The sad truth: Why this World Cup is a fan-free zone

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The sad truth: Why this World Cup is a fan-free zone

India is an extraordinary country. It first gets into your pores and then under your skin, in the best sense. Its cricket authorities, though, get on your goat.

India has a moment with this World Cup, is not seizing it and evidently is unapologetic about it. There’s an easy gauge of this: Australians are conspicuous by their absence. There’s the odd green and gold T-shirt, but no tour groups, no cheer squads, no presence, oi oi oi.

The stands have not been full during this tournament.

The stands have not been full during this tournament.Credit: AP

This is not the form of Australians at big international sporting events in the past 30 or 40 years. The ODI World Cup might not be the grail it once was, but it’s not a trifle. England’s case is even more acute. They usually form the biggest supporters groups of all, but the Barmy Army is more of a quirky quartet here. After Saturday, it might be a duo.

The explanation for all this absenteeism is easily divined. For reasons known only to itself, the BCCI released the schedule late and then changed it anyway. The allocation of venues was as much political as it was strategic; there are more group matches in the small, new and relatively hard to reach hill station of Dharamshala than there are in Kolkata’s famous Eden Gardens or Mumbai’s storied Wankhede stadium.

The release of tickets was slow and piecemeal and the pricing was opaque. For the workaday fan, no matter how dedicated, there was too much uncertainty, too great a risk.

It’s not just that there are so few Westerners; there are few anybodies. The other south Asian countries are minimally represented, and Pakistanis have been thwarted altogether. In Bengaluru, I met Indians who were supporting Pakistan just so that they had someone on their side.

This reinforces an old certainty that most people, when left to their own devices, get on well enough with most others. It’s the politicians and ideologues who fight, using citizens as proxies.

We digress. The difficulty of getting into the cricket even or especially for locals is reflected in the sparsely patronised stands and terraces. The crowd for Australia’s match against Pakistan in Bangalore was bigger than for its previous two matches, but it was far from a lockout.


It’s not apathy. Indians’ love of cricket might now be diffused across many formats and competitions, but it is as intense as ever. I met plenty enough shopkeepers and bellboys who would have loved to have gone to see Australia play in Lucknow and Bengaluru, but couldn’t.

When at last there was a match at Wankhede, between South Africa and England, there was a crowd. It prompted veteran Indian cricket writer and observer of BCCI politics Kuldip Lal to say: “Will always happen when matches are allotted to centres with cricketing culture like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata. And not based on political whims.”

Outnumbered: A Pakistan supporter flies the flag before the clash with India.

Outnumbered: A Pakistan supporter flies the flag before the clash with India.Credit: AP

Between the ICC and the BCCI, they’re staging this World Cup behind closed doors. Before you @ me about Ahmedabad and India and Pakistan, that was always going to be a blockbuster. It’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stadium and it’s Modi’s show.

The formulation ICC/BCCI is used here advisedly. The ICC is nowhere to be seen. Per Daniel Brettig in these pages, per Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur, this really is a BCCI event. Arthur was reviled for saying so, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong. The ICC is displeased about half-empty stadiums, but won’t say so publicly.

Deductively, the BCCI doesn’t care about through-the-gate fans. This is not necessarily self sabotage, it’s just not a priority. They don’t have to care. For any given cricket match, enough will come anyway to create a basic spectacle.

The BBC made repeated requests for the official crowd figure for the highly anticipated blockbuster between the host nation and Pakistan, but were knocked back.

The governing body’s fixation is with TV. That’s how most people get their World Cup, and how the ICC/BCCI funds it, and on TV it doubtlessly looks spectacular. No loosely attached hoardings tumble perilously from stadium rooftops on the not-so-small screen.

It’s sad because this indifference to spectators sits at odds with the warm welcome accorded to the few international fans who are here. Yes, there was an ugly incident when a Bangladeshi uber-fan had his stuffed tiger mascot torn apart by Indian supporters in Pune, but to dwell on that would be to judge the many by the few. I’ve seen and felt only goodwill.

The Barmy Army has been more like a quirky quartet at this World Cup.

The Barmy Army has been more like a quirky quartet at this World Cup.Credit: Getty Images

But let’s not pretend that this World Cup is anything other than a BCCI benefit. At that India-Bangladesh match in Pune, a point came when there were just enough runs left for Virat Kohli to make a century if KL Rahul sat on his splice, which he did. It’s the age we live in. Kohli got his century, broadcasters got their imagery, and the show rolled on.


Why does or should this all matter to faraway fans? Practically, it doesn’t. But there’s an intrigue. India is lining up for the 2036 Olympics. IOC president Thomas Bach made complimentary noises in an IOC forum in Delhi last week, which is what he does.

India has fabulous wealth beside its still-ingrained poverty and could fund the Olympics from petty cash. But so could the Saudis and their satellites.

India would want to be careful about how a World Cup that turns its back on spectators goes down.

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