Mumbai: Getting into the Wankhede Stadium Saturday morning was a crush. Fans thronged the ground in thousands. The official paid attendance was 19444, almost the largest I have seen at this venue in many years, nudgingly close to Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell Test three seasons back.
Interestingly, this is the first time no player from Mumbai is in the playing Xl of a Test held in the city. Poor Ajinkya Rahane got injured on the eve of the match and Shardul Thakur was made to warm the bench after getting a late call as cover for Mohamed Shami.
Some old-timers made this a reason to crib about the falling standards in the revered nursery of Indian cricket’ which, of course, is far from true. Mumbai are the reigning Ranji Trophy champions and are doing very well this season too, a few hiccups notwithstanding.
Importantly, the absence of a Mumbai player did not dampen the enthusiasm of fans. In my opinion this represents how cricket has become a truly pan-India sport, with erstwhile parochial interests now truly sublimated.
Big crowds for this Test (and the series) are in contrast to the hue and cry about dwindling support for the five-day format, particularly in India. So what explains?
The seductive appeal of Virat Kohli is clearly a dominant factor. It’s a truism that star players in sport, like performing artists in any sphere, bring in spectators. In Indian cricket, as in Indian life, this is even more pronounced.
The impact Pataudi, Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar have had on the collective imagination of the country in the past half century - and how this translated into massive spectatorship — is now part of folklore.
Kohli is from this lineage. When Tendulkar retired, it seemed would be decades before such an influential all-India hero would emerge. In a little over three years, he has virtually supplanted Tendulkar in the public mind.
Kohli’s magnificent batsmanship and magnetic personality make for compelling watching. His passion for the game — and for winning — is manifest in everything he does on the field. This was in ample evidence in his century on Saturday. It was sheer master class.
Kohli’s desire to excel is contagious that that it has invigorated the dressing room. India’s current winning streak has the aggressive mindset of the captain at its core. The double bonanza — of team and star player succeeding — has seen Test cricket thrive this season in India.
Of course, sustaining support for the longest-format in current times is not easy.
Even in India, crowds at matches are far reduced from what they used to be 30-40 years back. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, I can hardly remember a match which was not `sold out’ for all days in advance.
I venture though that thinning crowds at stadiums these days is not entirely indicative of loss of support for Test cricket. True, limited overs cricket and especially T20, has got the pulse of fans, but there is a vast number of Test cricket lovers who track matches on TV or online.
The issue is not so much of finance (Test cricket is still rich because of the value of TV rights) as of getting fans to come to the ground. How crucial this is in the construct of sport cannot be undermined.
Imagine a Grand Slam tennis final between Djokovic and Federer with only a handful of fans? How bland would that be? Spectatorship inspires players to excel, and sport something to cherish. The challenge before cricket’s administrators is to devise methods to make Test cricket a spectacle’ once again. A positive, aggressive approach by captains and players has become imperative. More and more, fans want results.
Equally important is comfort at venues and ticket pricing that is not open theft, but provides value for money. Day-night Test with a pink ball is gaining support rapidly. Given the battle for time in modern life, the proposal for 4-day Tests needs serious consideration too. How to make Test cricket survive is complex, no doubt, but not hopeless. It requires imagination and will, not breast-beating....