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What Cricket? World Cup Adventures of a Wide-Eyed Fanatic

No one’s watching the World Cup, and that’s because they can’t. The broadcast is only on Sky Sports, which is a fairly pricey pay channel. Plenty has been written about cricket’s removal from free-to-air TV, and what that means for the game in this country.

Nitin Sundar |July 5, 2019, 1:42 PM IST
What Cricket? World Cup Adventures of a Wide-Eyed Fanatic

June 29, Saturday, 12PM GMT

I land in London, jet-lagged, bleary-eyed, sleepy, but also kicked in anticipation of a week of watching cricket. As I queue up for immigration, I can already see big display boards and digital screens promoting the biggest sporting event in town.

I mean Wimbledon, of course.

“Good morning, what brings you to this country?”

I tell the immigration officer at Heathrow I’m here to watch the cricket.

“What cricket,” he asks, only half-jokingly.

There is absolutely no sign of the World Cup anywhere. Cricket is not the talk of the town: it is more like the studied indifference of the town.

June 29, Saturday, 3PM GMT

I’ve flown over 8000 kilometres, been in a dinky Indian taxi and two London trains in 15 hours, going from Bannerghatta Road in Bangalore to St. John’s Wood in London for this. I stop for a quick nature break before heading to my seat at the Compton Stand at Lord’s, and miss the Catch of the World Cup by 30 seconds. So, it goes.

The atmosphere at the home of cricket is nothing short of brilliant, and I watch the replays agape along with a crowd of raucous Englishmen, Kiwis, Aussies, and of course sub-continentals, as Martin Guptill leaps across in slow-mo to snaffle Steve Smith. I marvel at the black-jerseyed, black-sunglassed, Matrix-stunt brilliance of the catch, curse at the fact that I’ve missed the chance to watch Smith bat, and cheer for the possibility that the Aussies will lose to their well-behaved cousins once again in the World Cup league stage.

I strike up a conversation with Doug from Australia, seated next to us. Doug is a member of the MCC, which gives him full access to all sport at the MCG (including the Big Bash, and AFL games), as well as here at Lord’s. However, this being an ICC event, he’s had to purchase his tickets and sit with us plebs, as opposed to the comforts of the pavilion. He’s flown from Australia with his family, but they aren’t with him at the cricket. “They are going for the tennis, and I can’t stand that sport,” he justifies. He doesn’t have to, to someone who’s coolly travelled solo, leaving the family back home. I learn from Doug that there is a 15-year waitlist to become an MCC member. Cricket is dying, what?

WhatsApp Image 2019-07-04 at 3.17.37 PM

It’s a madly hot day at Lord’s. The pitch is brown, dusty and slower than a sleep-deprived turtle - not a single cut shot has gone behind square. There’s a team in yellow on the field, and there are white canopied stands. You could easily mistake this to be Chepauk in Chennai. Except that you have people carrying water-bottles inside. And alcohol. And sunscreen. Try slipping those past the security at Chepauk. Lord’s famously advertises itself as the only cricket ground in the world that allows patrons to bring their tipple in with them.

Australia hustle their way out of a tight corner to a competitive score, despite Trent Boult’s rambunctious last-over hat-trick. The Kiwi fans are confident of a win. The Aussie crowds want to believe they have enough for Mitchell Starc to defend, running in down the slope. There’s joy in the air as the heat abates, pints of Pimm’s and Guinness keeping everyone in high spirits.

The Aussies are right. New Zealand cave in feebly against Starc, their innings a metaphor for their World Cup campaign that seems to have hit a dead end. And oh, I end up seeing the catch of the World Cup after all, as Steve Smith outdoes Guptill with his own dose of gravity-defiance at midwicket to dismiss Tom Latham. Marveloush, as the late Richie Benaud would’ve said.

June 30, Sunday 9AM GMT

I am on the train to Birmingham, sitting amidst a sea of Indian fans in blue. My own jersey is tucked inside my backpack. I am hoping to wear it only after I get a ticket to the England game at the ground, but deep down I know the odds are slim. After India v Pakistan, this is the Box Office game of the World Cup. Tickets are being resold at 4-5 times of their face value. I am crazy, but not crazy enough to shell out £400 to get in. My co-passengers do their best to help me, pinging their Whatsapp groups in search of a spare ticket at a fair price, but nothing transpires.

WhatsApp Image 2019-07-04 at 3.17.16 PM

In hindsight, it was perhaps for the best. I head to the public screening arranged at the Birmingham town square by the ICC, and the experience is extraordinary. Indians, Englishmen, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis - at least 1000 fans have shown up, a lot of them unable to snare last-minute tickets. The atmosphere is stadium-like, with the added benefit of commentary and replays. There’s booze, food, music and dance, plenty of banter, and comical Barmy Army singing. I spend the day there, with a close friend and her family, and it’s a proper carnival.

Given what England generally do at World Cups, not even the staunchest English fans would have anticipated the quality of England’s bounce-back. Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow knocked the stuffing out of India’s spinners in perhaps the most breath-taking 11-20 over block in ODI history, and India had no chance of coming back after leaking 98 runs in that period. Watching MS Dhoni’s innings in the end, I felt a lot of sympathy for myself, and a lot more for the folks who took planes, trains and automobiles, and shelled out top dollar to be at Edgbaston.

July 2, Tuesday 11AM GMT

Kohli-Mortaza

No one’s watching the World Cup, and that’s because they can’t. The broadcast is only on Sky Sports, which is a fairly pricey pay channel. Plenty has been written about cricket’s removal from free-to-air TV, and what that means for the game in this country. The epic 2005 Ashes was on free TV, and became a national event, followed across the country. It’s part of the reason why Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Flintoff and Co. went on to become almost mythical folk heroes in England.

Early days yet, but if Eoin Morgan’s men go on to win this World Cup, they are unlikely to achieve the same kind of fandom, with less than half a million people in the UK watching the cricket. People only remember what they watch.

I find a cricket-themed pub in Central London to watch the India v Bangladesh game. It’s a weekday, and I don’t have any friends for company, but I find a wonderful 62-year old in an Oakland A’s cap sitting at the table next to mine. Bruce is a Canadian who has now moved to Dover. He has some time to kill after dropping his sister off at the airport, before catching his train back home, and decided to spend it watching cricket.

We bond through the unique brotherhood of sports lovers. He likes the idea of cricket, much like baseball, because it is a sport that you can sit back, down a few, and absorb the action, without having to be continuously keyed in, the way you would for football or basketball. By the time he leaves, three hours later, several pints down, he knows conventional swing from reverse, and is in some awe of Virat Kohli since he’s among the richest sports-people in the world. He is, however, unclear why Kohli is a bigger deal than Rohit Sharma, who is reeling off 100s at will at the World Cup, and for whom 100s themselves are an under-achievement, given he generally deals in 200s.

July 2, Tuesday 6.30PM GMT

Bumrah celebrates (ICC)

There’s no Rohit 200 today. And there’s no Kohli 100 either. And no Dhoni finish. But Bumrah finally has some wickets. He’s perhaps been the bowler of the tournament, and you don’t often say that about someone who is ninth on the wickets list. India, broken, injured, playing substitutes, and substitutes for substitutes, shrug off the England defeat and march into the semis. Bangladesh’s fantastic run comes to an end at Birmingham.

A couple of hours later, the England women go down fighting against USA in the FIFA World Cup semi. Every single pub in Central London is screening the game, and the whole area is buzzing with the cheers, oohs and aahs. The country is watching the thing, as one. Despite the defeat, Ellen White is a hero. She will be remembered.

It’s elementary: People remember only what they watch.

July 3, Wednesday 1PM GMT

England won by 119 runs.

England are on course for their first World Cup semi-final since 1992. It’s Bairstow again, raising another dominant 100, in another drubbing of New Zealand. England’s turnaround since their defeat against Australia has been extraordinary, and in this form, they should fancy their chances at finally winning the World Cup. It’s been a superb tournament, easily the best World Cup yet in terms of competitiveness, and the format. There were high-scoring games, giving way to a rainy week, then settling into a series of dogfights on tough pitches, before Pakistan pulled off a Pakistan, and England pulled off an England. Here we are now, close to the end of the league phase, with the four favourites belatedly taking their respective semi-final slots.

Three cracking games to finish off will be just perfect.

(Nitin Sundar is a full-time cricket tragic who yearns for the return of the wonderful ODI jerseys of the 90s. He is stuck in a Bangalore traffic jam and tweets @knittins)

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Rank Team Points Rating
1 India 4027 115
2 New Zealand 2829 109
3 South Africa 2917 108
4 England 4366 104
5 Australia 3270 99
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Rank Team Points Rating
1 England 6745 125
2 India 7071 122
3 New Zealand 4837 112
4 Australia 5543 111
5 South Africa 5193 110
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Rank Team Points Rating
1 Pakistan 7748 277
2 England 4253 266
3 South Africa 4720 262
4 India 8620 261
5 Australia 5471 261
see more