x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

This is your wake-up call Cricket World Cup

For once the action lived up to the hype when India faced England in the World Cup.

A scoreboard shows the required two balls from one run required for England to win against India.
A scoreboard shows the required two balls from one run required for England to win against India.
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I first got an inkling of what it was going to be like when I got to Anil Kumble Circle, a stone's throw from the Bangalore ground, at noon.

The face-painted and blue-shirted hordes were already gathering, and when I stepped into Koshy's - an atmospheric old restaurant that has been around longer than the Chinnaswamy Stadium - for the traditional pre-match steak-and-onions, there was not a seat to be found.

Apart from a few regulars, every table seated fans - Indian and English. T-shirts with the cross of St George next to blue ones with Tendulkar and the No 10 on the back.

By 1pm, meals had been finished and bills paid and a big group headed to the turnstiles. The Indian tricolour was everywhere and the buzz from those already inside the stadium could be heard outside the perimeter.

It was all so different from the apathy that I had witnessed in Nagpur and Delhi. Perhaps, as Sanjay Manjrekar, Indian batting stalwart of the late 1980s-turned-commentator, likes to put it, the plethora of choice has made the Indian fan choosy about what to watch.

With so much international cricket and six weeks of Indian Premier League, no one rushes to the ticket booth for England against the Netherlands, no matter how good a game it may turn out to be.

In Delhi, my taxi driver did not even know there was a match on, despite the participants being the West Indies, the two-time winners, and South Africa, the perennial bridesmaids.

That lack of interest reflected in the poor attendance as well, though fingers must be pointed at a local association that gives away thousands of passes to politicians and other people who never bother to turn up.

While most newspapers devoted three or four pages to the competition, there was not even the excitement that there had been last summer for the football World Cup, when most people adopted a team or two for a month and enjoyed themselves. It was clear that India needed a wake-up call.

And how it got one. The first ball bowled at 2.30pm was a sign. A terrific delivery from James Anderson that took the edge of Virender Sehwag's bat and flashed past a diving Graeme Swann at second slip. The 38,000-strong crowd had been especially vocal after the Indian national anthem, but as the ball streaked to the rope, all you could hear was a huge collective sigh.

The decibel levels rose gradually and by the halfway stage of the innings, with Sachin Tendulkar nearing a century, they crested. I stepped outside when he was in the 90s, and there was pandemonium in the stands.

Some looked so nervous that they might cry. A middle-aged man was jumping up and down with BlackBerry in hand. A security guard next to me stood precariously on a ladder and peered through the mesh fencing to catch a glimpse of the action.

The landmark, reached with a tidy glance for four off Tim Bresnan, was greeted with euphoria and also a sense of awe. As much as they worship Tendulkar, there are many that still cannot fathom how he does it match after match.

The mood started to change towards the end of the innings as Bresnan picked up a bagful of wickets, and there was sepulchral silence when Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Strauss started to find the boundary with monotonous regularity.

When Pietersen, who used to play Indian Premier League here for the Royal Challengers, departed, the voices came back but once Billy Bowden reprieved Ian Bell, a nervous calm took over.

The air of resignation cleared only when Zaheer Khan produced that game-changing spell in the power play, and in the final few overs, it was so loud that it was hard to hear the person next to you talk. At the end, bitter disappointment was laced with the awareness that they had been part of something special, one of the greatest World Cup matches ever.

It was not quite Edgbaston 1999, because there was not a place in the final at stake, but two teams with lots of talent and quite a few flaws had come up with a contest that will take some matching over the next five weeks.

The atmosphere in the stands and in front of millions of television sets was also a reminder that while India may go through periods of disenchantment with cricket and the team, nothing will ever replace it as the country's first love.

The next month should be one big emotional roller-coaster.