When Pakistan and England opened their Test series in Abu Dhabi last week, only 54 people watched the first day at the 20,000-capacity Sheikh Zayed Stadium.
The stadium’s operations manager Shahnawaz Hakim admitted that crowds have always been bigger for one-day internationals than for five-day Tests.
“We put prices on tickets in anticipation that people would come but there were insignificant numbers on the first two days,” Hakim told AFP.
Prices ranged from just $5 to $28.
“We expect more people in the one-day internationals — in fact, it’s always a full house on Friday in limited overs matches,” said Hakim, of the four one-day and three Twenty20 internationals which will follow the three-match Test series.
England’s enthusiastic supporters group, the touring “Barmy Army” outnumbered locally-based fans, mainly expats from India and Pakistan whose time to watch cricket is severely limited by their work duties.
David Miller, a fan from Sheffield in northern England, described the numbers as disappointing.
“We thought that it would be a good competition in the stands but there were very few people to counter our songs and chants,” Miller said.
The number of spectators rose to around 5,500 on the Thursday — a holiday due to the first day of the Islamic calendar — and on Friday, the traditional weekly rest day in the Gulf.
But it came down to 2,500 on Saturday as the match headed for a draw on a flat pitch drained of its lifeblood.
Even the drama in the final evening session, when England were denied a possible victory by bad light, came too late to whet the appetite of stayaway fans.
When play was halted, England required just 25 runs off eight overs.
Dubai will stage the second Test from Thursday where crowds will again be sparse although organisers are hopeful of an upturn for the final Test in Sharjah.
Declining crowds for Tests is not restricted to the United Arab Emirates.
“There were never great crowds in Pakistan in modern times,” former England captain Bob Willis told Sky Sports.
“In India, all they want to see is one-day cricket. Once you lose a Test crowd, it’s hard to get it back.”
“Similarly in South Africa, only the Cape Town Test gets any crowd at all.
“People are concerned about the future of Tests — it’s only in England and Australia where you still get large crowds.”
Pakistan have been forced to play their ‘home’ series in the UAE ever since the 2009 militant attack on the Sri Lankan team sparked an international boycott of tours to the country.
But even when Pakistan last hosted a Test against the Sri Lankans in Lahore six years ago, there were more policemen than fans in the stadium.
Analysts believe the advent of more thrilling and the shorter duration Twenty20 matches, with full houses in the Indian Premier League, are to blame for the decline in Tests’ attendance.
England enjoyed good crowds in the recently concluded Ashes series, with a good number of fans making the journey from Australia.
But the Ashes tends to be the exception.
The argument that fans cannot spare time in the day to watch Test matches led the MCC cricket committee to back day-night Tests using a pink ball.
Adelaide will finally host a Test under lights for the first time next month when Australia take on New Zealand.
Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland suggested Test matches starting late in the afternoon could be a solution.
“We came out of a series in the UAE where apart from the weekend days there was virtually no one there,” said Sutherland after Australia’s series against Pakistan last year.
“But it’s quite forseeable that if those matches had started at 3pm and gone into the evening, the attendance would have been significantly better.”