AHMEDABAD: A little after 9 am, as Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Anthony Albanese finished their open-buggy lap of the ground, scores of ground staff sprinted towards the turf. Within minutes, the temporary stage set for the leaders and the floor laid for the folk artists disappeared. The commentators and their cameras returned to the outfield, and the captains on the central square positioned themselves for the toss.
Cricket had reclaimed its territory and the spotlight was back on the fourth Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The morning, in a way, was a game of two halves – high-profile cricket diplomacy was followed by an intense battle of attrition between Indian spinners and the day’s centurion Usman Khawaja, resulting in Australia finishing at 255/4.
True to the theme of India-Australia cricket friendship and celebration of the 75th anniversary of the rivalry, the ball was set rolling with the two captains, Rohit Sharma and Steve Smith, being presented their Test caps by the PMs. All four first held hands and, in unison, raised them to the skies.
Later, Modi and Albanese headed indoors where they inaugurated a special India-Australia Wall of Fame, a collage of pictures capturing the heroics of past battles between the storied rivals.
Ravi Shastri, the master of ceremony, accompanied the PMs and was their guide. The former India captain and cricket pundit, after the day’s play, spoke about him being pleasantly surprised when the Australian Prime Minister said he had witnessed from the ground his double hundred during the 1992 series. The game was in Sydney, Albanese’s home town. Prime Minister Modi, on hearing the conversation, pointed to the picture of a 30-year-old at Sydney Cricket Ground that day. “I smiled and said ‘yours truly’,” Shastri said.
After the trip down memory lane, for one last time, the PMs joined the teams for introductions and stood with them for the national anthems. Modi spent that extra time with Umesh Yadav, who had lost his father recently. Albanese, like his countrymen in baggy greens, put his hand over Smith’s shoulder, singing ‘Advance Australia Fair’.
On their way out, the two dignitaries waved to the crowd and a roar emerged from the stands. The 132,000-capacity stadium wasn’t quite full. Old-timers say the crowd was somewhat the same as the last India-New Zealand T20 last month. “At the start of the game, the attendance was between 55,000 and 60,000. Once the PMs left, it was about 22,000,” media manager Manish Shah told The Indian Express.
For those wanting to see Modi-Albanese at the stadium, the day started before dawn. Traffic restrictions, distant parking areas and strict security protocol were the reasons the fans had been advised to start early. Much before the PMs entered the sports complex, the lower-tiers of the stadium were nearly jam-packed. A majority of them had the ‘volunteers’ passes around their necks.
“We have been handed these passes in the last few days. We have come to see the game but it is just for the first day,” an Ahmedabad resident said, pointing to the small print ‘Only for 9th March’.
In the lead-up to the Ahmedabad Test, fans had taken to social media to complain about the unavailability of opening day tickets on bookmyshow.com, BCCI’s official ticketing partner. Tight-lipped, BCCI assured that the problem was temporary and tickets for all five days would be available soon.
For the two teams, it was an unusual start to the day. As had been their routine at all venues, they were not allowed to warm-up on the playing area because of the protocol. The new ball bowlers would mark their run-up only after the team hit the ground, to field. Asked if batting at the nets outside, and not inside the stadium, impacted the players, Usman said, “Not me, I had the best ever warm-up but others were rattled.”
For many who turned up at the Modi Stadium Thursday, the chance of watching the opening day’s play came with free lunch. They had coupons stating that meals would be served by 11 am, about an hour after the PMs left the stadium. At the designated hour, the lunch boxes were delivered. Many made a beeline to the exit after their fill.
The 75/2 first session with Australia batting was good old Test cricket. The teams seemed to be digging trenches for a long battle. For the first time in the series, the game might go the distance. This has been an unusual Test. The day the PMs came over for a day of cricket, it wasn’t the cricketers who got the loudest cheer.