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“Cricket World Cup? Here In England? Are You Sure?” | On the Ball

R Kaushik travels to a venue that is sacred ground for Indian cricket, and discovers, among other things, a change in the audiences for cricket in the English countryside. While stadiums fill with younger, youthful, exuberant crowds, in the older outposts the game continues untouched, and unmoved, even as ICC Cricket World Cup lands up with all its glamour.
England cricket team at the ICC World Cup 2019

The ICC World Cup 2019 is well into its second half but the masses are yet to wake up to the tournament and away from the big centres interest in the game is limited.

The very essence of the English lifestyle lies in its understatedness. It is therefore hardly a surprise that the ICC Cricket World Cup, returning to these shores after 20 long years, doesn’t scream at you from every rooftop or grab your attention from every billboard.

Edition 12 of the sport’s flagship event is now well into its fourth week, with recent results providing multiple twists and turns to the qualification scramble. The rain that was such a vocal and divisive talking point two weeks back has faded into the background, the focus is largely on cricket, and while the newspapers have enough else to emphasise on – the FIFA Women’s World Cup, for instance, or the English Premier League, never mind that we are bang in the period between seasons – cricket has managed to hold its own.

The allure of cricket in England is headily intoxicating. Even in the middle of the professionalism of a sport that is grappling to emerge from the lumbering shadows cast by football and rugby, the amateur spirit is still all too evident in the weekend club and minor league games played on lush outfields which encourage a free expression of soul and spirit.

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As you graduate to the bigger, more state-of-the-art venues, you can sense the unmistakable hand of modernism. In the practice facilities, in the care with which grounds are maintained, in the attention paid to the stands and the washrooms that greet the paying spectator, in the robustness of a system where punctuality and time-sense are highly valued and where politeness and patience are non-negotiables.

From the verdant greenery of Tunbridge Wells to the admixture of the old and the new that such iconic venues as Old Trafford, Lord’s and Trent Bridge boast, there is a common thread of commitment and passion that is impossible to miss. The audiences at these grounds are different, as they will be when one is hosting a first-class game and the other staging skirmishes between the best nations in the world, and therefore what they seek to get of their outings are varied, too.

In Tunbridge Wells, for instance, Kent and Nottinghamshire are pow-wowing in a County Championship contest, somewhat of an annual formality at the tiny Kent outpost. For the rest of the world, Tunbridge Wells is another, largely anonymous, stop on the cricketing route. For Indians, it holds special meaning, because that is where one of the great World Cup knocks flowed from the scything willow of India’s finest all-rounder.

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Kapil Dev’s single-handed conquest of Zimbabwe in 1983, with his epochal unbeaten 175 turning a hopeless cause into Phoenix-like resurgence, was the catalyst on which India launched their successful campaign. Thirty-six years back, Tunbridge Wells had worn a primarily deserted look for what in effect was a low-profile game. The thinly populated stands are a throwback to an almost mystical era, given how vocally and visibly the Indian diaspora throngs any match involving the national team in any part of England, any part of the world.

Cricket-viewing in England has undergone a radical transformation, too. The aforesaid County game, for instance, was well patronized, but those in attendance were primarily senior citizens for whom this was as much a social outing as a chance to soak in some cricket. The polite smattering of applause for a grand act on the field hardly disturbed the air; between pints of ale and sips of lager, all conversation was clipped and muted, the hushed tones indicative of the respect for a sport all these gentlemen robustly embraced in their youth.

But as you move to the more ‘vibrant’ formats, such as white-ball, overs-limited cricket, the audience and its behaviour is markedly different. There is a profusion of the young and hungry, drawn by the glitz and razzmatazz of Twenty20 cricket and lured by the spectacle that the more elongated 50-over format offers. Their interest is less in the sport and more in having a good time, and if they are spotted on live television or the giant screen at the ground, then even better.

It was in trying to draw newer, more diverse and hitherto disinterested audiences that T20 cricket was conceptualized more than a decade and a half back. While it would appear as it if has served its purpose, a revolutionary and contentious new condensation, The Hundred, is set to be unleashed next year. The 100-ball-a-side competition has raised numerous questions and thrown up very few answers over the last several months, but the officialdom seems convinced that they are sitting on a cash-cow. Only time will tell whether it is an effective money-spinner, or the intemperate step that killed the goose laying the golden egg.

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The spectators at matches involving the Asian teams are the most boisterous and uninhibited at the World Cup. At one time denied the luxury of being in a position to travel, or always saving with an eye on a rainy day, these fans are willing to commit themselves to following their interests. Indians come from far and wide – from South Africa and the United States, from Australia and even Japan, to watch their heroes in action, and they are happy to announce their presence with drums and bugles and whistles, with colour and camaraderie and a riot of electric energy. England versus Australia at Lord’s on Tuesday was like two purring Rolls Royce facing off; India versus Pakistan at Old Trafford ten days ago was a Ferrari and a Mercedes burning rubber on the Silverstone track, screaming for attention and finding nothing to be apologetic about.

The fans only see the finished product, the chiseled young men flinging themselves around, leaping through the air, haring between the wickets, tonking the ball a mile or hurling the little sphere of destruction with tremendous pace. They aren’t privy to the long hours of training, of stretching the pain barrier, of not giving up when the lungs are shouting out for oxygen and the heart pleading for a break. Practice facilities that allow them to hone their skills are taken for granted in all modern cricket centres, but in England, the indoor must complement, sometimes outshine the outdoors because of the weather.

These indoor facilities have left no issue unaddressed. There are bowling machines galore to compensate for bowlers not being able to run at full tilt, safety nettings going this way and that to insulate the viewing gallery from round flying objects, a compact but fully hands-on staff that expertly goes about its job, a supervisor who is on top of just about everything. The magnitude of these facilities changes depending on the status of the ground, but even the tiniest of clubs have basic infrastructure in place to ensure that cricket does not suffer at the altar of the fickleness of the elements.

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The journey from the gate to the inside is pleasant, marked by smiling stewards and friendly security guards who go about their business without fuss or aggro. Seats are neatly marked and the numbers respected by the fans, serpentine queues greet the food and beer stalls from early in the morning, and when the sun comes out, the unselfconscious are happy to whip their shirts off and soak in the atmosphere.

When we landed at Heathrow nearly four weeks back, the immigration officer sounded perplexed when he asked us, “Cricket World Cup? Here in England? Are you sure?” Perhaps he is convinced now, even though his nation is struggling to stay afloat after two defeats on the bounce. Or, perhaps, he has never been to a game of cricket. And therefore, perhaps, he knows not what he is missing.

(Kaushik is a veteran cricket writer who has reported on over 100 Tests. He co-authored VVS Laxman's autobiography '281 and Beyond')

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