Gone are the days when cricket enthusiasts would throng stadiums to watch their heroes in action. In the 'old days' they would enjoy and applaud every good stroke amidst beating of drums and blowing of trumpets. Their presence in the grounds used to give a festive look. College girls would have their separate enclosure and their whistling and cheering favourite players would add glamour to the game. Even, housewives wouldn't stay at home but reach the grounds to watch along with their children and a picnic lunch. Government owned transport service would ply special buses from every corner of the city, to bring in the spectators and take them back after the match.
But in recent years, this healthy tradition vanished due to several reasons including public apathy over match-fixing allegations, greed of the organisers to earn more money by increasing the price of tickets and the overall pattern of a busier life.
In this age of technology the increasing popularity of cricket has made it a commodity for the multinationals to sponsor the game. In the last one and half decades the Boards have earned a lot of money through television rights and sponsorships but by and large, overlooked provision to spectators of clean drinking water, food at reasonable rates and toilet facilities in the grounds. These combined factors were the reason for empty stands even during the important Test Series between Pakistan and India last year.
All cricket fans can now be thankful ABN-AMRO Bank took up this gigantic challenge to bring the crowd (particularly families) back into the grounds and create an atmosphere where they feel themselves comfortable in terms of quality food, clean drinking water and other facilities. They sponsored Pakistan's first-ever Twenty-20 Cup that started on April 25 featuring 11 regional teams.
Twenty-20 cricket, in which sides play 20-overs each, was introduced in England two years ago and has proved a huge success, attracting more crowds than some normal matches.
ABN AMRO launched a very effective campaign to bring the crowd back into the grounds with a title slogan: "Are you ready for it?" (Kiya Aap Tiyyar Hain?). A specially prepared flute drove on the roads of Lahore and adjoining areas to campaign for the success of the tournament.
All the matches were shown live on television across the globe. The sponsors managed to air a daily programme on three most popular international satellite channels ARY Gold, Indus and Geo in which interviews of former Test cricketers, players' participating in the tournament, cricket fans enjoying the game in the stadium were shown. They ultimately succeeded in convincing cricket lovers to come to the stadiums and the floodlit final of the tournament on Saturday attracted a crowd of over 30,000 which was a huge success by any standard.
The inaugural match was played between Rawalpindi Rams and Quetta Bears at the Lahore City Cricket Association ground on a busy Monday. But a fairly large number of cricket fans turned up at the ground to witness the match and see Shoaib Akhtar in action. The initial crowd mostly consisted of students and working class who enjoyed the game and termed the Twenty-20 Cup as a good beginning in Pakistan cricket. "It is good to see fans back into the grounds," said one young businessman.
Female fans were missing during the second match at the Gaddafi Stadium but a fair number of women flocked to watch the third match. The weather remained cloudy for most part of the day and there was some drizzle also but that didn't obstruct the proceedings in the four matches played in the city on the first day.
Many of Pakistan's glittering cricket stars, including Shoaib Akhtar, Yousuf Youhana, Shabbir Ahmed, Naved-ul-Hasan, Moin Khan, Salman Butt, Taufeeq Umar, Imran Farhat and Shoaib Malik participated in the tournament. They did perform in the tournament but it was rather fitting that upcoming youngsters stole the show.
The tournament had a special attraction for the young players who would get cash prizes on every six, four, wicket, catch and stump. Perhaps the superstars felt no attraction in this incentive, which generated a competitive spirit amongst the players. Every match was hotly contested and the spectators showered immense praise on the players who were till then a relatively unknown commodity for them.
Hardly a dot ball was played. One could say without any reservation that this rapid version of cricket had reaped a new crop of hard-hitters who would add attraction in the limited over international matches with their hurricane style of batting. Asif Hussain of Faisalabad Wolves was declared as the Best Batsman of the tournament.
The spirit of the tournament was marred a little by an unfortunate incident during the match between Karachi Zebras and Sialkot Stallions. Test all-rounder and captain of the Stallions, Shoaib Malik, deliberately threw the match, which ignited a controversy throughout the cricketing world. He confessed over an international satellite channel that he deliberately threw the match and he feared no one but God. He then publicly apologised as he completely forgot that being a Test cricketer he was to abide by a code of conduct that says: "the cricketers should not bring the game of gentleman into disrepute." The PCB was quick to react as this episode, apart from affecting Pakistan's international image, was an insult of the spectators who had gathered at the Gaddafi Stadium to watch positive cricket but also a dampener on the efforts of the sponsors to bring the crowds back. Shoaib Malik was fined and banned from playing a Test match.
Though the holding of Twenty-20 Cup was a great success yet it also left a couple of areas that need to be addressed for the future. The timing of holding this tournament should be changed next time. The insects that thronged the stadium after the lights were switched on greatly disturbed the proceedings of most of the matches. The umpires' and players’ performance suffered by continuous frays with these flying insects. The umpires gave a number of debatable decisions. The prices of cold drinks, food and other eatables were beyond the approach of a common spectator.
The overall arrangements were admirable but next time there is a need for stricter measures regarding security of women coming to watch matches. A few incidents were witnessed of misbehaviour and in two cases local journalists covering the final match came to their rescue.
In future, when there are such popular matches with open seats and free entry, perhaps instead of only relying on local police force posted at the gates to help inside the stadium, private security personnel should be engaged. The police should be outside the stadium only to control unscrupulous elements or to stop any untoward incident.
All in all it is clear to all the 20-overs cricket is a happening in Pakistan and here to stay.
(Article: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only.
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