Indian cricket is gearing up for hosting its 500th Test match. It is an obvious occasion for celebration, but it should be followed immediately by concern.
There are distinct signs that interest in cricket is dwindling and I am not talking about private T20 leagues. I am talking about traditional cricket, international cricket between two countries. Rahul Dravid in his M.A.K. Pataudi lecture last year had voiced similar worries by giving the example of how sports shops were selling more non-cricket equipment than ever before. A shop owner no longer assumes that a parent walking in with his 10-year-old child is looking for a cricket bat.
I must confess I didn't see this coming, at least in my lifetime. Cricket, after all, was supposed to be a religion with no perceptible threat from any other sport. Sure, cricket is still the No 1 sport by a distance but its universal following in India is no longer quite the same.
The cricket community should not be too hard on themselves though. The changing forces of life will have their effect on everything around us, including cricket.
We are losing one important segment of society as regular cricket viewers—the youth, the young from the metros, the ones who bring real energy to the game. The IPL is alive and vibrant because of them. When it comes to this particular audience, cricket has lost its popularity race with Bollywood. Sure, these guys love their English movies and music, but they are still very much into Hindi cinema. An evidence of this is on television—it is film celebrities that are mostly being used in commercials to connect with the Indian youth.
Barring Virat Kohli, India Inc does not think there is a cricketer who can drive the aspirations of the Indian metro youth. Cricket needs to bring these drifters back. And, for that, we need to jazz up traditional cricket, speed up the game. There is just too much milling around, too much idle time during a game. This puts the youth off.
We are already ten years late with day-night Test cricket, and even today we are fussing over the pink ball and seeking players' approval. We would never have had day-night cricket and coloured clothing if Kerry Packer had waited for players' approval of his concept of the World Series Cricket in Australia. He was desperate for eyeballs, and he had to do something dramatic to pull the fans away from other sports (in his case, traditional cricket).
I understand there can be no cricket without players. But players don't often know what is best for the game. I should know, I was a player once.
Interestingly, almost 40 years later, we are in the exact same position that Packer was in. It is traditional cricket that now needs to get the eyeballs back and here perhaps tradition itself is cricket's biggest enemy.
For Packer, it was all about getting viewership for his WSC. On this occasion of a landmark 500th Test, we the cricket community must take it upon ourselves to try and get all kinds and not just niche audience back to watching mainstream international cricket again.
I have a vested interest in this, too—I want my 16-year-old son to watch some cricket.