How to read the observation of the cricket traveller who noted there had been advertising at Bengaluru airport for the Karnataka Premier League and in Chandigarh for the Punjab Premier League, but the New Delhi terminal betrayed no sign of a World Cup?
Organisational apathy or the opposite? Why market something that doesn’t need selling? Could it have been, a good week out from the first ball, really too soon? After all, India and Australia were still finishing a one-day series. And what preparations, I ask an old administrative hand, must be afoot at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi? “Nothing. They’ll be painting some toilets, the board has given out 50 crore rupees [£4.9m] to each venue.”
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Toilets painted or not, the tournament will begin, soar and India may thrillingly take wing. The World Cup will be all around us. Like a general election, it will colonise the national consciousness for weeks; for ever, if it ends in triumph. The diehards and the casuals will equally suffer from irrational expectations. They will dispense opinion to family, to colleagues, to strangers on a train, to Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli if that were possible. These things have not changed. In other respects, much has.
The last World Cup before it became an International Cricket Council (ICC) event was staged in the subcontinent in 1996. India was then hustling for the seat at the head of the table, not standing astride it like a colossus while the rest peep about underneath.
In his recent memoirs, the former administrator Amrit Mathur recounts the “Indian-style election strategies” used to win those hosting rights. The three-nation managing Pilcom (Pakistan-India-Sri Lanka committee) identified associate boards headed by people of subcontinental origin, and made them an “emotional pitch”: “We need to teach the racist nations a lesson.” Crucially, it offered the associates larger financial guarantees from the Test nations’ share.
It was those votes that sealed it. On the eve of the tournament, India and Pakistan, remarkably, fielded a joint side to play Sri Lanka because Australia and West Indies had forfeited their matches in Colombo for security reasons.
Those days of strategic Asian solidarity are long gone: India has no need of it. This is the first World Cup in the subcontinent with a solo host. Nor was there any need to rally the associates. Only one, the Netherlands, will compete, down from three back then.
Undoubtedly, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) knows better than ever how to put up a glitzy show. At the opening ceremony in 1996, performers had their costumes held up in traffic, flags appeared the wrong way up, the MC was drunk and the rains blew away the screen for the show-stopping laser display. With its Indian Premier League experience and wealth, we can be sure of a slicker effort this time, details still under wraps. In 1996, the host boards made $18m; in 2023, the IPL rights for a four-year cycle fetched the BCCI $5bn.
Yet this will be the joint smallest World Cup since 1992. Fans from cricket’s second most populous nation, Pakistan, will be almost entirely absent: there are no clear visa provisions for them.
Fans from elsewhere have had their work cut out. The schedule surfaced three months before the tournament and was altered significantly six weeks later. Tickets, usually available from about a year out, went on sale barely a month ago. When the India tickets did, the internet collapsed. Some fans found it difficult to log in, those who did were put in online queues lasting hours; some were timed out; others began purchases that never reached completion. If the ICC, whose name the tournament bears, was fuming, it did not go public with its frustrations. But its agreement with India mandates venue inspections a year ahead for commercial partners to map out stadiums; here the venues were not declared till the other day. In 2019 a local organising committee was fully functional a year before; here it has largely been a bunch of enthusiastic youths assigned by the BCCI a few months ago.
A cricket consultant says he knows only one person, of the hundreds who have contacted him, successful in booking tickets and “that guy stayed up three nights”. One fan uploaded a video of four laptops, five mobile phones and a tablet sitting around in his ticket queues, along with an untranslatable caption. Another, technologically gifted, pulled up coding from the booking site to show the paltry few tickets on sale (these numbers are not declared) in stadiums of vast capacities. On the hidden market, an India v Pakistan ticket was going for a reported Rs 56 lakh (£55,000).
At one stage in the supreme court’s interventions in BCCI affairs over the past decade, it was reported that 90% of tickets for all matches would be made available for public sale. That figure does not feature in the board’s constitution.
What if the disgruntled fan wishes to aim his grievances higher? How about the sports minister? That would be the former BCCI chief, whose younger brother is the IPL governing council chairman. The home minister? Well, the neophyte secretary running the board, Jay Shah, is his son. He can certainly provide photo evidence of handing over tickets to the public: “golden tickets”, all matches, VIP treatment, to India’s wealthiest celebrities.
A more effective marketing campaign than airport billboards; more instructive too.
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