It was billed as the most anticipated cricket event of the year, held in the sport’s biggest stadium globally, in a country that is known to worship the game.
But when the ICC Cricket World Cup 2023 finally got under way in India on Thursday, only a few thousand seats were occupied in a stadium that was revamped for the tournament in order to house at least 120,000 spectators.
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As England and New Zealand squared off at Ahmedabad’s Narendra Modi Stadium, which was renamed after the Indian prime minister in 2021, cricket fans took to social media to express their shock at the rows of empty saffron-coloured seats glaring back at them.
England women’s cricketer Danni Wyatt asked “Where’s the crowd?” in a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Jemimah Rodrigues, her Indian counterpart, responded by saying the crowd is waiting for India’s match against Pakistan on Saturday, October 14.
Waiting for the India v Pakistan game 😁 https://t.co/RBNOR2JDtt
— Jemimah Rodrigues (@JemiRodrigues) October 5, 2023
Delayed ticket release, last-minute changes anger fans
Fans have been critical of the tournament’s scheduling and ticketing process.
The first batch of tickets went on sale on August 25, less than six weeks before the opening match, making it difficult for travelling fans to put plans into place.
Indian cricket fans, who had been waiting for years to watch the sport’s biggest event in their backyard, told Al Jazeera they had given up on their dream of supporting their team at home.
One well-travelled sports fan, Vipul Yadav, described the management of the ticketing process as “nonsensical”.
“Nowhere in the world, do you have to struggle so much for a ticket. All this has happened because the ticket release has been done too late,” he said.
— Adil Ray OBE (@adilray) October 5, 2023
No Indian team, no Indian fans
During the first few innings of the England vs New Zealand match, a few hundred fans from both participating countries could be seen in the stands.
Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) secretary Jay Shah took it upon himself to fill up at least one more seat when he was shown seated in the stands amidst some cheering and confused-looking fans in the middle of England’s innings.
As the match went on, local fans began filling up some seats, but the attendance was nowhere close to being at even half capacity.
Former India captain Ravi Shastri pointed out during the match commentary that India’s absence in the opening match could be a big factor behind the apparent indifference from local fans.
Indeed, it is the first time in 27 years that the opening match of the tournament has not involved a host nation.
Ironically, the last time it happened it was also during a World Cup hosted by India, with the same teams facing each other at the same venue – albeit then known as the Motera Stadium.
— Daniel Brettig 🏏 (@danbrettig) October 5, 2023
Before the start of the match, Indian cricket great Sachin Tendulkar walked on to the ground with the tournament winners’ trophy and waved cheerfully to the few spectators.
Later, Tendulkar attempted to painstakingly explain the local fans’ love for international cricketers and promised they would “make it a special event for all players”.
But online, the criticism continued.
Manya, a cricket fan and writer from India, said building the world’s biggest stadium is not akin to being the world’s sports administrators.
Maybe it wouldn't have been this embarassing if you hadn't started ticket sales at the last minute repulsing fans who wanted to travel from NZ/ENG, hoarding tickets and then giving them away for free as a way to save face at the last minute.
You can build the biggest stadium.… pic.twitter.com/6WO7UCdrTJ
— Manya (@CSKian716) October 5, 2023
No opening ceremony
In another first, the tournament was officially declared open not by a head of state in a colourful opening ceremony ahead of the first match, but through a captains’ news conference held a day earlier.
“Captains’ Day kicks off ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023 in style,” the ICC said in a statement a day ahead of the opening match.
Opening ceremony canceled, scheduled changed numerous times, ticketing issues, visa delays for participating team, warm up to be played behind closed doors due to security, completely empty stadium in the opening match, is India really the right venue to be hosting global event?
— Osama. (@ashaqeens) October 5, 2023
Fans drew comparisons with the last time the tournament was hosted in the subcontinent, in 2011, and the opening ceremony included performances by some of the region’s biggest music stars.
Nothing will match the 2011 world cup opening ceremony in Bangladesh.. it was a vibe🔥❤️ https://t.co/Sm0j6UDVcM
— Fahid Bin Zaman Chowdhury (@FahidCho) October 5, 2023
The tournament moves to the south Indian city of Hyderabad on Friday, when India’s neighbour Pakistan will take on the Netherlands in their first match.
Pakistan’s contingent was given a rapturous welcome by the local crowd when they landed in India last week.
Prior to setting off for India, Pakistan captain Babar Azam said he expected Indian fans to support Pakistan despite decades of tense ties between the two countries.
“Most of our matches are sold out, which means Indian fans are eager to see us and support us in the stadiums,” Azam told reporters.
India’s bitter rivals may see bigger crowds in the 39,000-capacity Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in Hyderabad.
— Pakistan Cricket (@TheRealPCB) September 27, 2023