The BCCI came up with a bonanza of Test cricket schedule to satiate the desire of Test match connoisseurs across the country. 13 Test matches, India will host in 7 months starting this September. It is indeed a true watershed moment in Indian Test cricket history in every sense of it. There hasn’t been a bigger home season than this since 1979-80. Most of us have not even watched a 5-Test series at home.
Along with the announcement of 13 Tests, came another announcement of six new Test venues. Since the first Test in 1933 at Bombay Gymkhana, India has witnessed 21 other Test venues over time. While most of modern day’s Test matches are mostly split between Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore, the second tier cities like Kanpur, Ahmedabad, Mohali and Nagpur have also become regulars in India’s Test schedule at home.
Barring the 2012-13 season when New Zealand, England and Australia visited, only 9 Tests have been hosted since 2011. This extreme disparity with no concrete home schedule in the recent past has meant that the historical Test venues (Eden Gardens, MA Chidambaram and Feroz Shah Kotla have hosted 99 Tests between them since 1933) get far and few between.
Take this for example. The last Test match hosted by Chennai was more than 3 years ago. In the last 10 years, Chennai has hosted 3 Test matches, Eden Gardens hosted 5 Tests, Chinnaswamy hosted 5 Tests, Wankhede hosted 3 Tests and the Kotla has hosted 5 Tests.
In 8 years since its inception, VCA Stadium has hosted 5 Tests while Mohali’s PCA stadium has hosted 6 Tests in the last 10 years.
While the number of Tests India play at home each year in itself has been low, the number of Tests each of these venues have hosted over the past decade has been appalling. Put that in perspective with the other nations in Big 3. Melbourne hosts a Test every year. Sydney hosts a Test every year. Lord’s, on most occasions, hosts 2 Tests every year. Headingley and the Oval get at least a Test every year.
While it is another argument about India not having a home calendar of its own, when 13 Tests were scheduled to be played over 7 months there would have not been a greater opportunity than this to reward the traditional Test centers who have managed to garner packed stadiums almost every time they have hosted a Test.
The PCA Stadium and VCA Stadium in stark contrast, despite getting 11 Tests between them in the past 10 years, have long found guilty of not attracting crowds to the stadium for Test matches.
These venues somehow find fans thronging the arena if it is a one-day international or a T20 game. However, if it is a Test match, fans seldom turned up at Mohali and Nagpur. Look back at some of the game’s biggest moments that were given a miss by the fans in these cities.
Remember, Sourav Ganguly’s final gung-ho! It happened in front of empty stands at a venue which was hosting its first ever Test match.
Remember, Dale Steyn’s magnificent 7-51? Some say, there has been no visiting fast bowler who created more havoc than Steyn did that day at Nagpur. It happened in front of empty stands.
Remember, Sachin Tendulkar’s monumental feat of eclipsing Brian Lara’s record for most Test runs? Fireworks kissed the thin air at Mohali, a venue sparsely populated with school students who were given free entry! And this is, THE Sachin Tendulkar that India reveres even today.
Remember, the famous VVS Laxman-Pragyan Ojha coup in 2010 against the Australians in a nerve-wracking climax? It was played out in front of empty stands!
Now remember, the dramatic nail-biter of 1999 when Tendulkar failed to take India home against the arch-rivals, Pakistan? It was played out in front of thousands of stunned spectators!
Now remember, the epic Test match of 2001 at Eden Gardens? Remember the moment when a whole nation exalted in jubilation when the final Australian wicket fell? At least 50,000 were at Eden Gardens then.
Now remember the heart break of 2006 at Mumbai? And then the classic draw with the West Indies recently in 2012? Or the Great Man’s final Test in 2013? Each day, there were crowds – thousands and thousands of them cheering for their favorite son.
Test matches hosted by second-tier cities still doesn’t evoke as much anxiety and unbridled passion as it does in the historic Test centers of India and it’s about time that we give the due for the traditional Test centers.
India’s traditional Test centers have always owned a unique flavor for the turfs and conditions the players were presented to play the highest format of the game. It just doesn’t stop there. In cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Chennai the venue and the fans bring in additional facet to the game thus thoroughly deserving more game time.
In such a scenario, six more Test venues are not going to make any good change the health of Test cricket. In fact, with the trends observed at Mohali, Nagpur and to a certain extent, Ahmedabad it will not be wrong to assume that the new Test venues will hardly find a sustainable way to attract fans to watch Test cricket. The Tours and Fixtures committee should have also considered India’s Test schedule in the coming years when it announced the new Test venues. It is going to be very hard for India to host 13 Tests every season. This could possibly happen once in 4 years. So what happens to the Test venues then?
Back in the days gone by, my uncle would travel all the way from Thanjavur to Chennai to watch Test matches at Chepauk. When we, as kids, visited the stadium for Test cricket, mums would pack us the lunch and snacks. Fans would throng from villages to catch a glimpse of their heroes. The real connoisseurs of the game are mostly the ones who sit next to you. They would be in their 50s and 60s who have watched every Test match at the venue. When you talk to them, they would tell you about how it was to see the West Indies of the years gone by and some of the fondest fairytale finishes they have seen in their lives! And you would see them at the Test match, all the five days.
If the game’s caretakers truly care for the sport it is important to develop a culture around Test cricket. Traditions of the land must mix with the culture of the game. If India could build elite Test centers that could host at least a single Test every year, Test cricket will find wings to fly high in the Indian horizon. That doesn’t mean other venues should be deprived of sport. Test Venues should be as elusive as a ‘Test status’ for nations. The other venues in the country could lead their way with limited overs cricket and a whole load of IPL cricket every year.
Perhaps, it is important to recognize the quality above quantity, at least now. But then, how many choose quality?