World Cup cricket: Where is the fever?
Last week, I travelled through India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which has sent a number of cricketers to the national team. I found little enthusiasm about the event among the locals and spotted no billboards or fan hoardings of cricket stars.The electronics shop owner in my Delhi suburb says there has been no significant surge in TV sales - typically fans migrate to bigger, wide-screen sets before such a major sporting event - despite a high-definition telecast of the event for the first time. "I am not getting a sense of any buzz," concurs my friend and leading sports writer Suresh Menon. "I wonder if there is actually fan fatigue."
Nobody is arguing yet that the World Cup in the subcontinent will go the way of the dismal 2007 edition in the West Indies, which was plagued by high ticket prices, an interminable 46-day schedule, and major upsets which saw India and Pakistan getting knocked out early.
I also believe India will be gripped by cricket fever as the tournament progresses and the top teams reach the knockout stages at the quarter-finals. But that begins on 23 March.
There is nothing to get excited as the tournament gets underway - the eight teams likely to be in the quarter finals are pretty predictable barring near-impossible serial upsets.
So the group games could end up as an extended warm up for the main teams at the expense of weary fans.
That could be one reason behind the lukewarm fan response even as TV news and sports channels and newspapers are trying to pump up the adrenalin with special programming to ride on the advertising gravy train that cricket brings to India.
Also, I suspect that both the tournament and the 50-over format, as cricket writer Mark Marqusee says, may be on trial. Fourteen teams and 49 matches over 43 days promises to be another grinding event - the organisers seem to learned few lessons from the Caribbean debacle.
More importantly, Twenty-20-addled cricket fans, especially the younger ones, have no patience to sit through an eight-hour, 50-over game any longer. And if they watch at all, they are most likely to skip what they call the "meaningless" middle.
Twenty-20, despite its crude grammar, has revolutionised the game. With a three-hour game amid razzmatazz, cricket has a format which can compete globally. If the ferocious 1932 Bodyline series between England and Australia was the "violence and ferocity of our age expressing itself in cricket", as the game's prophet-philosopher CLR James put it eloquently, then today's love for instant gratification and mammon express themselves gloriously in the lucrative Twenty20 game.
But an exciting, global format doesn't mean that cricket has become a truly global game - the gap between the Test playing and the rest, as Marqusee says, has grown wider than it was a decade ago. Minnows have not grown into masters.
So is it time to take a fresh look at the World Cup? Does it need fewer teams and matches, and more equitable and competitive formats? Why not have a humdinger of a tournament with just six teams playing each other twice after a qualifier which separates the best from the mediocre? Has the 50 over format reached its apogee with nothing new to offer? Nearly four decades after it began, has the format run its course? The fan ennui could be explained by answers to these questions.