Players, patrons and the crowd in the age of IPL

PRITHVI DATTA CHANDRA SHOBHI writes: Before play began on the first day of the Ranji Trophy finals on Monday, my old National Cricket Club (NCC) teammate Jagadish Kumar, now a professor at the National Institute of  Engineer (NIE) walks just outside the ropes at the Gangotri Glades stadium.

He spots several of his students in the stands, who greet him enthusiastically: “Namaskara, Sir.”

Jagadish jovially responds: “Enro,  yella ille idira (you are all here). We could have taken the class here itself.”

Their lighthearted banter is interrupted by several spectators who notice that Jagadish is sporting a badge identifying him as an organiser of the biggest cricket match Mysore has ever hosted in its history.

They ask Jagadish why there aren’t announcements.

This is a persistent demand from crowds now used to IPL and KPL kind of entertainment.

The spectators at Mysore want to know who is in the middle, who is bowling, and even a loud acknowledgement of a four or six being scored or a wicket falling. A Mike Brearley would have asked a fielder to subtly shift his position with an arch of the eyebrow; today’s spectators would have felt short-changed if they hadn’t been told.

Their demand straddles both a desire for information as well as entertainment.

All the senses need to be catered for, all the time: the eyes with the game; the ears with the commentary; and the tentacles on the skin with foot-tapping, chest-thumping music.

Jagadish points at the new electronic score board, a new feature installed for the finals, which provides up-to-date information about the action in the middle. But our spectators aren’t satisfied. They have adapted to the T20 culture of loud, nonstop and tactile entertainment, not always of the cricketing variety.

Even in a five-day Ranji Trophy match, as close Mysore will come to a Test match for a while, they ask that they be entertained in the same way they have been spoiled in recent years.

Jagadish pleads his helplessness pointing out how match referees wouldn’t allow for announcements during the game because it would break the concentration of players. Several spectators helpfully note that such announcements could be made when the bowler is walking back to his mark and before the batsman takes strike.

There is a lull in the play between balls, between overs, after all.

Why waste time?

Why not keep them occupied?

All the time?

***

As I watched numerous other spectator groups make this demand in the last two days and many times during the quarterfinals against Punjab a couple of weeks ago to several hapless Mysore cricket officials, I wondered whether we have forgotten how or why we watched the longer version of the game.

A cricket aesthete essentially appreciates the slow and deliberate nature of the game.

As he watches a Test match or a first-class game, he waits for something to happen; he is willing to wait for something to happen. He silently recognises that the bowler might be setting up a batsman or a captain might be plotting something.

The thrill is in the wait; in the anticipation of what might happen as a result.

Or might not.

In the meanwhile, he trades cricket stories with his friends, occasionally offers free advice to the fielding captain and eats peanuts and churumuri, if it is on offer. The essential civility of cricket lies in the fact that the pace isn’t frenetic and the game unfolds slowly.

It had been a while since I watched a live first-class match and after spending several days at Gangotri Glades watching both the quarters against Punjab and now the finals against Bombay has made me think about cricket literacy of our fans and their expectation from the sport.

We have averaged around 5,000 spectators per day in six days of play in the two big games thus far. They have been generally very appreciative of good performances and, in spite of the new demands I allude to above, one couldn’t ask for a more enthusiastic and civil crowd.

That shouldn’t surprise us since we watch so much cricket on television and listen to pundits wax eloquently about the game. Each spectator at Gangotri Glades would have watched tens of internationals on TV and acquired an immense amount of knowledge about the game.

For instance, even if you have listened to Sunil Gavaskar three or four times, you would have heard him chastising someone, often a hapless policeman or a volunteer, for walking past the sight screen and disturbing the batsman. But that repeatedly happens here, too.

None of the five-thousand present would bat an eyelid before crossing the sight screen even as the batsman is taking strike.

It is that paradox that strikes me repeatedly today as Bombay came back strongly into the game.

***

The crowd comes alive only during brief  periods of frenetic action, when wickets fall in quick bursts, especially of the rival side. Abhimanyu Mithun obliges them with a fiery four-over burst before tea when he captures three wickets in Bombay’s second innings after the hosts have been bowled out for a paltry 130.

They mercilessly tease the visiting players, especially those sitting in the section next to the dressing room.

As Abhishek  Nayar and Dhaval Kulkarni build a crucial unbeaten partnership, the crowd quietens down occasionally egging on Mithun and R. Vinay Kumar to get a breakthrough.

Earlier the spectators were quietly appreciative of the Bombay bowlers, even if quite sad at the collapse of inexperienced young Karnataka batsmen, who missed Rahul Dravid immensely. Do these young guns, for all theri IPL and KPL exploits, possess the technique and temperament to fight against a very disciplined and skilled Bombay pace attack especially on a hard, pacy, seaming track?

On today’s evidence, perhaps not yet.

Avishkar Salvi bowled a superb length to test them repeatedly and none of the Karnataka youngers had the discipline to put their head down and wait out, as Dravid would have done.

In fact, that has been the story of this fascinating see-saw battle between two fairly well matched young sides. There are no great  batsmen in either side, and the pace attacks are quite good. This potentially could have been an epic game if Sachin Tendulkar and Dravid had led their teams.

The talented youngsters in both teams have performed on flat tracks but this wicket offers enough movement, pace and bounce (although it’s even and predictable bounce) to test anybody. So  batsmen have failed to even post a fifty, with the exception of Vinayak Samant, whose first-inning half-century might prove to be the difference maker in this game.

So our spectators have been lucky to see some good, and on occasion, even inspired fast bowling. Tomorrow promises more action and as the pitch eases out further, perhaps some inspired batting too. Karnataka certainly need that if they have to chase a score in excess of 275.

But in the absence of a sporting track that allows bowlers a chance, what would we, the spectators, have done?

Celebrate every four or six by the Karnataka batsmen and wait for an occasional wicket by the bowlers as an epic battle for first innings lead would have unfolded. But the 2009-10 Ranji finals has been an action packed, eventful match thus far. Even then we seek something more than cricket itself offers.

That’s an ominous sign for the longer version of the sport.

I mean both the new spectator expectation as well as the general inability of  our batsmen to play on a challenging track against what could only be called as good, competent bowling.

***

Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi is on the faculty of San Francisco State University, specialising in medieval South India (especially Kannada literature and cinema) and the cultural politics of contemporary South Asia

***

Photograph: The security drill before the commencement of the day’s play at the Ranji Trophy finals at the Gangotri Glades in Mysore (Karnataka Photo News)

Read the Cricinfo match report: Bombay edge ahead

Scorecard at end of second day: Bombay 233 and 108 for 5, Karnataka 130