Watching Cricket – Now a Vehicle for the Political Elite – at the Narendra Modi Stadium

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Heartily abused online and even criticised by a former Australian PM for his views on the political show put up at the Ahmedabad stadium in early March, a celebrated sports journalist pens a special piece for ‘The Wire’, recounting his experience.

Narendra Modi’s felicitation of his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese would, in due course, have to make way for the Fourth Test in Ahmedabad, so it could not be a repeat of that great 2020 twinning of giant egos, Namaste Trump. Still, there was cricket involved, part of the creation myths of both countries, so who knew where it might end?

There was a certain irony here.

For years, foreign policy windsocks in the Australian media have been wheeling out op-eds about Australia-Indian relations with the pseudo-profundity that these are ‘about more than cricket and curry.’ Now we weren’t even to get the curry. Instead, a heady infusion of Modi’s messianic personality cult in the city where he earned his fame, in the ground that bears his name, with tens of thousands of tickets reserved for fan boys.

This did not seem to go to plan. Despite confident expectations of a six-figure crowd to break the Test attendance record, the ground on March 9 was not even half full – 50,000 was the estimate versus a capacity of 130,000. These expectations may well have discouraged attendance: I spent the rest of the week meeting locals who’d decided not to go because of the inference that tickets would be impossibly scarce.

Those present made a hearty noise, but everything in India does. Where were the flower petals in which Modi was engulfed a few days later in Karnataka? Why were Modi and Albanese presented on stage with images of themselves? Was it feared they would forget what they looked like?

Screengrabs from television feed shared on Twitter show PMs Modi and Albanese receiving photographs of themselves.

Ravi Shastri roared his approbation for a new ‘Hall of Fame’ celebrating the cricket ties of India and Australia, through which the prime ministers were duly led. Then came the lap of honour on the kitsch parade float that my colleagues heartily enjoyed describing (‘gold-plated golf car’, ’motorised shoe’, ‘cricket meets Game of Thrones’, and ‘Noddy’s idea of limousine’ – last of which was mine).

At last the clasping of hands and raising of arms with Rohit Sharma and Steve Smith. It’s a wonder ballot boxes weren’t then wheeled on so those present could cast an early vote for the 2024 election…

PM Modi and Australia PM Albanese with the cricket captains of the respective countries, Steve Smith and Rohit Sharma. Photo: Twitter/@narendramodi

The non-stop chai supply, the paper-bagged bed linen, the handling of that many people with that many tickets – these daily miracles in India never cease to fascinate me.

Then, after a restorative thali, we went by tuktuk to ‘the world’s largest cricket stadium’, whose stacked concrete bowls did not disappoint: great expanses of saffron uppermost, grey caverns beneath.

Parked inconspicuously in one of these recesses was the aforesaid ‘motorised shoe’, to which I alerted my press colleagues. Our larkish collective visit was disrupted when a uniformed security officer approached, but in fact, he was offering to take a photo.

PM Modi and Australia PM Albanese. Photo: Twitter/@narendramodi

I have to say that the enormous ranks of uniformed security personnel were as hospitable as the rest of Ahmedabad.

Next morning as we approached Modi Stadium, a four-wheel drive pulled up and a senior officer beckoned Pete and me. Gee, what had we done now? In fact, he wanted to show us the graduation photos of his medical student daughter in Melbourne. As WhatsApps were shared, it looks like I might be hosting him when he visits Australia next year.

The press box at Modi Stadium is poor, distant from the action and with obstructed views. ‘What would you expect from Modi?’ someone asked.

The apocryphal story is that the Gujarat Cricket Association forgot to include media facilities in the original design, and introduced them at the last possible moment. There is some evidence of last-minute revisions in what became my favourite feature: a door in the press box’s vicinity that separates one empty, unwalled space from another. I walked up the stairs one day to find two members of the catering staff playing a kind of hide-and-seek on either side; the three of us burst into gales of laughter, testament to absurdity’s universal appeal.

On the eve of the Test, I published a column in The Australian, drawing attention to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s subversion of cricket governance in India – something to which enough attention can never be drawn, but which for Indian journalists is complicated for all manner of reasons.

All I had to deal with, by contrast, was a couple of days of Bhakt abuse (‘Anti-Hindu thug’, ‘grandstanding white saviour’, ‘colonialist racist scum’, ‘first rate c*nt’, ‘poisonous water snake,’ etc), which only reached me, a social media abstainer, secondhand anyway.

Gideon Haigh, I learned, is “firm friends with Imran Khan, he went to Pakistan last year and fawned over how wonderful its ‘culture’ was!”. This was surprising given I’ve never met Imran, been to Pakistan or lack the knowledge to make any comment about Pakistani culture.

Of greater interest perhaps was a long letter of complaint to The Australian from Tony Abbott, Australian prime minister from 2013 to 2015, now a shameless Modi shill recently feted by the BJP in Delhi, who was demanding to know why a mere cricket writer was opining on matters best left to une homme sérieux like himself.

Indian democracy? Vibrant and alive, despite being defined as an ‘electoral autocracy’ by the Varieties of Democracy Institute due to the government’s increased use of sedition charges, police intervention and internet blackouts to curb dissent.

Indian media? Lively and not at all cowed, despite ranking 150 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index.

Pogroms in Gujarat? Oh, yes, regrettable and all that, but really in the nature of a clerical error.

Abbott demanded I ‘stay in my lane’, as the kids say; I would say the same to him, if I knew what that was. He signs his letters ‘former prime minister’, as though notable for nothing before or since. And he wasn’t even a notable prime minister…

As Modi led the docile Albanese by the nose, of course, there were more apologetics for the BJP in the tepid and tractable Australia media, especially among those right-wing sycophants who never met a demagogue they didn’t like.

Australian foreign policy is notoriously fickle and derivative; those who write about it are even more so, and their thinking about India is barely more sophisticated than that it is a) not China, and b) see a.

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And so the Test unfolded, although barely. The pitch was as inimical to bowling as the three earlier surfaces had been inimical to batting.

It was relaxing to watch Shubman Gill and Virat Kohli compile hundreds that were barely in doubt, but the long-term interests of cricket had again taken a back seat to the short-term interests of the Board of Control for Cricket in India – there will probably never be any contest.

Impressive as it was in scale, Modi Stadium began to pall as I talked to fans. They should really put the people who run Indian Railways in charge of cricket. The BCCI is your classic lazy monopolist, indifferent to the comfort and convenience of the live spectator, who is subjected to constant petty humiliations: confusion about tickets, pointless security checks, confiscation of food, prohibitions on bottled water, absence of merchandise.

During lulls, I also took a serious look at that ‘Hall of Fame’ through which the prime ministers had been led, which exists to celebrate cricket but where it turns out fully three quarters of the images are of Modi, Amit Shah, and the latter’s 34-year-old son Jay, who is BCCI secretary for reasons that have nothing to do with nepotism – absolutely no question, totally a merit pick.

Seldom has cricket in India looked more like a mere vehicle for the self-aggrandisement of a political and mercantile elite. Much as none of us knew what to expect on that morning of March 9, in hindsight there was a sickening, tawdry inevitability to it.

Gideon Haigh has been a journalist for almost four decades, has published more than 40 books and contributed to more than 100 newspapers and magazines. He is also co-host of the podcast Cricket, Et Cetera.