No Country for Spectators

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The average sports fan with no ‘connections’ has it rough in India. But he is also a lout, tempting trouble

Rama Munni Reddy has a firm handshake and a mind that is rational enough to realise one thing. When you see several thousand pairs of abandoned footwear, leave.

Rama, a man in his 30s, wanted a ticket for the India-England game in Bangalore. The day tickets went on sale at the counter, he arrived at the stadium at 4.30 am. That is slack by the standards of cricket nuts, who had started camping around midnight. But sometimes it pays to be late. Times when all that early birds can catch is police fury.

“I was approaching the stadium when I saw 3,000 chappals. I saw the police. I turned back,” Rama says. Never mind how he arrived at the number of chappals.

This conversation takes place a day before the classic match, near the main gate of the Chinnaswamy Stadium, under a banner with a long list of prohibited items (unfortunately, the list does not include politicians). Tickets are sold out. Those for the India-Ireland match to be played 6 March are easily available. But Rama says he will still try for India-England, where the ticket situation has been exacerbated due to the match shifting from Kolkata to Bangalore.

“Relatives from Vijayawada are calling me,” he says. “They are willing to stretch their budget to Rs 4,000 for a Rs 1,250 ticket.”

Under pressure from family, and fuelled by his own love of cricket and a hunt, Rama proceeds down the avenue to sniff out touts.

“They wait in cars,” he says. “I met them earlier. They want Rs 20,000 for three tickets.” As the day progresses, the prices go up more.  Another fan, who doesn’t want to be named, says, “I don’t have a ticket, but I know that tomorrow I will be in the stadium. I’m different.”

But not different enough to, say, fly into the stadium. He too is likely to knock the (hardly) secret doors of the black market. The black market knows this desperation well. The officials from whom black marketers get tickets know it too. In many cases, officials are the black market. In Bangalore, there were cases of police as well as Karnataka State Cricket Association employees selling tickets at a mark-up.

It is not just corrupt officials who traffic in tickets. Circumstances also make it difficult for honest ones to stay out of the mess. If you are an employee of the host association, what do you do if the water authorities call and say, “If you don’t give us tickets, there won’t be water at the ground.” And such a call was made in Bangalore.

The one to suffer, ultimately, is the spectator. Watching sport is one of life’s simple pleasures. But try saying this to an Indian spectator, and he will make an appointment with his doctor for you. “You need help, mister,” he might say. Getting a ticket, entering a stadium and sitting through a match in India sometimes requires triumphing over elemental challenges. You need to jostle crowds, suffer the Khaki Klux Klan aka the police, eat bad food, and spend seven to eight hours in a space where the risk of a stampede is ever present.

The first and steepest hurdle is obtaining tickets. The root cause is simple: demand far in excess of supply. Since most stadiums are as good as reserved due to various commitments, only about a fifth of the tickets are sold over the counter. This further angers fans and makes it harder to satisfy them.
As Javagal Srinath, the newly elected secretary of the KSCA, says, “There is a limit to how much we can fulfil people’s expectations. It is a big challenge, but even our hands are tied. For a match of this stature (India-England), even if you double or treble the amount of tickets for the public, it won’t be enough. That’s the tradition in India.”

The situation is made worse by three factors unique to developing countries. The first is a thoroughly corrupt system. Then you have the unruly fans themselves. The ‘ordinary cricket fan’ is not always the victim he is made out to be; he is often a lout, allergic to queues. The third reason is an outdated system of selling tickets. The small counters look like chicken coops. Bamboos tied with choir rope crudely mark queuing areas. The police are always around, waiting for an opportunity to intimidate who they can. Wood-on-shin is as much music to their ears as willow-on-leather to a batsman.
Srinath was a harried man in the run-up to the game. To his credit, he also had the humility to ask for suggestions.

Admitting the ticket system is archaic, he says, “As a teenager in 1987, I stood 50 metres from the box office for five hours and couldn’t get a ticket. On this occasion, for 7,000 tickets, almost 70,000 are standing in queue. How do we manage? It’s been the same system since 1987.”

Asked how he felt after the Bangalore incident (when police lathicharged fans queuing for tickets), Mahendra Singh Dhoni said, “We don’t have a clue how ticketing works, but it is unfortunate what the spectators went through.”

A strange cast of people comes together when it’s time for damage control. At a press conference to announce the security and traffic arrangements in the city, Srinath and Rahul Dravid flanked Bangalore’s senior cops, including Police Commissioner Shankar Bidari. Dravid, in fact, introduced Bidari to the gathering. His involvement was heartening as well as surprising, given that he normally stays away from journalists and is not officially part of the administration yet.

Bidari defended the actions of the police, even as Srinath’s phone went off, forcing him to cut the call and send off a hurried message, presumably to the caller. Bidari’s logic was: if you have to stop Big Mischief, you have to do Small Mischief.

“People were climbing over each other in the queue. To prevent a major incident, we had to inflict some damage,” he said when asked why the police used force.

To English journalists who felt the police treated fans harshly, Bidari said, “(The) Indian situation and Indian dimensions are very different. They are difficult for people from Europe or America to understand.”

He had a sense of humour, though. Asked if the rule prohibiting cameras and laptops inside the stadium also applied to the media, Bidari said, “How can a barber go to work without his knife?”

Damage control apart, this was not the kind of start the ICC had hoped for the World Cup. This is its premium event, after all. If it has to cut through the pessimism around the 50-over format, it can hardly afford to displease fans. Stung by the criticism, they even wrote a strongly worded letter to Sharad Pawar. For that reason alone, if nothing else, they deserve a pat on the back. 

But the ICC is answerable on some counts (though not as many as Pawar). Why does it need so many tickets (8,000 in the case of Bangalore)? Why is the ratio of tickets given to sponsors and affiliated clubs so tilted in their favour? This is not to say that sponsors or affiliates are not fans too, but the slice set aside for the public is disproportionately thin.

The ICC says the sponsor commitment cannot be helped. “They put in millions of dollars into the game,” a source says. Haroon Lorgat, the ICC chief executive, says, “It is a fact of life that we have commitments to the sponsors, who support us over a long period in our cycle. It is a fact that local hosts have a commitment whether it is to local organisations or to clubs or to the BCCI.”

While he admits the number of tickets available to the public could be larger, he says some people do receive tickets from other channels. “It is unfortunate that tickets that go to the public through general sales are low,” Lorgat says. “But whether it is through the clubs, through associates, [or] through ICC channels, they do arrive at doors of the public.”

One positive fallout of the Bangalore episode is that the old ticketing system might become history. Already, the ICC has announced a ballot for the semis and final. This eliminates the queues, chaos and scope for police brutality. Everything is done electronically. You apply for a ticket online and keep your fingers crossed. True, this too can be manipulated. Yet this system is far better. It is used at leading events like the football World Cup and Olympics. “In conjunction with the hosts, we have now agreed that a ballot system is the best means of releasing any available tickets for the semis and final,” Lorgat says.

Systemic flaws there are many, but some of the pain Indian spectators go through is their own doing. Convenience is boring. Part of the point of queuing up is to get up to some mischief. We love to push, shout, fight. And there are cheap thrills to be had. Like the sight of approaching police. This is proven when one runs into someone who wants to be called ‘Robert of Wales, next Cornwall’.

He is a middle-aged Englishman with a light beard. He wears a straw hat, a light grey linen suit and sports sandals. A miniature Indian tricolour and a St George’s cross sit in his breast pocket. His freckled forehead bears the remains of a tika. From his backpack, which seems to have magical properties, he pulls out a newspaper and shows me a picture of a policeman swinging his baton at people in a ticket queue. “It’s a lovely picture,” Robert says. The baton is a blur. The men seem to be wincing and smiling at the same time.

“Look, they are having fun,” Robert says. He could not get a ticket for the match. “The site said it was sold out.”

But he is the kind who takes it in his stride. “The match shifted from one city to another. It is hard work. I can understand if there are some issues.”
Now he pulls out a poem, Seaside Golf by John Betjeman, and reads it. It celebrates a novice golfer’s unlikely success on the greens. Indian fans too will be driven to paeans the day watching sport gets easier for them.

I spoke to more English fans for an objective view of the experience of watching sport in India.

“In England, it is more organised, but then the culture of India is what gives it its spark,” says John Noone, who has come here from Wimbledon. “You don’t want it to be dull, otherwise it will be like a bad day at Lord’s.”

Noone elaborates: “This stadium [Chinnaswamy], for example, can’t compare with Arsenal or Old Trafford (owned by Manchester United), because they are investing so much money in their grounds. But if you take the old Headingley cricket ground, there’s no difference at all. Trent Bridge or Oval, again, are very different.”

“Besides, we buy tickets so much in advance. If there’s a match at the Oval in August, I buy tickets in November [the previous year]. You can’t really go wrong with it. Even the touts are orderly, though officially they are banned. You find them in one area, outside Oval station, for example. They don’t shout, just a normal, ‘Tickets, anyone wants tickets?’.”

Robert Hughes from near Birmingham, UK, says, “This is my first trip. It’s been pretty mad. Tickets have been a pain to get. We paid Rs 6,000 for a ticket priced at Rs 1,600. But the atmosphere is exciting. I don’t feel threatened. Wouldn’t mind it if it was a little more relaxed, the way it is in England.”
James Wheedon, during the break between two innings in the India-England encounter, says, “In England, it is more organised. There is lots of space around. But overall this is not bad. I enjoyed myself.”

What about the toilets?

“Acceptable,” says Wheedon.

During the same break, an Indian spectator, Sourabh Garg, gives positive feedback on the stadium adventure. He says, “The walkways are narrow. That’s the only thing. In case of a problem, evacuation could be difficult. Otherwise I would give it a 9 on 10.”

Maybe things are improving. Maybe our expectations are too low. But this much is certain. Sport in India is never going to be an Enid Blyton idyll, with hampers, lemonade and a grassy bank.