer is, probably yes. There is absolutely no need to cut down on the number of encounters, but there is an urgent need to increase the significance of the matches. With three major tournaments in the form of the World Cup, the Twenty20 Championship, the Champions Trophy, with an additional Asia Cup for the Indian subcontinent where all the Asian powerhouses come from, and a potential World Test Championships very much on the cards, there is much scope to generate an interest comparable to that of football.
Rather than making the World Cup a mere ten-team affair from 2015, the ICC should think about including more teams, to popularize the game even more. With the likes of Ireland giving European powerhouse England a run for their money, and teams like Scotland and Netherlands making their mark, a European version of the Asia Cup can be introduced. Similarly, the same can be done in the pacific where the smaller island Nations can compete with Australia and New Zealand to develop as cricketing nations, and in Africa where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya already recognized as Cricket-playing countries can play with Namibia and help in the progress of the game.
The cricketing calendar can see one major event like the T20, World Cup or Champions Trophy every year, and the continental championships in the same year for all regions, with dates available for the IPL and the Big Bash, cutting down on the number of bilateral series. This will maintain a level of interest within the fans, lead to packed stadia as ‘every game will matter’, and teams will fight for supremacy in all formats. The scope of securing a ‘treble’ as in football, where the same team wins all three major tournaments in the same season, will be left wide open which will drive the fans to roar their teams to glory.
How exciting would it be to see India and Pakistan or Australia and New Zealand battle it out for the prospect of a ‘treble’ and not just local bragging rights. Fan frenzy will be at its peak, tension steering high and the disappearing Mexican wave in the stadium will not only return, but also return bigger and better than before.