Gwalior comes alive for battle of the superstars
GWALIOR, a town more noted for its impressive Fort and palaces, prepared itself well for the first major encounter of the World Cup. The match between India and West Indies, apart from the being the meeting of two ex-champions, was billed mainly as the head-to-head between the two best batsmen of today - Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara.
Similarities between them run deep - not only in terms of age and awe inspiring ability, but there is immense pressure on both to hold their side together. Indians know that if their golden boy Tendulkar is dismissed early, then the side's batting looks fragile.
'If Sachin plays well then India will win,' say the fans before every match. Likewise Lara is the West Indies' key performer, the sole beacon of hope in a faded, jaded team unrecognisable from their days of being seventies' supremos.
The city is in northern Madya Pradesh, the largest state in India, and roughly 300 kilometres south of Delhi. Whilst most people come to visit its historical landmarks, and use it as a stop-over from nearby Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, this event saw the largest influx of visitors for years.
Gwalior has not hosted an international match since England toured in 1993, and cricket-lovers flocked in their thousands to witness this peach of an encounter.
Most visitors' initial problems were accommodation - or lack of it. Hardly noted for its abundance of luxurious lodgings, Gwalior's hoteliers capitalised on the situation.
The top hotel, Usha Kitan Palace, was completely full with the two teams. Confusions and lost bookings reigned, and even one of the umpires, Steve Tovey from Holland, was informed the evening before that his room there was double booked, and could he find somewhere else? 'Bloody typical,' he grumbled.'It's always the umpires who get messed around.' Competition to acquire bed space was tough for everyone, resulting in outlandish price-rises. Hence, a dingy hole with dodgy plumbing and worrying electrical fittings which would normally cost around 100 rupees (around HK$25) would be suddenly inflated to 400 rupees.
Hotel owners knew that no matter how suspect, every bed in every room would be filled. It did prove, though, that amongst the millions of dollars that the World Cup was generating through high-level sponsorship and endorsement, at least a few of those dollars trickled down to the ordinary people.
Far less significant to the tournament's mass-commercialism, nearly every Indian was making something out of this mega event.
For days leading up to the match, hopeful buyers and sellers of tickets scoured the streets. A 100 rupee ticket could be sold for around eight times that value, such was the demand.
In a city with a population of 750,000, the 10,000 tickets on sale to the general public seemed paltry. The stadium's capacity is 30,000, but the majority of that was swallowed up by sponsors, guests and club members, as well as a large number sold in Delhi and Indore.
But this will be a common complaint from many venues, where it is difficult to cater for the regular ticket buyer. It could be said that the Wills World Cup has made cricket inaccessible to the ordinary person, the very same one who keeps the game alive here in India.
Although Gwalior does not have the distinction of producing national cricket heroes, it has nonetheless had a sporting tradition thanks mainly to the current Maharajah, the cricket-loving Madavrao Scindia.
This charismatic and high-profile politician has had a long-standing connection with the game, heading the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) before the current chief, I. S. Bindra.
He is also the chairman of the World Cup's organising committee, PILCOM, and even his recent resignation as a Cabinet Minister in the light of bribery allegations has done little to tarnish his trusted and popular image.
On the morning of the match, the normally subdued little station was transformed into constant chaos. Every train from nearby towns ferried more people into town, and such was the influx of fans that one extra train was laid on from Delhi. At 12.45 pm. the 'World Cup Special' express arrived on platform one, and out poured hundreds of elated fans, causing the station to erupt into chaos.
Porters hoisted luggage on to their heads, fathers hauled their children through the throng, passengers scrambled towards the exit. Private cars clogged up the station forecourt with drivers anxiously holding placards aloft to find their guests.
And, through all this was a constant babble of taxi-drivers, black-market ticket sellers and station police, who desperately attempted to keep order.
It was only a few hundred metres from the station to the stadium, but that small area took an age to cross, with thousands of others crawling along.
By start of play at 2:30 pm, the ground was totally packed. The vast majority sat on the concrete stepped terracing, and some persevered the whole match by standing on the narrow walls above the steps, which at least gave them a better view. Taking up around four fifths of the entire stadium, this 100 rupee section was uncovered and basic, and it was a vast increase to the next price range: the more decadent surrounding of the club house, where padded seats in the shade cost 2,000 rupees.
The TV cameras proved to be nearly as much of a distraction as the game itself when the crowd saw the cameras on them, they unfurled banners, flags, jumped danced and screamed - anything to get on TV.
But it was the Tendulkar-Lara battle that took priority. Such is the sporting nature of the Indian crowds that one could almost feel a sense of disappointment when Lara was out - albeit to a doubtful decision for only two.
True, there was jubilation that the danger-man was safely back in the dressing-room, but they almost felt cheated at missing out at witnessing a great innings.
And luck was definitely with the home side when wonderboy himself, darling of the crowds, Tendulkar was dropped twice while still in single figures. He made the most of those chances, striking a majestic 70 to follow his century in the match against Kenya.