England and New Zealand opened the Cricket World Cup on Thursday faced with a largely empty stadium – and those in the crowd donned tops and face-paint in the national colours of India.
A ripple of excitement went through the crowd as the England players made their way into the world’s biggest cricket arena, a 132,000-seater stadium named after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“It’s just huge to watch the World Cup… you can understand the excitement,” said Zubair Ahmed, a fan with his cheek painted in the Indian flag colours of orange, white and green, as the game got underway in Ahmedabad in western India at the start of a marathon tournament.
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The opener is a rematch of the epic final in the 2019 edition when hosts England won the tied game on boundary countback at Lord’s in London.
But numbers of fans were low at the start, with just a few hundred trickling into the mega-stadium and the vast majority of seats empty.
The fixture for the World Cup was released just 100 days before the start of the tournament, and then revised less than two months out from the opening match with nine matches changed.
Tickets then went on sale for the general public just 41 days before the tournament began, in a complicated process which saw fans have to register to book tickets and then wait for hours to actually buy them. Many weren’t even offered the chance.
Temperatures sizzled around 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 degrees Fahrenheit) with blazing sunshine, but those fans in the seats were undeterred, donning colourful costumes in the stands.
Amid the India flags, some fans were out to support the playing teams. England skipper Jos Buttler has a strong fan base in cricket-mad India, as he plays for the Indian Premier League team Rajasthan Royals.
“Jos is the boss,” said Santosh Dodiya, wearing an England jersey with the captain’s name across the back.
“It’s my first time here and I am excited to watch my favourite player at this huge stadium.” Dodiya had travelled for over 500 kilometres (340 miles) from the neighbouring Rajasthan state.
“I have especially come to watch him bat,” he said. “Of course I want India to win, but England should reach the final.”
Jyoti Malhotra, wearing a sari in Indian tricolour flag colours, said she was just “so excited” to be at the match.
But the big game she is looking forward is the tournament’s blockbuster clash between arch-rivals India and Pakistan.
“I’m still looking for an India-Pakistan ticket,” she said. “I’ll be here for the final, hopefully India-Pakistan.”
The match on October 14 in Ahmedabad is the most anticipated clash of the 50-over showpiece event.
With seats already all sold out, the fans have been turning to the black market and touts, with tickets for a normal stand costing 2000 rupees ($24) shooting up more than 25 times in cost to as much as 50,000 rupees ($600).
Fan Zubair Ahmed said if he could, he would go.
“It’s the most loved match in the world,” he said. “The kind of emotions that flow when India win are so great, I can’t explain it in words.”
Despite the buzz, organisers fear stadiums will continue to look empty if fewer than 50,000 fans turned up for Thursday’s game – a likely scenario in matches not involving India.
The women’s wing of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party sent out messages offering as many as 40,000 free tickets for Thursday’s opening match to women, a senior party leader said.
When Modi and his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese met in March, watching a Test match between India and Australia in Ahmedabad, school children were brought in to fill the stands.
Thousands of people then left after both prime ministers departed after the first hour.
Originally published as ‘Whose idea was it?’ World Cup begins with total embarrassment