THE ICC wants its World T20 tournament to sit at the top table of global sporting events but, with that in mind, is India really the right host nation?
There’s no doubt that the country is bustling with expectant cricket fans, whose love of the game is as intense as the short form itself, but enthusiasm alone cannot a spectacle make.
India has earned, over the past half-decade, a reputation as the world’s leading T20 country. For years, its IPL dominated the international landscape. Fortunes of rupees were invested in creating a franchise system, which attracted the elite players, filled stadia and hit huge TV ratings. It was undoubtedly the best T20 league in the world.
It’s not any more. And India can no longer claim to be the premier destination for the swashbuckling mavericks that headline the global slog-athon tour. For several reasons.
Logistically, this year’s World T20 wouldn’t have looked out of place had it been the plotline of a Benny Hill sketch.
In Delhi, the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium is still the subject of legal arguments regarding its suitability to host matches, with the qualifying games already under way elsewhere in the country.
In the past week, the encounter between India and Pakistan – scheduled to take place in Dharamsala on March 19 – had to be shifted to Kolkata because of security fears. How and why such unrest was not anticipated months before, given the diplomatic and political tensions in the north of the country, is a question even Aristotle would need extra time to ponder.
Tickets for many venues didn’t go on sale until less than four weeks before the start of the tournament and, even though they are now technically available to the public, the slapstick attempt to distribute them has reached whacky new levels of incompetence.
Amidst much ridicule about the spectacularly empty stadiums which have greeted the associate nations during the qualifying round, fans who turned up to watch Zimbabwe beat Scotland this week found they were unable to purchase entry on the gate.
Instead, they were told to take a 40-minute auto-rickshaw ride from the out-of-town venue in Nagpur back to the old VCA stadium in the city centre, buy their tickets there and then return. The ICC’s online ticketing system, it turned out, had not reached rural Nagpur. Supporters were being told to commute for their seats.
The common sense to simply take money on the door, and add at least a sprinkle of decibels to the morgue-like atmosphere, never dawned on event officials.
India’s population might have ferocious passion when it comes to supporting their own team but when it comes to being neutral, the country’s cricketing fanbase seems happier to catch the highlights or read an online match report. Unless you’re at the wireless-less Nagpur stadium, of course.
Whether fans will turn out to see the likes of Australia, England, South Africa, Pakistan and New Zealand remains to be seen but the ICC could do well to invest in a few thousand mannequins just in case – to at least give the impression of a half-full ground.
The pitches, too, are not right for the thrash-em, bash-em brutality that the tournament’s organisers slap all over their promotional literature. Mostly, India produces slow-ish turners – rough and dusty and difficult to adapt to inside 20 overs.
While some batsmen still have the ability and audacity to take on the spin, most struggle. The likes of Ravi Ashwin, Adil Rashid and Imran Tahir will be drooling at the prospect. Entertainment-wise, the competition will suffer as a result.
Even India’s captain, MS Dhoni, has admitted that fans flock to T20 to see runs. In a recent interview, Dhoni criticised the state of pitches at the Asia Cup because they lack the pace and bounce to facilitate blitzkrieg batting.
“The reason why people love T20 is the sixes and fours,” he said. “Low scoring should be 130 to 140 and high scoring can be 200 or 240”.
The statistics suggest supporters could end up feeling short-changed. In all international T20 home matches, India have only ever breached the 200 barrier twice – and one of those instances came in Rajkot, which is not being used for this spring’s event.
Of the top 50 team scores in the IPL, less than half have come at the seven stadia being used for the World T20 – Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Dharamsala, Bangalore, Nagpur and Mohali. There’s a reason why England opted to draft in uncapped and generally unknown off-spinning all-rounder Liam Dawson in their 15-man squad ahead of pacemen Chris Woakes, Liam Plunkett and Steven Finn.
Some apologists will say that Indian conditions will challenge the world’s greatest T20 batsmen and of course they’re right. But challenges are not what fans want in the shortest format, or at least not the challenge of scraping a run a ball against 45-degree turn. They want 100-metre slog sweeps, switch-hits and ridiculous ramps. Subsequently, that is what the sport needs.
India doesn’t facilitate that. Not anymore. Not even close. If you want to put on a T20 show in 2016, you need look no further than Australia.
The Big Bash has been promoted like a heavyweight title fight, organised with the precision of a drill-sergeant, presented in glorious technicolour, filmed in high definition and manicured to within a nanometre of perfection. And it’s only five years old. It’s the 20-something in a designer suit, well groomed and eloquent, to India’s middle-age crisis.
Down Under, the pitches are fast and reliable and the infrastructure is modern. And the fans are so sports-mad that they’ll turn out for anything – as proven by turnouts for recent Olympic Games and Rugby World Cups.
India’s romantic relationship with cricket, its rich history and undeniable pedigree, is what makes it the special nation that it is. But it – and the ICC- need to remember that the sub-continent no longer provides the leading T20 platform in the world.
That it has been chosen to host this year’s event could leave the international governing body not with the competition it craves – an all-swinging, all-consuming global super-show – but a lukewarm nod towards what it could be.