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January 13, 2000


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Ground realities

Amrit Mathur

Cricket pictures on television from abroad always leave you stunned -- the grounds are pretty; there is extreme order, much enjoyment and entertainment. Everyone is having a ball. Except the Indian players who invariably look stricken and decidedly unhappy.

Contrast this with India where images on the screen only convey chaos and tamasha. Cricket venues are marked by messy arrangements; they are great melas where things are forever spiralling out of control. In this massive mismanagement, the immediate casualty, almost always, is the paying spectator whose comfort is casually disregarded by uncaring organisers. Their staunch support is taken for granted, which is understandable, because hardcore cricket fans are completely non-discerning. Such is the magnetic hold of the game they'd watch anyway, regardless of conditions.

Cricket is a nasha, as irresistible as opium, to an extent even the quality of the opium is irrelevant. Good cricket, bad cricket is no issue - the helpless addicts must somehow get their regular dose. Availability of opium is essential, that is the only consideration.

Given this helplessness - inelastic demand, as economists would say, it is hardly a wonder spectators are treated worse than dirt. For them a visit to a cricket match is an ordeal. Consider what all they endure: car parking is a nightmare, admission, despite expensive tickets, a major struggle. Worse, seats are unmarked; it isn't easy to find a place or retain one. A visit to the toilet (which is always filthy) is inadvisable because it leads to dispossession of seating. Chance of finding drinkable drinking water? Pretty slim.

In the hope of watching Tendulkar smash a bowler (a wish often fulfilled) or witnessing an Indian win (a wish fulfilled once, as they say, in a blue moon ) the spectator pays a huge price - he accepts inconvenience, tolerates police harassment and, end of the day, feels no different than a passenger on IC 814 from Kathmandu. Or someone who has fielded three days at a stretch and, as a result, is completely tired. And finished.

Abroad, spectators are viewed as valued customers for whom top facilities must be laid out to ensure continued patronage. Melbourne (capacity as much as Eden Gardens, Calcutta) has hundreds of entrances for smooth flow and an equal number of eating (and drinking) outlets. Centres in South Africa demarcate areas for families to picnic while watching cricket; children are given toys to enjoy a day out in the sun. With different sports competing for spectator attention, these add-ons are necessary -- if cricket viewing is uncomfortable the spectator will imply go elsewhere.

In India, even players rough it out. Essential facilities are often missing, though there is an increasing realisation for improvement on this score. Time was when the dressing room consisted of a tattered shamiana. Now there are rooms but what they contain inside is still primitive. It is common to find showers that don't work; players continue to be seated in horribly cramped enclosures; too many people crowd the pavilion area. In Delhi, it is normal to find all sorts of people -- policemen / politicians / assorted VIPs / even women -- jostling for crucial space with players next to the dressing room. While Delhi resembles a slum, Chandigarh is outstanding -- the facilities are faultless, 5-star deluxe, no less.

For players, the chief concern at cricket venues is the practise area, and here too practically every Indian ground is seriously deficient. Amenities are woeful; practise pitches, located in a corner of the ground, are usually underprepared; it is impossible to get a decent hit on such tracks. A proper workout before a game, or during play, is a big priority for players, but in India this is a big luxury because grounds were not designed with this requirement in view.

Most infrastructure ills stem not from apathy as the fact that stadiums were constructed in bits. Stands and rooms were added subject to fund availability. As and when the need arose, renovation / modernisation was governed by short term pragmatism and not detailed planning or a coherent long term vision. Add a stand, refurnish the dressing room, install lights, expand the media centre, create an enclosure for guests. The whole thing is utterly haphazard.

Which is why they are hopelessly unequal to meet the spurting needs of a modern sport. Spectators demand comfort in return for high admission rates, players require certain basics but the stadia are ill- equipped. Moreso, in the present context, when a cricket venue is a stage for cricket and several other related functions. Gone are the days when organising a match was a simple matter. Soon as the fixture was announced crazy fans immediately queued up, and it took longer to count gate money than actually sell tickets. Now cricket is part of a great, and quickly expanding, entertainment industry. A one-day match ticket can cost close to ten thousand rupees.

Event managers organise diverse activities for corporate houses, which is why cricket stadiums are investing large sums in constructing hospitality boxes to provide catering, enable entertainment and conferences to take place. This cricket - business marriage brings in huge revenues. Already the numbers are as big as the take from television rights. Officials the world over have rapidly learnt that the hospitality arrangement must be exceedingly neat. As players slog on the field, commercial czars enjoy cricket and engage themselves profitably in other games. As a result much business is transacted, much money is made.

Besides commercial activities, many support systems also necessarily operate out of a cricket stadium nowadays. Of these, the most crucial, without doubt, is the media, because cricket always arouses great interest, even with India performing dismally. The rapidly expanding electronic networks are new entrants. They chase news as it unfolds. Hence the need for extra facilities in terms of media rooms, access to players, proper camera positions and numerous others.

To meet these, stadiums must be modernised, for which cash and space is essential but, at least in India, both are scarce. Nor has anyone displayed a will to improve conditions. So chances are a visit to a cricket match will remain an unpleasant experience.

Only Sachin can reduce the discomfort. His supreme skills compel thousands to fill the stadiums. For watching his artistry alone one is willing to suffer a lot.

Amrit Mathur

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