Clouds over the World Cup carnival

Organisers start to bus in schoolchildren to fill the empty stadiums

This World Cup was supposed to be a calypso carnival. It is in danger of becoming the tournament that nobody watched. The mood inevitably altered after the tragic death of Bob Woolmer in Jamaica, but that cannot explain the absence of crowds everywhere. A case of calypso collapso is imminent.

"It is disappointing and it could bring down the tone and therefore affect the importance of the event," said the commercial director of the tournament, Stephen Price. "But we have put immediate plans in place to ensure that there are bums on seats for the rest of the games in the Super Eight stage."

The extent of the apparent indifference became startlingly clear in Antigua on Tuesday. West Indies, the host nation, were playing Australia, the defending champions. The spiffing new ground at North Sound was pristine.

Its standard 10,000 capacity had been increased to 19,000 especially for the World Cup, probably for this match. A mere 9,500 turned up, although 11,000 tickets had been sold, and when the match went into a second day that went down to 4,000. Brian Lara, the West Indies captain, was visibly angry, and said the players were affected by it.

Blame is busily being appor-tioned and denied. If the International Cricket Council, whose event it is, are bothered, they are probably not losing sleep. Their money is already in the bank from the Global Cricket Corporation, who own the television rights, and their corporate sponsors.

Ticket prices have been set by the local organising committees, and the minimum in Antigua is US$25 (£12.70), a significant sum, as the unemploy-ment rate is approaching 20 per cent. The new ground stands in isolated glory and most traffic is prevented from getting within three-quarters of a mile of it. In Guyana, the difficulties have been aggravated by a less efficient local committee, who were effectively sacked last week.

It is also far from straightforward entering stadiums, with bags and body searches both for security and to ensure the sponsors are wholly protected. No drinks are allowed in, soft or hard. The impression is that you are not at a carnival but a G8 summit.

"I don't think ticket prices have affected attendances," said Price. "The lowest price is fine. But I think that more visitors were expected and they just haven't shown up. Midweek matches can also be difficult for people living in the place because they have to go to work."

Antigua has a population of only 68,000, who used to turn up in their droves to watch Viv Richards at the old Recreation Ground. But that was in the centre of the capital, St John's, and now there is no Viv. Still, the local population are genuinely thrilled at having the World Cup on their doorstep.

The lack of live crowds is also affecting the World Cup on television, because the viewer is less engaged. Broadcasters recognise that a sporting event watched by a large crowd makes for better television. But Barney Francis, the Sky cricket producer, said the main objective was to show events on the pitch.

"It's true there can be fewer cutaway shots to the crowd at the end of the over, showing their reactions," he said. "This can also be a bit more difficult when it's a tight or spectacular game and you want to see them biting their nails or not able to watch. But I'm sure anybody watching a match like that between Sri Lanka and South Africa would have been utterly gripped even though there were very few spectators."

There should be lessons to be learned for the next World Cup, on the subcontinent in 2011. The West Indian organisers intend to learn now. With six Super Eight matches left in Antigua and Guyana, members of local cricket clubs and schools will be bussed in to fill some of the gaps. It is expected that most games in Barbados will be packed out (though what was supposed to be India against Pakistan is now Ireland against Bangladesh). Grenada is reportedly above 50 per cent ticket sales.

"It is disappointing," said Price. "We do not wish the World Cup to be remembered for empty stadiums. But we won't stop working."

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