For cricket fans in the 1990’s, the memory of Hrishikesh Kanitkar hitting Pakistani spinner Saqlain Mushtaq for a boundary to help India win the Independence Cup final in Dhaka remains one of the best memories. While a rare power cut at my hometown Talwara meant that I could only hear about Kanitkar’s heroics over the radio commentary, the replays of the match were etched in my memory. Last week, when Punjab faced Tamil Nadu in their Ranji Trophy encounter at IS Bindra PCA Stadium, Mohali, as Kanitkar made his way to the Tamil Nadu dressing room, I told my four-year-old son to pose for a photograph with the coach in front of the dressing room. While the Tamil Nadu coach happily obliged, I was left wondering where all the cricket fans in the city had disappeared. The four-day match was played at an almost empty stadium.
It was a match that included eight cricketers who had played for India, including Yuvraj Singh and wicket-keeper batsman Dinesh Karthik. When 19-year-old Mohali youngster Shubman Gill became the highest individual scorer of this season with a knock of 268 runs, the feat was watched by less than a dozen spectators which also included his father Lakhwinder Singh and his friends. After experimenting with the neutral venue for two years, BCCI had returned to the home and away format for Ranji Trophy last year. While last year’s Punjab matches drew crowds in excess of 1,500 at Amritsar’s Gandhi Ground, Tricity sees no such fan following for first class matches. And not just fans, where are all the aspiring young wanna be Virat Kohlis and Sachin Tendulkars whose parents never baulk at sending them to eye-wateringly expensive training academies, but can’t push them to watch one of India’s most important cricketing fixtures.
Tricity has more than 20 cricket academies, including the Mohali Cricket Association Academy situated near the boundary wall of the stadium. “While most of the fans rush for IPL and T20 cricket, first class and test cricket teaches the kids and trainees the skills to excel in those formats too. We have more than 125 cricket trainees at Sector 16 Stadium and PCA can take initiatives like inviting cricket trainees in the city to see the matches,” says UT cricket coach Harish Sharma.
Rakesh Jolly, former first class cricketer and long-time team-mate of Kapil Dev, remembers how young cricketers like him would watch first class matches at Sector 16 Stadium in Chandigarh. “I remember I was a young cricket trainee when I saw the match between North Zone and South Zone in Duleep trophy played at Sector 16 Stadium in 1975. During the match, I stood near the chairs of Surinder Amarnath and Mohinder Amarnath. For more than one hour, I listened to all that they were saying to each other. Bishen Singh Bedi was also playing in the match. In the early 1980’s, when Kapil Dev became the captain, we played a Ranji Trophy match against Punjab at Sector 16 Stadium. There was a crowd of more than 10,000 to cheer. I believe seeing the match gave us a feeling of a stadium and how the players approached the game. That’s important for the young trainee even today,” recalls Jolly.
During the IPL season and the occasional ODI or T-20 at PCA Stadium, there is a clamour for tickets or passes for the matches. Shubman’s knock of 268 runs last week was something those same fans could have flocked to see, that too for free, because Ranji matches are not ticketed. The youngster accumulated 199 runs in a single day, a feat which would have reminded fans of the 187-run knock played by Shikhar Dhawan against Australia in March 2013 at the same venue. While the India-Australia match too saw less than 5,000 fans in the 28,000 capacity stadium, that knock paved Dhawan’s path into Indian ODI and T-20 teams.
PCA needs to do more outreach work to get young people in the stadiums for first-class matches. It could also take a cue from countries like Australia and England, where players too spend some time with cricket fans between the sessions or end of the day’s play. And they should take these matches to more centres. “Anybody can come and watch first class matches at Mohali. Last year, we got a very good crowd response at Amritsar and the more cricket matches happen at small centres, more crowds will come to see,” says R P Singla, secretary, PCA.
As for Tricity’s young cricket fans, here’s a hot tip: Punjab plays Kerala in their next match at the PCA stadium in Mohali from December 30. Where will you be?