Sticks and stones and mobile phones

CRICKET WORLD CUP: After a cautious start, the crowds are growing, the local media are becoming restless and Pakistan enter the tournament today. Robert Winder reports from Delhi
Until now, the World Cup has been a low-key affair, with matches between unfancied sides drawing modest crowds. In Pakistan, especially, where the home team has not played until today, the turn-out has been so low as to be a financial disaster.

Only 2,000 people watched England's nailbiting thriller against the United Arab Emirates. This was partly because tickets were available only from banks - and the banks were closed for two days prior to the match. But it is also because national pride plays a big role out here. In the last hour at Peshawar the "crowd", if we can call it that, forgot about the match and sang Pakistani slogans, with the odd fierce jibe aimed at India just for fun.

But things are warming up: the match between India and the West Indies at Gwalior provided the first glimpse of the sub-continent's passion for cricket in full cry, and it was quite a sight. When Azharuddin walked out to toss up, he was greeted with the kind of roar that elsewhere is reserved for the winning hit. When Kambli fielded in the deep, then turned and doffed his cap, it was as if the last wicket had fallen. Someone waved a hasty sketch: a huge pair of lips with the word "Vinod" underneath.

Indians love to claim that their crowds are knowledgeable, appreciative and impartial. Do not believe a word of it. It is tradition here to throw fruit and paper darts at the opposition, but now it seems there is something of an arms race going on. Stones were thrown at Ottis Gibson when he went to field on the wonderfully manicured boundary at Gwalior. Darren Gough was narrowly missed by what was officially called a "small wooden spear" (sounds like a stick to me) in Peshawar. Not all the banners are tasteful, either. "Tailless monkey Ambrose", one shouted. Nice.

As for applauding the opposition, well, Lara got a big shout when he given out. But otherwise the opponents' peaks are greeted with stony silence. When Courtney Browne dropped Tendulkar, there was pandemonium: flags and banners waved in the screaming stands as 40,000 fans (capacity: 30,000) jumped with glee. But when he was out... nothing. They adore controversy, though, and the sponsors encourage them. Spectators are handed the usual cards saying 4 or 6, but they also get ones that say "Out" or "Not Out". It is important to have something to wave while the television replay sorts out a stumping.

You can easily feel how the mere volume of all this might affect an umpire. When opposition batsmen play and miss, there is a great whooping roar, and, crikey, it feels out. Every lbw feels, for an instant, absolutely plumb. It is not exactly intimidating: despite the presence of thousands of policemen with sticks and guns, it does not feel hostile. But it is mighty persuasive.

To restrained English eyes, perhaps the most telling aspect of the sub- continent's enthusiasm for cricket is that it is fuelled partly by a love of fame and glamour. Cricketers truly are icons: Tendulkar - Sachin to his millions of would-be friends - is the most famous man in India. His face appears on hoardings in every city, and fills the television screen in the commercial breaks. People are proud, not jealous, of how brilliant and wealthy he is. In certain English circles it is possible that Gatting and Emburey, say, have a certain cachet, but glamour? Pull the other one.

Either way, the nation - or at least the authorities - will make stern sacrifices for the sake of cricket. Hyderabad is short of electricity, and suffers a five-hour power cut every day. But they still hosted a day- night match under power-greedy floodlights. The electricity company, meanwhile, has been besieged by pleas for an uninterrupted supply during the telecast. The problem was approached in what is now the traditional manner. "Let us concentrate," said one electricity mogul, "on the VIP list."

When India are playing, the stadiums are never anything but noisy. But the real eruptions come, in noise-level order:

1) When the television cameras are pointing at the crowd.

2) When an Indian batsman plays an attacking shot.

3) When Kapil Dev appears in the press area.

4) When Gavaskar's face is glimpsed in the window of the commentary box.

5) And so on.

India, in particular, is autograph-crazy. The fastest way to ruin someone's day is to tip the locals off to the fact that they are Graham Gooch in disguise. Indeed the main function of the huge police presence at the grounds - apart from the odd whack round the shins for what the papers attractively call "miscreants" - is to keep the autograph-hunters at bay. They do this in a subtle and inventive way: by threatening to club them. It seems to work.

Beyond the stadiums, India is saturated with media coverage. Mobile phone sales have soared on the back of a a promotional pager that provides updates on the score. The newspapers carry several pages a day of World Cup news, views and cricket trivia. They wrap it all up in beautiful Victorian English - bowlers tend to be "thrice smitten" through the covers - and the spelling is creative. "Which way," said one, on the morning of the Lara v Tendulkar face-off, "will the wind below." Letters columns are full of eager contributions. One Delhi reader objected to something Bishen Bedi had said. "It seems," he wrote, "that he is not able to spin his words as remarkably as his guile."

It is obvious that the vast proportion of India's impoverished multitudes will hear nothing about the World Cup at all, and would not care about it if they did. But that still leaves an awful lot of people. Cricket, after all, is India's one claim on the world's attention: hockey aside, there is not another sport at which it can compete, let alone triumph. A lot of the fervour for one-day cricket in particular dates back to India's implausible victory over the West Indies at Lord's in 1983. That was a revelation. But two days ago, against the same opposition, India began as favourites and won easily. In cricket, if in little else, the country is on the march.