A World Cup without joy

As this year's World Cup rattled on, I began reading Mike Marqusee's War Minus the Shooting, his classic travelogue of the 1996 tournament. I should add that the book isn’t a travelogue in the classic sense. Marqusee was a genuine intellectual, a man of the world before globalisation, and saw the game through a surprising array of lenses. Capitalism, globalisation, advertising, broadcasting, racism, all rear their head in his analysis of the tamasha. It is a genuinely wonderful book, a portrait of a changing game and the people that organised and played it.

But what also kept me running through the pages was an undercurrent of joy. Marqusee was enjoying every dusty, cacophonous moment of the World Cup. He tempered that joy with the fear of capitalism completely taking over cricket, a running theme of the book. But even he could not have anticipated how accurately he was seeing into the crystal ball of the game.

1996 was a remarkable World Cup, a subcontinental soap opera. There were boycotts, bombs, mismanagement, and also a remarkable brown bonhomie between the organisers India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The cricket was top drawer. Kenya staged upsets, India beat Pakistan, England were woeful, and the Australians challenged everybody. But Sri Lanka, disturbed by war and hungry for greatness, won a famous victory, brought about by their greatest generation of cricketers. Ranatunga, de Silva, Kaluwitharana, Jayasuriya, Murali, Gurusinha, Vaas, a Ceylon XI for the ages.

As I read, I was struck by nostalgia. Not so much for the cricket or for that time, but for a time when a home World Cup captured everyone’s imagination.

Because this time, it didn’t.

And that’s a shame. The game, and its biggest stage, is the last thing India experiences as a collective whole, it’s the last national experience we have. Once upon a time, we had more. We had Doordarshan’s Ramayan and we had DD Metro’s Alif Laila. We had Antakshari, we had Surabhi. Later, we had movies like JP Dutta’s Border, and sitcoms like Hum Paanch. Now we don’t. Audiences have fragmented, the world has changed. Today, India only has cricket.

Which is why this World Cup was such a letdown. It was a chance to take the game, and our nation’s obsession with it, to a crescendo, make it a celebration. What it actually became was something different.

The framing of it as a 10 team round-robin event was egregious. It was meant to keep India in the fray as long as possible (TV revenues would drop otherwise) and so we couldn’t have more associate nations taking part. This meant that the joy of seeing associates battle hard on the biggest stage, and send across a few surprises, was missing. Remember Dwayne Leverock’s famous catch in the 2007 edition? Or Kenya’s irresistible romp to the semis in 2003?

One can half-heartedly argue that the Netherlands and Afghanistan were here, and won games. But Afghanistan is far from a minnow, and the Dutch are solid cricketers bred on the county system. 

Tickets for games weren’t opened until a month before the tournament began. This effectively shut out travelling fans. World Cup fixtures are usually announced a full year before the matches, for fans to make plans. So in a World Cup that already did not have many international teams, now there were no international fans either. A huge part of a global tournament are the travelling fan groups, journalists, media contingents. All of them add to the joy, the feeling of an occasion. But we had none of that. Imagine the amount of foreign currency and local business they would have brought in, the interactions with locals that would have meant. Except the Indian board couldn't be bothered.

But were Indian fans treated well? No. Tickets were just unavailable, or hard to access. One can only assume they were being given away to sponsors and celebrities. The BCCI, the richest board in the world, would not accept digital tickets. You had to buy online, then go somewhere else to collect them. Later when whole stands showed up empty, tickets were put back on sale. During the India-Australia tie in Chennai, tickets were suddenly available online during the game. Moreover, ignoring the traditional cricket centres for garish venues like Ahmedabad meant lukewarm crowds for neutral games. These matches, if held in Chennai or Bangalore, would have been full. The carelessness and apathy was staggering.

What really irked me was also the complete absence of a build-up. There was virtually no marketing. The theme song was insipid, half-hearted, and arrived too late. The mascots were ugly. No one cared. There were no teasers, no hoardings even in the cities the games were being played in. It's as if the board decided that they were just going to do the bare minimum.

I can go on and on about the things that went wrong. But that’s not the point. The point is that we’ve been robbed. We’ve been robbed of a real World Cup, of the joy that comes with the anticipation, intermingling, and celebration of a true global tournament, one with fans, rivalries, bonhomie, and chatter. Instead, what we got was an antiseptic, 3D-printed event, like steaks at a Salt Bae restaurant, meant to be photographed with, but not actually enjoyed.

I’m part of a cricket group in Bangalore that started on Twitter. We play on weekends and talk cricket all week. It is a technology-career crowd, consisting mostly of older fellows like me attempting to relive our playing days, and some out-of-college whippersnappers. Sometimes we are good, but mostly, as you'd expect, we are bad. But every once in a while, a bat makes a hearty connection, and a lofted straight drive is played to perfection. Or a leg-cutter does what it is supposed to, or a brilliant catch is taken, and we all jump up, whooping in joy. This is why we love cricket, for this sudden magic, for this anticipation that the impossible can happen, and of course for the camaraderie and joy of a good game.

In the way that this World Cup was planned, executed, and played, it is this amateur, exuberant, organic joy that was taken from us. This tournament took from us the joy off seeing an Indian team performing at the peak of its powers, because it was just us watching it, celebrating it. It reduced a global event into a parochial sham. In taking the game away from the ordinary, cricket-loving fan into the hands of the corporate and entertainment elite, the organisers produced a boring, joyless event. And to me, that stung more than the loss in the final.