WTC Final - Cricket's grand theater sans the limelight
The Ageas Bowl, Southampton is actually not in Southampton at all. It is situated in a place called West End, about a twenty-minute drive from the centre of Southampton, a short distance from a sizeable retail park and the M27 motorway. The home of Hampshire is not quite in the middle of nowhere but it's certainly not at the centre of things either. Nor, in England at least, is the World Test Championship final.
The match is Test cricket's new signature event, pitting the two best men's teams in the world in a one-off, winner takes all contest. It is the culmination of a two-year long competition designed to bring more context to the Test match game in the hope of sustaining it in a T20 future. The WTC Final is - or should be - the pinnacle for Test cricketers. Certainly, given the way some of the Indians and New Zealanders have been talking in the build-up to the game, the players are clearly desperate to win the inaugural final. It should, then, be a big deal.
But Friday's game is hardly dominating the airwaves or transcending the national mood in England. Showpiece sporting events held in this country tend to catch attention but the WTC Final is not having the same effect. Perhaps that is to be expected with a new tournament that has yet to really take root. Even so, there has been precious little cut through. Die-hard English cricket supporters will no doubt be taking a close interest in this match but if you asked the average man or woman in the street if they knew it was happening, you would be met with blank stares.
Perhaps the venue, somewhat out of sight, out of mind, has contributed to the low-key nature of the build-up. Ideally, the WTC Final would have been played at one of the coliseums of world cricket, Lord's or Eden Gardens or the MCG. That is the sort of stage a game of this magnitude deserves. Unfortunately, though, we aren't living through ideal times.
The decision to host the game at the Ageas Bowl was primarily based on safety concerns rather than cricketing ones. Because of the pandemic, the ICC and the ECB decided to play the game near the south coast, largely because of the very fact that it is out of the way, cocooned in its own space that can be cut off from the rest of the world. There is a Hilton hotel on site so both India and New Zealand can be accommodated there without the need to travel to and from the ground.
This isolation means the bio-security arrangements can be more robust and, understandably, the ICC wanted to ensure the safety of the participants. Playing the game at Lord's, for example, in the bustling capital city without a hotel on site would have been achievable - England and New Zealand have just played a Test there - but carried more risk. As a result, though, playing the inaugural WTC Final in Hampshire has given the match a more understated feel than it otherwise might have had. The Ageas Bowl, in West End, in front of just over 3,000 spectators each day is simply not the same as a full house at Lord's.
That is not the only reason the game is passing under the radar here. The most important one is that England themselves did not qualify. If Joe Root's team were lining up for a home final, with the potential to be crowned the best in the world, there quite obviously would have been far more interest, as there was during the 2019 World Cup when the success of Eoin Morgan's team made the front page of newspapers and top billing on the nightly news. There are few things English people like more than supporting a winner. They have far less interest in being neutral.
Then there is the clash with football's Euro 2020 (yes, it is still being called that after being postponed last year). As the national sport, whenever England play in a tournament, the country goes football mad, particularly since their last success at a major competition was the 1966 World Cup. A number of this summer's matches are being played at Wembley, including the final, and - whisper it - Gareth Southgate's team even have a decent chance of success. The country is immersed in football fever. Not much else is going to get a look in until either the tournament is over or England are knocked out.
At least some spectators will be allowed into the match itself. COVID-19 restrictions remain in place in England but there will be 3,100 spectators each day, 25% of the Ageas Bowl's capacity as per government guidelines. Ticket sales have done well. The first four days have sold out while there is limited availability remaining for day five. The ICC say they could have sold the allocation out twenty times over given the interest levels.
That is no surprise. There is a large Indian community in the United Kingdom - applications for tickets for the team's World Cup games in 2019 were hugely oversubscribed - and there were a large number of New Zealand supporters at both Tests against England at Lord's and Edgbaston. Demand for tickets was always going to be high and it is pleasing that there will be at least some spectators in the ground to ensure an atmosphere of sorts. It will, however, not be the atmosphere that a full house would have generated.
Along with those in the ground, there will of course be people watching the WTC Final on television and engaging with the game on social media. Given India are involved, the numbers should be quite healthy. But in England, where the game is being played, the event is rather passing the country by. For the next few days, as Test cricket's new showpiece event takes its inaugural bow, West End in Hampshire will be the focus of the men's cricketing world. You just would not necessarily know it if you were here.