The Modi Stadium Metaverse: Half Full Or Just Empty?

You know the Ahmedabad summer has turned brutal when mirages begin to pop up on city roads. Horizons shimmer seductively, tricking the mind and the eye, sending them stumbling around trying to separate illusion from what is real. Somewhat like what was built around the first day of the India v Australia Test at the Narendra Modi Stadium on Thursday. It’s not peak summer yet, but the Gujarat Cricket Association (GCA) and the Star Sports network worked diligently to ensure that a series of mirages danced before our eyes around this Test.

By Sharda Ugra, 9 Mar 2023

Desi broadcasters normally don’t quite make an elaborate production around Test cricket. But the presence of two Prime Ministers, India’s Narendra Modi and Australia’s Anthony Albanese on day one of the Ahmedabad Test, required nothing less than the creation of a metaverse. One where while tickets for the first day could be locked out, a parallel narrative was made to emerge about how day one would break all Test match attendance records.

When the news about the locked-out tickets first broke, I messaged cricket-pals in Ahmedabad to check if good tickets were really hard to get. It was true, they said, March 9th had been shut out and everyone seemed to know that crowds “30-40k” were going to be bussed in from outside “because a record had to be created.” The record being chased was the Melbourne Cricket Ground’s 2013 Boxing Day Ashes Test audience of 91,112.

So now, having built the world’s biggest cricket stadium, it was all hands on deck to ensure that Modi Stadium, avec Modi himself, could pull in one lakh people. This morning Gujarati daily Divya Bhaskar reported that the Gujarat branch of the BJP and its many factotums had purchased 80,000 tickets for day one. On The Wire, journalist Deepal Trivedie confirmed with four BJP MLA’s – one each from Surat and Saurashtra and two from North Gujarat – that they had been instructed to buy these tickets. One bought 12,000, another 5000. The world’s biggest cricket stadium and the world’s biggest political party etc …

When the pre-match show began this morning at 830am, presenter Suren Sundaram and Test cricketers Sanjay Manjrekar and Mathew Hayden kept promising capacity crowds. A few snippets:

“Every seat will be taken not just because of the cricket but because of another gentleman, the honourable prime minister of India…”

“Albanese… will be extremely excited to be participating in what is the biggest cricket ground in the world – there’s 1 lakhs people (sic) that are going to be here today you already see the stadium’s filled.”

“If you look around most of the seats have been taken and we are 50mins away from the start of the game.”

“Just hordes and hordes of people coming to the ground for tow reasons – for cricket and for the popularity of that one person, that they come to see in flesh.”

“A hundred thousand fans – could we create a record on day one itself?”

All this was uttered repeatedly with the background of a vast stand soaked in sunshine and largely empty with a smattering of spectators, visible to anyone who could see. A reverse mirage, the stark truth of empty seats being filled with words claiming multitudes.

When the PMs went about on their golden chariot for a lap of honouur, the TV folk slathered on a new coat of cringe every few seconds.

“Both these PMs doing a lap of honour and vande mataram playing? I mean how’s the josh, it never gets old…”

“I am hoping that I can catch his eye and wave as well… there he is, just about 5-6m away from us.”

“He is a loved PM, he never shies away from putting that one tweet to congratulate the Indian team when they do well, he’s that friend who gives you a pat on the back if you are down and out. When he shows you this kind of love if you are the Indian team, are you going to go out on the park to make sure that you make him proud?

“I didn’t miss that moment when he held Rohit Sharma’s hand. It came from his heart, the Swachch India campaign that is something that he cared about, and Olympic track and field gold medal. Tell me honestly did we ever dream that it would happen in our lifetime but it happened – because of the Khelo India initiative.”  (Neeraj Chopra a product of Khelo India? You don’t say.)

“Pillars of industry are coming today to specially see this. We are actually now on the verge of a free-trade agreement as well, something so significant in the India–Australia economic strategic position out for 35.”  Yes, a real quote almost as good as Anthony Gonsalves’ immortal ‘haemoglobin in the atmosphere’.

We are not even getting into discourses about Prime Minister Narendra Modi being presented a framed picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Narendra Modi Stadium. Or whose protocol masterstroke ensured that before the national anthems in a 75 years of Friendship Through Cricket event the two PMs only shook hands with their respective national teams and not the opposition squad.

After two hours of tawdry Star Sports programming, when the broadcaster’s dance of a thousand veils had ended, what actually happened was what tragics say to annoy each other: “Cricket was the winner.” Hah. True about Thursday. Because not everything can be scripted even by scriptwriters muttering Chinese whispers down the line into earpieces. You can imagine Thursday’s balderdash go from a PMO boffin to BCCI official to Star Sports production honcho and emerge out the mouths of SundaramHaydenManjrekar. (Unless anyone would rather cringe-credit themselves.)

Eventually cricket had had enough. In the middle of Grammy winner Falu’s “Unity of Symphony” rendition, a member of the groundstaff walked undaunted into the TV frame, behind the last row of the dancers and flattened down a piece of his precious turf that was being mutilated by the performance. Australia won the toss. Shami bowled rubbish in his first spell. Umesh had a catch dropped, the ball didn’t turn square in the first three minutes and no wicket fell until after the two PMs had left. Oh, and Usman Khawaja scored a century.

Around 4pm reports began to pop up on internet that a record crowd of 1lakh had turned up to watch. Another Nolan-style mindbender is at play here: at one end of the Modi stadium, the GCA’s plaque says states that ground’s capacity is 110,000. At the other end, it is 130,000. So which ground pulled in the one lakh? Which match?

Could it be what we saw our television sets which showed the stadium being around half-full. Or the one which two people at ground independently estimated as a crowd of “forty to fifty thousand.” Or what reporters were told by officials, “between 50-60,000.” Or that crowd which Ravi Shastri on commentary counted “50,000-plus.” This one lakh crowd manifested on the internet must be one of those Ahmedabad mirages. Quite meta all this, really.


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