Mumbai, India – Matches at the Cricket World Cup have seen a mixed response from fans as stadiums have filled up for host nation India’s matches but the turnout for games involving other teams at some venues has been underwhelming.
The International Cricket Council said 542,000 fans had attended matches by the mid-way point, 190,000 more than at the equivalent stage in 2019.
The 2023 ODI World Cup, cricket’s pinnacle event, has now completed two-thirds of its 48 matches, and fixtures have been held across all 10 venues so far.
As expected, all of India’s seven matches have attracted near-capacity crowds at seven venues as a sea of blue took over each time Rohit Sharma’s side turned up in their quest to win the country’s second world title.
The situation, though, has been different for non-India matches.
Some non-India games saw good crowds in cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and New Delhi. Those cities, traditionally known for their cricketing culture, were successful in filling up nearly 80 percent of the seats at their stadiums. But other places such as Dharamsala and Ahmedabad were unable to do so.
A chaotic ticketing process has been a major problem at the World Cup. Delayed announcement of the fixtures as well as exorbitant ticket prices and limited availability has made the fan experience unpleasant for many.
To add to it, the hot weather in most cities and the lack of travel options in some venues, such as Pune and Lucknow, make the match-going experience challenging for fans.
Lalith Kalidas, who has been reporting on the World Cup for Sportstar, an Indian sports magazine and website, said the overall turnout has been underwhelming.
“I think the attendance is not as great as I expected it to be. A lot of it has to do with the ticketing issues,” Kalidas told Al Jazeera. “Even for neutral matches, I expected a better crowd.”
The tournament opener between last edition’s finalists New Zealand and defending champions England attracted about 47,000 fans at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, the world’s biggest cricket ground with a capacity of 132,000.
Fans and players raised questions over the subpar turnout, criticising organisers for the rows of empty seats.
“For the opening game, about 47,000 fans turned up, which is better than most grounds across the world, but for that sort of experience, it was a pretty low turnout,” Kalidas said.
Kalidas, who was present at the India vs Bangladesh match in Pune, said fans complained of struggling to reach the stadium. The Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium is located far away from the main city on the Mumbai-Pune highway with no public transport connections.
“The stadium wasn’t completely filled for India vs Bangladesh, but it had a decent turnout,” he said. “I was staying in the city because there weren’t good hotels near the stadium, and it took up to one and a half hours to reach the stadium. While returning, it took almost two hours to reach the Pune airport.
“Some fans who were travelling from Mumbai found it easier to reach the stadium as it is on the Pune-Mumbai highway, but the other travelling fans and even Bangladeshi fans had a lot of trouble accessing the stadium,” Kalidas said.
Despite the challenging commute, fans flocked in significant numbers of just under 32,000 for New Zealand vs South Africa – two teams who are in contention for the semifinals – in Pune.
While Pune attracted criticism for its poor accessibility, stadiums in Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru offered a more straightforward experience.
Kalidas, who covered Pakistan vs South Africa, said about 29,000 fans turned up for the game in Chennai’s MA Chidambaram Stadium, which has a capacity of 38,000.
“Chennai has a fairly knowledgable crowd. During the end of Pakistan vs South Africa, the crowd wanted Pakistan to do well and were cheering on every delivery Shaheen Afridi bowled,” he recalled.
“The bigger centres will attract more attendance for neutral games because of the accessibility and the experience of watching a live game from such huge venues,” he said.
Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium, which has a capacity of 33,000, had about 24,000 fans for England vs South Africa, according to ESPNCricinfo, while Pakistan vs Australia at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru and Pakistan vs Afghanistan in Chennai also witnessed a great reception.
Tareque Laskar, a researcher and teacher, attended all three of these matches, which were held October 20 to 23.
“Stadiums in Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru are very accessible in terms of transport. The stadium in Bengaluru is in the middle of the city, so there are no worries about commuting,” said Laskar, who lives in Bengaluru.
“As a first-time visitor, I found the stadium in Chennai very accessible too. The stadiums in Lucknow and Pune are fairly outside of the city, so you have to plan well in advance to get there or probably have a vehicle of your own. That might be an obstacle for fans.”
Laskar, who was also present at the 2011 World Cup in India, added that attending a game in Dharamsala, a hillside city surrounded by cedar forests on the edge of the Himalayas, is a “logistical challenge unless you are a local”.
“It’s difficult to go there just for one game casually,” he said.
‘Missing a trick’
Some critics have compared the turnout at this year’s edition with the 2019 World Cup, held in England and Wales. But Laskar believes the comparison is unfair because the stadiums in India are bigger and thus difficult to fill.
For example, the biggest venue in 2019, the Lord’s Stadium, had a capacity of 30,000. All venues in India, barring Dharamsala, have a bigger capacity than Lord’s.
Despite several issues, Laskar believes the overall turnout so far has been “great” but the final figures should be compared with the 2011 edition, also held in India, to draw a fair picture.
“It has been a good turnout despite rather than because of the logistics and the rest of the process,” he explained. “I was initially concerned that the turnout for the neutral games would be really bad, but that wasn’t the case. Part of the credit goes to some centres like Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai.”
Gomesh S, a reporter for The New Indian Express newspaper who attended India’s first five matches, said the mixed response from fans is also partly because of the way the tournament has unfolded.
Table toppers India have already booked their spot in the semifinals with a maximum 14 points from seven games. South Africa are second with 12 points after seven games while Australia are third with eight points from six games and New Zealand are fourth with eight points after seven games.
“The top three teams are pretty clear, and the results haven’t been as interesting as organisers would have expected,” Gomesh said.
“The defending champions are almost down and out. The other team who were expected to create a buzz were Pakistan. They are also not in a very good position.”
Laskar, a well-travelled cricket fan, said some matches could have been held at other venues, such as Rajkot and Guwahati, while Kalidas said that Indore or Mohali could have been a good alternative to Dharamsala, which has been criticised for the condition of its outfield.
“When the fixtures were announced, I thought the tournament would have 13 or 14 venues with a couple of venues just having one game to give them a taste of the tournament. That’s a trick missed,” Laskar said.
The absence of crowds at some matches may also reflect the dwindling interest in ODI cricket and has rekindled the debate over the format’s relevance.
For most casual viewers, the three-hour spectacle of Twenty20 cricket is the number one choice while Test matches remain the priority for traditional fans. ODI cricket seems to be struggling in this fight.
Gomesh said the future of bilateral ODI cricket could be in doubt but the ODI World Cup is likely here to stay.
“It is becoming a bit hard to grab hold of people’s attention for seven to eight hours for an ODI match,” Gomesh said. “The number of bilateral ODIs could come down drastically in the coming years because there is very little context to it … but the World Cup? I am not too sure.
“It’s still arguably the biggest cricket tournament that exists. I wouldn’t rule out the ODI World Cup shutting down just yet.”