Why Tests lose spectators

2011-09-10 00:00

NO ONE watching the opening day of the Pallekele Test match could be complacent about the future of the five-day format. Apart from a smattering of locals resting in the shade provided by a vast scoreboard, a few school parties and several hundred Australian supporters, the ground was well nigh deserted.

Without a head count it’s hard to tell whether police and ground staff outnumbered spectators. Suffice to say it was a close-run thing. A few hundred locals made the journey out from Kandy to watch the first day. Contrastingly, the ground was packed for the World Cup matches, and never mind that the home team did not feature in the second contest.

Several issues arise from the echoing emptiness of the stadium, most of them relevant to the game in this country.

South Africa had one stroke of fortune when it staged the Cricket World Cup in 2003 — its grounds were already big enough. Alas, the same cannot be said about the Soccer World Cup or the CWC in the Caribbean or the Sydney Olympics. All of them produced superb new arenas. Most of them have turned out to be white elephants, and costly ones at that.

The lesson is clear: nations staging major sporting events need to think decades — not years — ahead, otherwise the opportunity becomes a burden on taxpayers and a blot on the landscape. Pallekele is a sleepy suburb about 15 km outside Kandy. It does not sound a lot but the traffic is congested and the trip can take an hour. The old Trinity school ground was a hop, skip and a jump from the lake that adorns the centre of the city.

Moreover, little shelter is provided for spectators, so the paying public is expected to bake in the sun all day. It is not an attractive proposition. Except that the ground is affected by heavy dew, it might stage the first night Test. Pallekele was chosen primarily because it is drier than Kandy. But that does not take grass water into account.

Cynics suggest that the fact the area was in the sport’s minister’s constituency was another factor in its nomination. Still, the other new stadium in Hambantota was erected in the area ruled by the president’s son, so anything is possible. Previously regarded as a jungle populated mostly by monkeys, Hambantota is now bidding for the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Nice work if you can get it.

Another lesson: Test cricket needs to fight for its audience and ought to permit free entry into the public areas. Also, it could provide transport, shelter and other facilities in the ground. Faster over rates can also help, as players spend an inordinate time standing around chatting, drinking and moving sight screens.

Obviously, too, it’s no use building vast stadiums far from population centres.

West Indies blundered in replacing an atmospheric ground in Antigua with an inland monstrosity that did not draw spectators in the CWC, mainly because it was too remote by local standards and ticket prices were too high. Now it is a liability.

Whether spectators would have flocked to the second Test match had it been held in bustling Kandy is debatable. Australia and South Africa can stage Tests during holidays periods, a luxury often denied other countries. Lacking a bulging middle class and retirees with generous pensions limits Sri Lanka’s ability to lure people to Test cricket. Also accepting responsibility for extended families (a burden put on the state by Western nations) means that Sri Lankans toil night and day and have little time for recreations. Low wages, too, means that money cannot be wasted.

However, Test cricket needs atmosphere and top-class players relish the chance to strut their stuff in front of appreciative audiences. Officials cannot shrug their shoulders and rely on TV revenue.

South African cricket has avoided many of the pitfalls involved in holding massive sporting events. Its main grounds are all handily placed. Nowadays, too, matches can be arranged in the holiday periods. Even so, more effort is required to fill the stadiums.

Local officials ought to consider experimenting with night Tests played with pink balls. That might not be possible in Durban, but elsewhere it could be tried. Tickets for the public areas can be given away. Refreshments can be cheap. Spectators could be allowed to play on the field as in New Zealand. Anything to make them feel wanted and to instil a love of the game.

Life is a struggle and Test cricket expresses that. Gaga grins are for children’s parties and those smoking dubious weeds.

Test cricket needs to be protected and promoted because the temptation to take the easy way out is strong, and that can apply to games as well as people.

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