Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Cricket fans, raise your pitch

Last week, the International Cricket Council (ICC) announced its long-awaited decision to shift the India-Pakistan Twenty20 World Cup match from Dharamsala to Kolkata. It had been in the works for the previous week or so, and it wasn’t really a surprise when finally announced. In a way, politics aside, it was a relief; Dharamsala, as those who were already there reported, just wasn’t capable of holding such a high-profile match. Its infrastructure was already stretched hosting the four teams in the qualifiers; thousands of fans and thousands more security officials descending for the India-Pakistan match would have been apocalyptic.

The decision, taken with security concerns in mind, resulted in a lot of fans, who had made plans to watch the match in Dharamsala, being forced to make last-minute and expensive changes. It’s not the easiest place in the world to get to—there are two flights daily, both from New Delhi, and the airport is an hour’s drive from town. There are not too many hotel options and rooms, and those that are available come at severely-inflated prices. So for the large number of Indian fans who had bought match tickets or had made arrangements regardless, it was a huge financial blow. Talk about the glorious uncertainties of cricket.

The same day, news came from London that the 20 English Premier League (EPL) clubs had decided to put a £30, or 2,850, cap on tickets for all “away" supporters, fans who travel to support their team when they play at an opponent’s ground. The decision—which in some cases cut ticket prices by half—was the culmination of several years’ efforts by various supporters’ groups, usually hostile, working together, lobbying their clubs and the EPL in general to make watching football more affordable.

Football has become an increasingly expensive sport; the price it has paid, literally, for rooting out hooliganism and gentrifying it, making it a family sport once again. There are those who say that it is losing its soul, especially within the bigger clubs, whose supporters increasingly come from outside the traditional neighbourhood working-class milieu. From Thailand, or South Korea, or Japan. Or India. You can see them on the day of a match, the ones more busy taking pictures than watching the match. Ticket prices don’t mean much to them.

The away supporters are a different breed. They are the ones who take the day off from work to watch the team, who make that midnight journey back post-match (or take the breakfast train for a noon kick-off), whether in driving rain or freezing snow, who are outnumbered 10 to one by the fans of the opposing team and who brave the taunts, the jeers and jibes in the streets and alleyways of strange towns and cities. They are, effectively, their club’s foot soldiers in the tribal war that professional football can be. And they are also the ones, penned into one corner of a stadium, security stewards lining either side, whom their players go to at the end of a match they have won, to applaud and thank for their support. They are that special. As EPL chairman Richard Scudamore put it: “One of our unique selling points is the away attendance because it creates the tension, the passion, the show."

And now they are being recognized officially for that. Viewed cynically, or at least in a more objective light, it won’t really hurt the clubs. For one, the EPL’s TV deal, which starts with the 2016-17 season, guarantees each club a minimum of approximately £100 million per season, with the league winners getting up to £150 million. Second, Premier League clubs are already helping their travelling fans to some extent, whether by subsidizing travel costs or part-funding the price of tickets (or, in the case of Southampton in 2014, offering lunch, cheap fares and a Santa hat for the Boxing Day match).

It’s also not lost on the clubs that the fans’ lobby groups have become increasingly powerful in the age of social media. EPL match-day attendance figures are impressive; grounds have been at least 90% full for each of the last 18 seasons, according to the EPL site, and clubs would be loath to lose that. Last month, Liverpool fans protesting against planned ticket price hikes staged a unique protest—10,000 fans walked out of the stadium while a match was on. Within days, the club scrapped its price-hike plans.

That’s a level of power Indian sports fans can only dream of. But in Bengaluru, fans of the home football team enjoy a relationship with the club that comes pretty close.

Bengaluru Football Club’s (BFC’s) supporters have an admirable level of organization, with chants, banners and even offsite meet-ups in the style of their home city. Sharan Kukreja, a BFC fan since the club’s inception, says the fans are organized because the club is. “They are very responsive on social platforms," he said on email. “If we know someone in the back-room staff, say, the media manager, we are always allowed to pick up the phone and put our point across. Someone at the club is deputed to sort it out. We have also had open-day sessions where we get to interact with the players. It makes you feel you are a part of something bigger."

Have there been specific problems the club has solved? “There were issues with ticketing which the club responded to. We had issues with the toilets at the stadium and that was looked into."

It’s rare that the money-spinning, all-conquering beast that is Indian cricket can learn a lesson from its relatively impoverished cousin, but Indian football fans have shown that some unity and ingenuity can make it a whole new ball game.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Espncricinfo.

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