So, it came to pass. As soon as I set foot in India on Oct. 4 in Ahmedabad, I detected an inexorable momentum toward India being crowned ODI World Champions on Nov. 19. It was an orderly procession for the team with few bumps in the road toward what always felt like a coronation. Enrapt, noisy, fervid Indian supporters filled the stands when their heroes played. Other teams were a sideshow, there as a necessary irritant to be swatted aside as quickly as possible.
All of them were, until the final act.
In that moment, it did not come to pass. The coronation was jilted, the stadium quietened and half emptied well before the final’s end, an Australian’s masterly century received in near silence, the trophy presentation ceremony conducted in perfunctory manner. What would one give to have been privy to PM Modi’s inner thoughts as he handed the trophy to Australia’s captain?
Within India, post-mortems abound. In the final reckoning, the overall objective of India’s desire to triumph was not achieved. On the day, Australia planned, riskily it appeared, even rashly, to bowl first. The response from bowlers and fielders was superb. If the objective was to restrict India to anything under 280, it worked so well that 241 was the target. India lost because its innings was bogged down and because it could not break Australia’s fourth wicket partnership.
Yet, what of the tournament itself, the vehicle for India’s anticipated success? It witnessed the breaking of records, too numerous to list. Notable among them was the fastest ODI World Cup century, broken not once but twice, the highest match aggregate, the highest number of sixes hit and the highest innings total. This latter record is now held by South Africa, who amassed 425 for the loss of only five wickets against Sri Lanka in Delhi. The total surpassed Australia’s total of 411 for six against Afghanistan in 2015. Five of the ten highest ODI World Cup totals were scored in the 2023 edition.
Off the field, the International Cricket Council is claiming a record for the highest number of people attending an ODI World Cup. It estimates that an aggregate 1.25 million spectators attended the 48 matches, an average of 26,000. This exceeds the previous record of 1.016 million set in 2015 in Australia and New Zealand, across 49 matches, an average of 20,734. In England and Wales in 2019, 0.75 attended across 48 matches, an average of 15,625.
It should be no surprise that the attendance record was broken in India. What ought to be a surprise is that it was not broken by more. Official figures indicate that 92,500 turned up for the final. If a similar number or more attended the India v Pakistan match at Ahmedabad, then it is reasonable to assume that these two matches accounted for 20 percent of aggregate attendances. If India’s other nine matches attracted, say, 60,000 each, then attendances for the home team’s matches represented more than half of total attendances. As may be deduced from the sea of blue shirts at India’s matches, it is reasonable to assume that almost all of them were supporting India.
If the above assumptions are correct, then 0.6 million people attended the other 37 matches, an average of about 16,000. Matches early in the tournament had swathes of empty seats. This was true of the opening match between England and New Zealand in Ahmedabad, despite the official estimate of a 45,000 attendance. It certainly did not feel that number to your columnist, who was present. If official estimates have been shrouded in mystery from day one, then revenue even more so. If discussions with people around me were any guide, then not everyone had paid for their ticket.
A prime example of this occurred in Delhi. At first, the zone where I was seated was sparsely populated. Uniformed senior police appeared, a prelude to the arrival of dozens of men, women and children, who turned out to be representing a police families welfare society. Cricket was incidental to the display of banners, consumption of freely available food and picture-taking. Their presence swelled the attendance but only a few will know the extent to which it swelled income. This is not meant to be churlish. More spectators heighten the atmosphere and Indians certainly know how to party. Those who turned up to neutral fixtures raised the noise levels.
The tournament also broke multiple broadcast and digital viewership records. Final numbers have yet to be announced but at the halfway stage the ICC reported a 43 percent rise in viewing minutes compared with 2019. Hotstar, India’s digital streaming service, saw its record for the number of concurrent viewers broken four times.
Emphasis on records deflects from more fundamental issues. One is existential — will the ODI format survive and has this tournament been a help or a hindrance? Second is the relationship between the ICC and the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Thirdly, how inclusive was this event? The next ODI World cup is set to be hosted by South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia in 2027, followed by India and Bangladesh in 2031, both involving 14 teams. Its medium-term existence appears secure. Whether the demands of broadcasters, for whom matches involving India is the biggest draw, will cause any changes to the format remains to be seen.
This issue is likely to further test the ability of the ICC to withstand the power of the BCCI. This is not a given. On the day after the final, the ICC issued a statement thanking the BCCI for successfully hosting the 2023 World Cup, the biggest ever. This glosses over a number of issues pertaining to the spectator. Your columnist has reported previously about difficulties of access and egress at grounds, about high-handed security checks, pettiness over banned items, all of which detract from the live viewing experience. None of these appear to matter to the authorities. It seems that television and streaming audiences are the golden egg that shall not be broken.