Cricket World Cup: Wake up to the carnival

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The Independent Online
IT WAS an unavoidable irony, I suppose, that the self-styled "Carnival of Cricket", the tournament that will excite a new generation of fans and take cricket to forgotten corners, should begin in the front living room of a private club. Sad too that a showpiece occasion should be played out against a row of empty white benches which might have been acceptable for Middlesex v Northamptonshire in mid-April but was an insult for the opening game in the World Cup. Imagine if the opening game of the 1998 football World Cup had been similarly dismissed.

By late Friday afternoon, in bright sunshine and with the hosts in serene command, Lord's looked a picture. But, though it was no one's fault that the game was too one-sided to demand any emotional extremes, the atmosphere was strangely subdued, lethargic even, more wake than carnival.

An internal political struggle meant that many MCC members, who had reluctantly paid their pounds 45 for a ticket, sat not in their traditional seats in the most famous pavilion in cricket but in other stands, causing understandable anger among true cricket lovers, who had been told that the ground was sold out long ago, and embarrassing officials at the England and Wales Cricket Board, who believed that the 8,000 tickets allotted to members had been sold.

One MCC member said that many, angered by the lack of consultation over the sale of tickets, had voted with their feet and stayed at home. Staying indoors for one of cricket's most prestigious days? What a privilege that is. Spoilt children, as one official put it. Goodness knows what a million or so viewers down Colombo way would have made of that arrogance when the majority of them would have walked to Lord's to get a ticket.

"I'm very disappointed about it," said Terry Blake, the World Cup tournament director, diplomatically, but the thought of the final on 20 June being subject of the same sort of boycott is one that will haunt the organisers through the next month.

You can be sure that a few telephone lines around Lord's will be red hot with demands for a quick solution. The odd threat might even be used to concentrate the minds of the owners of Lord's. Would it be too much to ask that the radical streak running through cricket at present, the one which fashioned the end of the BBC's monopoly of televised cricket coverage and has begun to do the same to Test Match Special, the one which wants to bring cricket greater street cred and broaden its appeal, be extended to another sacred cow?

Test cricket at Lord's has always been a closed shop, but just because the Ashes urn resides in the museum and a host of great players have passed through the Long Room, Lord's does not have a divine right to host the red-letter days of the one-day game. The England team have no great love for the place. Edgbaston is a far more democratic, anti-establishment and passionate venue, better suited to the more instant appeal of one- day cricket.

Even little Hove, turned yesterday into a suburb of Bombay, managed to generate more atmosphere than Lord's. There was not a spare seat in the house, the Cromwell Road end of the ground erupted with every four sweetly struck by Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dravid off the formidable South Africans, the pre-tournament favourites. Even the balcony of a little house overlooking the ground was full to breaking with support for the South Africans. There were trumpets and banners and a real sense of thrill beneath the uniform grey skies. If taking a game which could have filled The Oval to one of the tighter county grounds was the equivalent of playing a World Cup match between Italy and Holland at Peterborough, the idea was well-intentioned if not quite fully thought through. Hove heralded the start of the carnival of cricket far more colourfully than a few fireworks, balloons and a cameo by the Prime Minister at Lord's.

Yet, however unsatisfactory its opening, the show is on the road now and no one at World Cup HQ will argue with a command performance from the home country. England will meet more confident and committed teams than the defending champions, but the return to form of Alec Stewart, their captain and totem, was a cause of genuine rejoicing. Not until he had passed fifty did Stewart begin to strike the ball with his old authority. It was just a shame Lord's resolutely refused to enter into the spirit of the occasion. In one-day cricket, tradition only travels so far.