The day before the World Cup final, the giant stadium in Ahmedabad is cavernous. When nobody is there, its emptiness only emphasises its size. It rises up on all sides, seats burning bright orange in the sun. White-clad kids on the outfield rehearse flag choreography while the PA rolls music around vacant concrete canyons. A day later, all of these seats are supposed to be full and for the visiting Australians it will be an exercise in withstanding intimidation.
Australia dished it out in the final of 2015, when the similarly vast MCG had more than 93,000 people. Gold clothing heavily outnumbered black that day. New Zealand wilted. This crowd will be even more intense, more uniform in its uniforms, a blue sea where the only distinction between shirts will be Virats or Rohits at a ratio of roughly nine to one.
Even in Australia’s rich World Cup history – entering their eighth final with five wins – they have faced nothing like this. In 1975, in the genteel environs of Lord’s, the tournament was a new curiosity and West Indies were yet to become world beaters. Beating England in 1987 came in Kolkata, foreign to both. The threepeat had Pakistan in England, India in South Africa, and Sri Lanka in Barbados, all teams out of place. The only time environs brought difficulty beyond the occasion was Lahore 1996, where Pakistan crowds and authorities favoured Sri Lanka. Australia lost.
This time, in India, they will face not just the most partisan crowd but a broader political sense of manifest destiny. Rather than being played at one of India’s historic grounds – Eden Gardens, the Chinnaswamy or the Wankhede – it is in the national ruling party’s stronghold. The stadium was named after India’s prime minister by a Gujarat Cricket Association run by his home minister and the home minister’s son. The son was then appointed to run the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
Two days after the final, an International Cricket Council board dominated by the BCCI will vote to suspend Sri Lanka Cricket for being “in serious breach of its obligations” as a member to “ensure that there is no government interference” with its work.
For India’s massive state‑political-sporting apparatus, whose supporters meet criticism by decrying the intrusion of politics into sport, a win will be symbolic vindication: India as rising global power, triumphing over those relics of colonialism now left in its considerable dust.
The “New India” branding exercise appears in the media event guide for the final, a document effectively written on ICC letterhead by BCCI stenographers. Constant repetition about the world’s biggest stadium has the obvious compensatory overtones. There is a thirst for grandeur, for this point in time and for the ground itself, a need for a coronation to give the sterile colossus its own claim to history, reflecting glory on to the name it bears and the followers who cluster.
Far beyond India’s players, so many have so much riding on the result. It is a sad misuse of the moment, the same way that nationalism in any country ruins flags or anthems or other symbols. It disenfranchises the millions of other supporters who just love this India team because the players have been brilliant and fierce and uncompromising in a building tide for several years, a wave cresting and ready to crash down. The batting has mixed ruthlessness with style, the bowlers work together with humming perfection, the music of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami in concert. Collectively, these players are so good to watch and too good not to win.
Australia’s one hope in this mismatch is that for them, in a way, the result does not matter. Making the final is an achievement of substance, chance plays its role from there. They will do their utmost on the day but a loss will not reverberate beyond it. Seven of the playing XI have won this trophy. It would be nice to have again, but after fighting back in their India Tests and earning trophies in the World Test Championship and an away Ashes, being where they are right now has already rounded out a successful year.
So India face the pressure, and Australia face India. Even this pressure is unlikely to be enough to make the home players falter. They have contested IPL finals and stared over cities from billboards. However distant their travels, their crowds of fans follow, a team both supported and haunted. They should comfortably tick over one more performance, a mark of confirmation in each column.
Australia can only search for the chance to throw things off balance: a tripwire in the laneway, a stick in the spokes. An upset would not make this Australia’s best World Cup team, but it would be their best World Cup win.