IND vs AUS: Narendra Modi stadium decks up for cricket diplomacy but can it break the Test match attendance record?

IND vs AUS: From the giant poster at the VIP entrance of the stadium, India and Australia Prime Ministers – Narendra Modi and Anthony Albanese – gaze at the cricketers training at the nets. On Thursday, they will be there in person to watch them play the first session of a Test that has an unprecedented political shadow over it.

An overly busy local cricket official, while ignoring his constantly ringing mobile phone, says that the usual preparation for an international game is on track and they now wait for the instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office of both countries so they can get an idea about the sequence of events on Thursday morning.

“We will be informed about the PMs’ protocol this evening and that will trigger another chain of activities. This is a one-of-a-kind event in the world. When have you heard of two PMs watching a cricket game live? From our side we want to ensure that the stadium is full,” he said.

However, cricket diplomacy isn’t new to the sub-continent. The heads of state of India and Pakistan have over the years leaned on cricket to make political statements. Australian Prime Ministers, since the days of Don Bradman, have famously been cricket fans and showed up at packed stadiums on match days.

Poster welcoming Australian PM Anthony Albanese and PM Narendra Modi at Narendra Modi stadium in Ahmedabad ahead of India Vs Australia 4th cricket test match. (Express Photo by Nirmal Harindran)

With the ticket rates abnormally low — about 90 per cent priced at Rs 200 and Rs 350 — expectations are that the Narendra Modi stadium of Day 1 will be close to its full capacity of 1,32,000. “There is a lot of interest from across the state. In the next few days we will be taking stock of ticket sales and in case there are unsold tickets we will give them to corporates or invite school kids,” says an official.

“The problem is these are the days of school exams.”

Those involved in the ticket distribution share interesting data about the game. “We have sold close to 75,000 cheap tickets so far and don’t think there are more available. You need to understand that since the two PMs are here the entire ticketing equation changes. In a normal game, the total staff at the stadium was 4,000 and that included everyone from vendors, security and other officials. Once it was announced that the PMs will be there, the number has gone up to 14,000,” he says.

The signs are already there. The police presence is gradually increasing with each passing day and the parking areas of the sprawling stadium too are getting crowded. The workers at the ground too are doing extra shifts. Just beyond the door of the main stadium lobby that opens onto the ground, workers are busy mounting Modi-Albanese on iron frames. Once the tricky job of framing is done, they make the VVIP billboard stand next to the sight screen. With the strength of workers increasing, the posters are made to sprawl on the edge of the ground. It’s very close to where India’s close-in fielders are crouched, training to hold sharp edges.

After the fielding drills are over for the day, the players move towards the sightscreen, peering at the posters with giant faces of politicians. They nudge each other, point to their respective PMs while moving towards the nets. Does the presence of the high-profile guests, along with the hype and formal introduction and handshakes with teams, distract the cricketers before the final Test of the series that would decide their place in the World Test Championship final? Indian coach Rahul Dravid said it didn’t.

With the ticket rates abnormally low — about 90 per cent priced at Rs 200 and Rs 350 — expectations are that the Narendra Modi stadium of Day 1 will be close to its full capacity of 1,32,000. (Express Photo by Nirmal Harindran)

“I don’t think so. These guys are professionals. They are used to playing in front of big crowds. They are used to lots of noise that happens in and around what happens in the game. This is not the first time. For them to switch on and play Test cricket, I don’t think it will be very difficult,” said Dravid.

He further added that cricket-wise they are looking forward to an exciting week ahead. “We are one-up in the series and we will try to maintain it or go one better. Try and see if we can make the qualification for the WTC final on our own and not rely on others. We have trained really well, have had really good conversations and the boys are really up for it. I don’t think that will be a big distraction.”

For some the grand atmosphere can even be inspiring. Rookie Aussie spinner Todd Murphy, the real find of the tour for the visitors, is one of them.

“I think everyone looks forward to those opportunities where you can play in front of those sorts of crowds. It’ll be a great atmosphere. Something a bit different. I didn’t really know what opportunities I’d get at the start of the tour so I just trying to enjoy it.”

In case the world’s biggest stadium manages to cross a lakh, it will break the world record for single-day Test match attendance. The previous record stands at 91,112 for a 2013-14 Ashes game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. In India, cricketers and politicians have a knack for attracting thousands, it remains to be seen if their combined pull manages a lakh.

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