The seventh instalment in our new series where we have cricket conversations with keen students of the game, from all around the world. The topic this time is the degree to which the average cricket spectator is being taken for granted in India.

gokul1

Gokul Chakravarthy is a filmmaker and a former video head at Cricinfo who believes that following a cricket match in India, other than on television, is an increasingly discouraging prospect for the average cricket fan. He discusses this with Jaideep Varma of Impact Index.

JV_Resize

 

JV_Resize: We both went for the fourth Test against England to Wankhede stadium. I lasted barely two days, despite having a season ticket. You did better than me at least.

 

gokul1: Barely. Right from the moment you enter the premises of Wankhede stadium, it becomes clear that this is about enjoying the cricket despite the facilities, authorities and fellow spectators there and not because of them.

First, there was a line about 500 people long and stretching almost to the outside entrance of Gate no. 4. that leads to the supposedly better seats in the Sachin Tendulkar and North Stands. A good thirty minutes later, when my turn to enter through the turnstiles came, I was asked to leave my bag (with the usual paraphernalia to survive a long, hot day at the ground) outside the gate, unattended among a pile of hundreds of other such backpacks. While this is common practice in Indian stadia and I should have known better than to try my luck, I did notice that several other spectators were being allowed to walk in with their bags. When I pointed this out to the authorities, I was informed, rather proudly, by the Mumbai policemen on duty that they were allowing the “goras” to take their bags in because they had to carry their passports with them all the time.

 

JV_Resize: Yes, that was curious – all the white-skinned spectators took their bags in, while everyone else was refused. It is odd because passports are not something that can’t be carried on one’s person.

 

gokul1: One would think so! The moment I sat down on the searing hot plastic seat with my seat number and a few blobs of crusty bird poop on it, I felt the sun beating down on me and these twin realisations hit me: a) the entire first rung of stands around the ground was uncovered and b) my long wait outside seemed inexplicable because the occupancy, at that point, seemed to be hardly at one third of capacity. Several of my fellow spectators jostled, hustled and argued over what are supposed to be pre-allotted seats and others blocked entry into the stands by perching themselves all along and across the steps leading down the aisles.

 

JV_Resize: But that was a serious problem – the lack of cover. 80% of the seats in that section of the Sachin Tendulkar stand were unoccupied because it was impossible to sit in that searing heat. So, all the people you saw blocking the entrance were basically paying spectators, trying to find succor from the heat.

 

gokul1: Yes, but what got me was the absolute entitlement with which they were blocking the walkways. The flip side to the mismanagement was that some of us were able to walk into higher stands which were shadier even if that respite came at the cost of a more intimate view to the proceedings.

 

JV_Resize: It was absolutely absurd that we could not bear to sit on the seats we had paid for, till half-an-hour before close of play, at 4 pm, when the sun wasn’t as punishing. We were hardly the only ones. It is scandalous, really. The headquarters of the richest sports body in India and this level of apathy? And on the other side, we could see the Garware and MCA stands – more than half empty, all in shade, none of it open to the paying public, literally mocking us on this side where the sunshine fell. Shame on the MCA for this level of tasteless entitlement and shame on the BCCI for allowing such levels of shamelessness. What stopped them from covering these stands? Or the Sunil Gavaskar stands (which should really be the best appointed stands of all, logically), on the side, where it is equally impossible to sit during the day, which is pretty much the entire duration of the Test match? Is it their sense of aesthetics, you reckon, that prevents them from protecting the stands from the sun?

 

The Sunil Gavaskar stands at Wankhade Stadium and why it needs cover unlike the man who never needed any.
The Sunil Gavaskar stands at Wankhede Stadium and why it needs cover unlike the man who never needed any.

 

gokul1: I remember a conversation with one of the designing architects of the stadium back in 2011 during which he shared that the focus was on designing a stadium without any structural columns obstructing the public view as was the case with most Indian cricket stadia prior to that. My guess is that there might have been some load-bearing concerns with the added weight of the shade-providing features. Even if this conjecture were to be proven true, it can’t be a valid excuse.

 

JV_Resize: And the toilets – no soap, of course. But, apparently they were stinking so much after the first three days that you could get the stench from the seats in the stands. That is beyond shocking.

 

gokul1
: Yes, no one was cleaning up. You could see the garbage left under your seat the evening before still there in the morning.

 

JV_Resize: Why has nobody made any noise about this? Why are our legions of cricket writers not writing about such things? Because they are nice and snug in their air-conditioned press boxes?

 

gokul1: It is just a reflection of the larger Indian context where the paying public is trained not to demand more than what is provided unless an alternate challenging the status quo emerges. That scenario is unlikely in an oligopoly such as the BCCI-run Indian cricket.

 

JV_Resize: And on the first day, there was no water anywhere! We weren’t allowed to take our water bottles in, but there was no water being sold inside, only warm Pepsi and Sprite. This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. I actually noticed an English spectator who had fainted in the afternoon – it may have been from thirst. Though, elsewhere, the English spectators were the only ones manifesting with water bottles, so maybe they were allowed water in too, so that their passports wouldn’t go waste.

 

gokul1: It was better on the second day though. There was a free public water dispenser but it was a perfect storm of apathy – from the authorities and spectators alike – as fifteen hands, each with a plastic cup, jostled for prime position under the solitary tap, pushing and shoving each other over a pile of crushed plastic cups floating atop a pool of murky water. Everyone seemed to have bought into the way the situation was and no one seemed either appalled or even aware of the ridiculousness of it all…an international stadium in the financial capital of a country whose citizens don’t miss a beat in chest-thumping their claims of being a “super power” can’t provide a peaceful drink of water to a major portion of its patrons, after roasting them in the sun for two hours at a major sporting event and those same patrons don’t seem to care enough to demand more.

 

JV_Resize: And while the majority of the spectators seemed to be sporting, clapping for the opposition as well, what’s with the abusive spectators – the rotten apples that spoil the barrel? I have experienced this more in Mumbai than anywhere else – they just abuse the opposition, out of some kind of latent rage, and it just makes no sense. I saw this during the World Cup final in 2011 and now again, grown men just abusing an English cricketer of the moment for absolutely no reason, as if that elevates their own selves, and countrymen.

gokul1: I was with you in 2011 when after the World Cup final, one of our good friends, the English stand-up comic and Cricinfo contributor, Andy Zaltzman, with no horse in that race, was abused with “White man, go home!” by half-a-dozen passing ruffians celebrating India’s World Cup win.

JV_Resize
: But Andy quickly got back with, “Oh, they’re from the travel agent reminding me about my flight back.”

 

gokul1: Hahaha! Classic Andy. Coming back to this match, at one point, fifty-odd people surrounded my seat with their backs turned to the action unfolding on the ground. They started  dancing and chanting “Viru” and trying to get the attention of Virender Sehwag who had stepped into the commentary booth which was right next to our stand. This was quite telling of the backward-looking, idol-worshipping nature of the average Indian fan who is happy to be the slow-boiled frog while the entire sport is being co-opted in his name by the BCCI and ICC.

JV_Resize: But that’s typical India, isn’t it? Barely 25% of the people seem to be there for the cricket; the rest to see Kohli bat. Not even to see Ashwin bowl.

 

gokul1
: It’s always been about the individual batting star – Gavaskar, Tendulkar and now Kohli.

 

JV_Resize: And did you see the scoreboard at the Wankhede? Where they kept putting up fan messages. A bunch of them had bizarre references to a notorious paedophile footballer and two people involved in a murder and rape controversy…members of the barmy army sent it apparently – the glee they must have felt when they saw their trolling assume official status. The result of MCA ignorance and illiteracy of people in the company handling the material on those scoreboards – a company headquartered in Chennai apparently.

gokul1: With a sizable office in Bangalore too. I’m sure they were patting themselves on their backs for bringing “innovation to the live experience” at the stadium. I suppose it is the same people who decide against using concepts like Impact Index that challenge the status quo. If they can’t understand basic messages, will they ever grasp what such tools are for, forget what they are?

JV_Resize: Let’s not go there. But you know what is even more shocking than all of this? Do you know there is no running commentary of cricket on Indian radio anymore? What an absurdity in the face of the Test Match Special by the BBC happening on this very match, and no AIR commentary in a country where far, far more people rely on radio. In fact, there has been no radio commentary for a while on AIR because of a dispute between BCCI and AIR, where profit-sharing was the issue – 80-20 or 50-50. The shocking thing is – no one has bothered to take the initiative to resolve this. AIR does not want to stoop down in front of the BCCI and BCCI does not want to give an inch to AIR. The net result – no radio commentary. There isn’t much money at stake, so no one cares. Forget about the traditions of cricket commentary on the radio in India. The common man can go to hell. Or get himself a smartphone. Echos of demonetisation?

 

gokul1: Test cricket today is a dark reminder of the perils of “trickle-down economy” where a few people with resources decide how the game should be played, broadcast, followed and analysed. . The Indian fan who is supposedly keeping it alive has to just lap up whatever is thrown at him.

 

JV_Resize: I know of people – a peon, in this case, who has no way of watching the game. As an avid fan, the radio was his universe during the week, through which he would keep in touch with the Test, and its ebbs and flows. In the weekend, since he would know the narrative of the match, so he could easily slip into the match on TV. Now, with radio gone, he has stopped subscribing to those sports channels as well, as he says he can’t follow the narrative beat-by-beat anyway, so he doesn’t want to pay the extra 150-200 bucks for those channels. Imagine his pain, after years of being a cricket fan, a Test fan, not being able to follow his sport simply because he doesn’t have money for, or does not want to spend money on, a smartphone.

With what face do the authorities talk about the charm of Test cricket going when they are themselves making things worse?

 

Illustrations: Vasim Maner