London, July 13: There is always a grand allure to the home team making it to the final of a major sporting event. It transports the competition to a different level, alters perceptions of audiences, generates tremendous interest among fans, instills a sense of fervour and zest. The electricity on turning up at the venue of the title clash on match day cuts through barriers genuine and imagined, uniting people and temporarily exploding the everyday ennui and drudge.
That’s generally the case. Like it was in Mumbai in 2011, when India took what many felt was their appointed place in the final of cricket’s flagship event, the 50-over World Cup. The entire country had been in the grip of cricket fever for nearly seven weeks. When Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s driven warriors blasted past Pakistan in the semi-final and set up a title tilt at Sri Lanka, India came to a standstill. April 2 was devoted to
cricket-watching, with bated breath. Everything else could wait.
That’s unlikely to be the case on July 14 anywhere in England. Not even the fact that the hosts have made the title round of the World Cup after 27 years, and are the pundits’ favourites to go all the way for the first time ever, will bring this nation to a standstill. Indeed, the cricket World Cup is not even the only glamour sporting spectacle of this Sunday (July 14). Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer will battle it out for the men’s singles title at Wimbledon, while Lewis Hamilton will attract thousands of eyeballs at the British Grand Prix as the Formula One circus moves to Silverstone.
England woke up on Friday to blaring headlines in the newspapers. For a country starved of global cricketing success, Thursday’s semi-final success against arch rivals Australia in Birmingham was a result to savour, an occasion to celebrate, a victory to cherish and enjoy. But while the media went gaga – some might say overboard – the common man was blissfully oblivious to the possibility of history unfolding in a couple of days. Even in Birmingham, there were few signs of awareness of the brazenness with which Australia had been subdued; of London, less said the better.
That’s not to suggest that Eoin Morgan’s bold, enterprising, path-breaking band of brothers don’t have patronage. At all grounds, beer-guzzling fans and more conservative cricket-watchers have egged and cheered and clapped their heroes on, decibel levels going up proportionate to the levels of alcohol in the system. But the general apathy outside of the grounds has been hard to miss, perhaps because not many people could afford to watch the team carve its way through the draw on satellite TV.
International cricket has been missing from free-to-air television in England since 2005, when the England and Wales Cricket Board sold exclusive rights to Sky Sports. The subscription paywall has been a huge obstacle but now, Sky and Channel 4 have worked out an arrangement through which England’s final against New Zealand, and therefore international cricket, will return temporarily to free-to-air live television.
That is certain to add to the already impressive TV viewership numbers the International Cricket Council released on Thursday. The group stages were watched by 675 million unique viewers; while the figures will drop in India following the elimination of Virat Kohli’s outfit, Channel 4’s live offering should offset some of that damage.
Morgan, England’s Dublin-born captain, was understandably delighted that more and more people will be in a position to watch the game live. Now 32, Morgan harked back to his teenage days when he was sucked into the vortex of cricket by a high-quality Test showdown in which England edged Australia 2-1 in a fascinating Ashes series. The drama and the energy, the pendulous swings of fortunes, the brilliance of Shane Warne, the fearlessness of Kevin Pietersen, the all-round magic of Freddie Flintoff all made for a cocktail potent enough for cricket to turn addictive. Like it did with Morgan.
“Very cool,” the left-hand batsman said of the initiative to beam the final live on terrestrial television. “Particularly given the 2005 Ashes for me was sort of the day cricket became cool. Throughout the whole summer, the game was on the front and back page of every newspaper going around, everyone was talking about and that is really good for the game. It's the game I love, so it's great news that it's on free-to-air.”
Has the World Cup, finally, come home? And, will the trophy stay at home? We’ll know on Sunday, won’t we?
(R Kaushik is a cricket writer who has followed the sport closely for nearly three decades, and is covering his seventh World Cup)