Ahmedabad serves up surprises as World Cup gets underway with comprehensive New Zealand win over England

Foolishly, some may say, I chose to put myself in the position of a paying spectator at the opening match of the International Cricket Council Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023 in Ahmedabad.

Twice before I have visited that city, the first time, in 2004, was a tortured experience. I sensed that the generous hospitality of my well-placed hosts, involving food cooked in butter milk and eaten by hand, may take its toll on my unaccustomed stomach. I was not wrong to the point where I said never again.

Yet, there was I again, 2016, I recall. An invitation arrived and, out of curiosity at the growth of both Gujarat and Ahmedabad in little more than a decade, I was intrigued to discover how the place had changed or been accommodated to the slow, apparently agricultural, city which seemed to be dominated by cows.

On scant observation, it seemed to have achieved this, largely by building the equivalent of a second city alongside the existing one. The previously, rather seedy, airport seemed much changed, apart from the taxi rank.

A future, third, visit was not ruled out, nor was it sought. Fate had it that there would be one. Since 2016, the largest cricket stadium has been constructed in Ahmedabad. It is named after the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, previously the chief minister of the state of Gujarat and credited with the vision for its growth.

The stadium’s capacity is some 130,000, surpassing the Melbourne Cricket Ground, now reduced from 100,000 to 90,000.

Clearly, it is a statement piece and will not fill very often. India secured the rights to host the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023, and the stadium is an obvious one at which the final should be played.

It also has several other fixtures, including the opening one, which your columnist attended on Thursday.

This is part of Arab News’ coverage of the World Cup, which includes a new podcast initiative, “The Wicket,” which launched this week. The first edition previewed the World Cup and made some judgements about the prospects for each of the teams and favored semi-finalists.

A previous column questioned whether spectators would be disadvantaged at this World Cup. The opening match pitted the 2019 World Cup finalists, England and New Zealand, against each other. A sizeable sample of cricket’s leading administrators would have been in attendance.

Much was expected of the match as a curtain raiser, given the drama of the 2019 final, decided on the last ball of a super over. Apart from dignitaries, who would watch it? This is why your columnist chose the spectator route.

A hotel was chosen within what seemed to be walking distance to the stadium. Despite being rather down market, if afforded a 30-minute walk to the stadium, underneath the carrying arches of the new Ahmedabad Metro, an extension to the line which currently ends at the stadium.

Spectators are faced with a decision about which entrance gate to head for. I chose the nearest one, VIP, and was ushered, under questioning, to the main entrance area.

There my troubles began because I lack local knowledge. I carried little, but too much for the serried security troops. Passed from pillar to post, searched and asked curious questions that varied between those who searched me, I learned that my paper diary of cricket records constituted subterfuge and a security risk to the fabric of Indian cricket. Why did I not record my thoughts on my smart phone?

Why did I, a White person, want to bring in mosquito repellent and sunblock when the temperature was only 39 degrees Celsius? Above all, why was I carrying a pen, a humble Biro? If it was to write in my diary, this was forbidden. They took my Biro, but I was allowed to keep the rest.

A spring in my step, I approached the ticket validation machines, from which I received immediate rejection. Another court of enquiry resulted in a request for a hard copy of my ticket, which is what I proffered. It was the wrong type of hard copy. Had I not received an email or SMS to say where I should collect such hard copy from? No, said I, otherwise I would not be standing here. Where should it be collected from – “over there, sir.”

Now, I am experienced enough to know that “over there” means anywhere for one to eight kilometres in strange territory. It was time for bluff, an appeal to emotion by a seasoned cricket veteran, with an academic background to call upon. Would initiative and character assessment win over bureaucracy?

Sense prevailed and I entered the colosseum of a cricket stadium. It took me 40 minutes to find my allocated seat. Quite what the experience is like when the stadium is full does not bear thinking about.

I chatted to locals about the price they had paid – they were more shocked than I about the difference. At the start, public estimates of 10,000 spectators seemed about right. Other people entered during the afternoon, I guessed, correctly, on complimentary tickets and then there was a small surge in the early evening, which I presumed were people coming in after work.

It is difficult to gauge how many were there, but 25,000 to 30,000 seems about right.

I did note that there was a surge of people toward the bottom of the stand, and they became the focal point for the inter-over, inter-ball, musak competitions delivered from a stage halfway up the stands. They were implored to chant, sing, and gyrate. Cricket seemed incidental.

I have no idea if this intrusion affects the concentration of the players. If the day’s result is anything to go by it did not affect New Zealand who thrashed England, who are beginning to look an old team.

New Zealand’s 23-year-old rising star Rachin Ravindra, highlighted previously in this column, scored a century in coruscating fashion. His senior partner, Devon Conway, also scored a century as New Zealand won by nine wickets.

England’s body language in the field was dispirited long before the end. There will be more of this in next week’s podcast. New Zealand’s dramatic loss in the 2019 final has now been firmly assuaged in Ahmedabad. Your columnist’s feelings about the place have not.

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