TThere is only one stadium in the world larger than the Narendra Modi Stadium and Pyongyang is unlikely to host cricket in the near future. Even when empty, a massive 132,000-seat ring in bright orange, yellow and blue, the sporting Superbowl in Ahmedabad is a remarkable sight. Before the World Cup, every available surface was decorated in the tournament’s predominantly pink and purple livery and the result is reminiscent of the aftermath of a riot in a poster paint factory.
But once you leave the grounds – literally, right outside the concrete hall that surrounds it and anywhere beyond – there is little sign that this tournament exists. Only international arrivals at the city’s airport see the small stand indicating it, and there is barely a banner or directional sign to alert the city’s 7.5 million residents. The only clear indication this correspondent saw before arriving at the stadium that a major cricket tournament is about to begin in this city was when Kumar Dharmasena and Nitin Menon, who will officiate the opening match, met with a group of officials in at an adjacent stadium for dinner.
On Wednesday, the captains of all 10 participating nations attended a presentation at the Gujarat Cricket Association’s lavish ballroom, down the street from the stadium, where India’s Rohit Sharma insisted that World Cup fever was indeed gripping the nation. “The excitement that people are feeling is not just in one or two cities, it is spreading across the country,” he said.
“Everywhere you go, the World Cup is being talked about. Even when we started the warm-up games a month ago, every time we went to India it was all about the World Cup. In India, it is quite common for people to get quite excited about any big event that is about to take place in the country. Since cricket is the biggest sport in India, I am not surprised by people’s enthusiasm.”
Still, few captains will face greater challenges over the next seven weeks than the organizers, who in the few weeks since tickets went on sale have had to fill the 132,000 seats for a game that did not feature the enthusiastically supported hosts. They are still available while other local groups have been offered, and the International Cricket Council is referring questions about sales to the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which immediately refers them back. The length of the tournament has proven a deterrent for potential long-distance travelers, while India has not issued visas to fans from closer countries – Pakistan will currently be unable to send fans or journalists at all.
The last few weeks here have been full of feverish speculation about the blockbuster opening ceremony that was supposed to kick off the tournament. There were fireworks and a laser show. An all-star line-up of Bollywood stars and singers would perform, with the list of names mentioned ranging from Ranveer Singh, the actor and singer who took lead vocals on the official tournament anthem Dil Jashn Bole, to Asha Bhosle, the 90-year-old year old, rich -old queen of Indipop. That would significantly eclipse the opening ceremony of this year’s Indian Premier League, which itself held a star-studded extravaganza at the same stadium.
And then, just hours before the tournament began, the ICC announced its plans: There would be no opening ceremony. There would never be one. Instead, just before 2pm local time on Thursday afternoon, Sachin Tendulkar – who signed up as a global ambassador for the World Cup on Tuesday and said he is “very much looking forward to this fantastic tournament” – will walk out with the trophy and then with a few people start playing cricket.
At this point, the tournament that was easy to ignore will suddenly become difficult to avoid – and hopefully for good reason. This should be the most dynamic World Cup ever: four years is long enough for the game to evolve significantly, and since 2019 one-day internationals have become increasingly high-scoring games. The template that England set en route to victory in the last tournament has been widely followed, and in particular the middle overs, once seen as an opportunity for teams to reset themselves between the opening powerplay and a late innings surge grouping are now being enjoyed by the batting teams, who have recognized the opportunities presented by the field restrictions.
In 2019, India had never scored more than 5.76 per over in a calendar year; Since then, they have broken that record in three of the four years. Eight of the ten participating nations have set records since 2020, and each is refining their lineups and approaches looking ahead to the next few weeks.
“When you look at a World Cup, it’s always, you know, always on the horizon. It’s still years away,” said Tom Latham, who will replace the injured Kane Williamson as New Zealand captain in the opening game. “And then to finally be here, that’s really exciting.”