Portrayals of stadiums experiences of cricket matches are often riddled with clichés: there’s the deafening noise, explosion of energy and objectifying shots of women as if to say “Look, women watch sport too!”. Don’t get me wrong, attending matches is a lot of fun and, as any Pakistani fan will tell you, it’s a privilege. However a more honest fan experience is more like a first date: there’s a lot of preparation, it can be fun but reliably awkward as well.
Growing up in Lahore in the 1990s, Gaddafi stadium has been inextricably tied to my cricketing experience. Seeing the floodlights from afar, you’d get that giddy feeling knowing there’s a game in town. That feeling is now amped up on steroids with the emotionally charged revival of cricket with social and political undertones about the state of our nation.
However, beyond the sentimentality of it all, a more critical look of the fan experiences at these games would be marked by more ambivalence. This doesn’t take away from the importance of the occasion, but the heavily regulated stadium experience treats fans with such contempt that it’s hard not to feel like a public nuisance rather than a cricket fan as you get frisked multiple times even before the red bricks of the stadium come into view. This feeling is particularly resonant in “showcase” matches where the goal is to fill stadiums with crowds that project the right images to the rest of the cricketing world. As one of the fans in the crowd, you can’t escape the thought: who are we putting up this show for?
“However a more honest fan experience is more like a first date: there’s a lot of preparation, it can be fun but reliably awkward as well.”
Fans have evolved since the last time “normal” matches were taking place in Pakistan. Fans’ engagement with their team and the game has shifted to crisp high definition coverage, mobile apps and GIFs on a Twitter feed. So while the average fan has changed drastically, the stands of our stadiums haven’t. Returning to the opening match against Zimbabwe in 2015 or the PSL in 2017, felt like returning to a stadium frozen in time.
However if the ideal cricket fan isn’t the tech-savvy urbanite, it’s certainly not your common man either. The cricket board seems to be following an economic model that minimizes benefits to the majority of cricket fans. Ticket prices for the Independence Cup are exorbitant to say the least, with only two of the stands being classified as “General” (Sarfaraz Nawaz and Saeed Anwar) carrying relatively affordable price tags of Rs. 500. The rest of the stands are being rebranded with categories such as “Premium”, “First Class”, “VIP” and “VVIP” (as if VIP wasn’t exclusive enough) with tickets prices that range from Rs. 2500 to 8000. These categories provide an insight into the type of cricket-watcher being catered to—the economically affluent fan. Even then, your privilege won’t mean you’re welcomed with open arms as you approach the stadium on Tuesday.
Facilities at stadiums are in shambles. In record-breaking humidity, one is expected to do without water-bottles and subject to arbitrary rules in the name of security. It seems as if the organizers think cricket is the cure to dehydration. It’s not demanding to ask for well-stocked and fan-friendly facilities at a stadium, it’s just humane.
“Fans’ engagement with their team and the game has shifted to crisp high definition coverage, mobile apps and GIFs on a Twitter feed.”
While our stadiums will get better as fans begin to populate the stands on a regular basis, a return to the stadium experiences of the pre-2009 era isn’t the best way to go forward either. For instance, a stock photo innocuously used by CricinGif in an article revealed something that women have long known about cricket matches: they’re not the most female friendly spaces.
In the picture, you can see that none of the women are standing or raising their arms despite the fact that something very exciting happening on the ground. Often times, as a woman, you have to put your faith in the belief that getting tickets to a pricey stand will shield you from harassment or perhaps the stand with the most women will guarantee safety. But you still won’t be able to cheer as freely as the men. This is a larger problem of public spaces, but it’s an aspect of the fan experience that often goes unnoticed within cricket.
There is something particularly jarring about being met with swathes of security personnel at every step before entering the stadium. It doesn’t feel like things are any more “normal” than before—it is even more striking when you juxtapose the celebration inside with the scenes outside. I don’t know about other fans, but it doesn’t put you in a particularly festive mood. The message is that you’re allowed to have fun in this particular sanitized, privileged and fortified space. Post-2009, imagery of stadiums in the media is often marked by heavily armoured personnel loitering outside or alongside the pavilion. The heavy presence of security personnel undoubtedly make fans and players feel safer, and many of the same people are bravely putting their lives on the line so we can have a good time, but there is no denying that it is also a symbolic reminder of the extraordinariness of it all.
Again this is nothing new, security checks have existed long before cricket was banished from our lands. Your view of the pitch was already obstructed by cage-like structures. These were constructed long before the plague of terrorism was tainting our public events. There is a good balance to be struck between security and a good fan experience, maybe the right balance will come through trial and error but there should be at least an effort to try to steady the scales.
Legend has it that Monet’s impressionism was product of his bad eye-sight; his blurry vision informed his painting style. Much in the same way, for a long time I believed that live cricket could only be experienced through the haze of Lahori smog from between cage-like bars. Given that my eyesight, continuing the Monet metaphor, was always deteriorating faster than my glasses could keep up I always brought a pair of binoculars with me to so I could actually watch cricket during matches. But beyond my particular experience, stadiums in Pakistan are often not the right place if you want to watch, watch a match.
As there has been an explosion of mediums for the consumption of cricket, the stadium experience is competing with endless replays, private screenings and Twitter feeds. Our stadiums need to catch up with these mediums in order to provide a fulfilling cricket-watching experience. Can every pavilion in the stadium view the screen/score-board properly? Are the general stands able to follow the action in the middle as effectively as the more expensive stands? How do we engage fans in the match for longer than a T20 match? These questions need to be answered keeping in mind the needs of the modern Pakistani fans, otherwise when cricket really returns our teams will be playing to empty stands in Test matches once again.