In Birmingham on Wednesday night are a whole lot of people who are not supposed to be in Birmingham on Wednesday night. India fans, mostly, who understandably assumed that their team would be playing in the second semi-final here on Thursday. They bought their tickets and booked their travel, and are here anyway.
In Birmingham, on Wednesday night there are also a lot of people missing who are supposed to be here on Wednesday night. These are the India fans who bought their tickets but are not here anyway. They changed plans or abandoned them, but didn’t have the time or inclination to redistribute their tickets. There will be a big chunk of empty seats when Australia takes on England.
South Africa beating Australia in the last group match of the World Cup has had some major ramifications.
In Manchester on Tuesday, there were all the India fans who managed to change their plans or the ones who lived nearby and took advantage of the new opportunity. They were exactly where they expected to be.
But in Manchester on Wednesday, there was a whole stack of Indian fans who no one expected to be there. Because no one expected the game to still be going. One-day cricket doesn’t traditionally go for two days, does it?
But in Manchester on Wednesday, those people were there. Not a full house, but a solid turnout nonetheless, enough supporters to create a heaving blue mass down on the western boundary line whenever Ravindra Jadeja pumped another ball over the fence.
In Birmingham on Wednesday, half of the cricket media types weren’t there, because they were still in Manchester on Wednesday. The Tuesday night had been a flurry of booking hotels and re-booking trains and making calls to loved ones full of apology and promise. It was a hurried but orderly retreat, the cricket version of the evacuation of Dunkirk.
So by late afternoon on Wednesday, the M6 motorway was dark with cricket journalists flocking from one town to the next, one semi-final to the next.
But with India knocked out, there is some sense of anticlimax. Australia and England is a huge contest, but the winner will be a clear favourite for the title. Upsets are only upsets because of their unlikeliness, and it will be a big ask for New Zealand to produce another.
There is also a broader sense of anticlimax. This year the Cricket World Cup has existed in parallel realities. Amongst those who love the game it has been all-consuming, a daily parade of players and numbers and milestones and contests. At the same time in the same country, most who don’t already follow the game don’t much know or care that it’s on.
Walking into a pub in central Birmingham on Wednesday night, Merv Hughes is holding court ahead of the match the next day, doing as he has done for years and leading a tour group of Australian supporters making an English pilgrimage.
Being one of the most recognisable faces in sport, with his build and his handlebar moustache that should be protected by heritage planning, he always attracts passers-by to come up for a chat. A couple of English blokes do so. With Australia and England about to face off, what do they ask?
“Did you see what happened in the State of Origin?”
A question about rugby league, the football code of two Australian states. “We’re all Victorians,” I explain. “We really don’t follow it.”
“You don’t follow the greatest game of all?” asks our interrogator, a Leeds native whose love for the Rhinos must course hotly through his veins.
“Ridiculous game,” says Merv. “You throw it backwards to go forwards? What’s the point.”
Arguing about one sport being better than another is pretty pointless, but the episode is instructive. You have your one chance in life to chat with Merv Hughes, one of the most iconic cricketers of all, and you centre it on a football code?
Cricket in the United Kingdom exists only on pay television, where only those who already follow it tend to see it. The matches in this World Cup have drawn viewers in the low hundreds of thousands. The Women’s Football World Cup drew over ten million as England made the semi-finals. Guess which was on BBC free to air television.
Down at Edgbaston though the other reality kicks in. The players training, the media conferences, the planning and organising. Watching on television you would never know how much work goes in ahead of an international match.
The dozens of technicians buzzing around like bees setting up the broadcast infrastructure: the kilometres of cable being fed through conduits and roped along boundary lines, the endless testing of monitors and microphones, the catering staff laying in supplies, cleaners making everything perfect, operations staff trying to anticipate tomorrow’s problems.
The pitch looks hard and well grassed, but with one last haircut to come. The previous match here had plenty of runs in it. This semi-final needs the same, a point of difference to the many low-scoring slogs we’ve had.
In less than a day, this empty ground will start to fill, and another important chapter in Australia-England rivalry will be written. One that England need to win to avoid being haunted by it. The fact that these sides are facing each other feels exactly right. England lost to their arch-rivals in the group stage, so they must beat Australia for any World Cup win to feel as satisfying as it should.
Come the match on Thursday, some of the people who should be here will be here. Some who should be here will not. But the only ones who really matter, the 22 out in the middle, will have their moment soon.