Absentee spectators tarnish England's big day

All season, as England have racked up Test win after Test win, the murmurs have gathered voice and volume. Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff have struck notes so strident that the pundits dared to join the punters' chorus of "Bring on the Aussies, bring on the Ashes." Well, on a cold day at Edgbaston, when an ICC Champions Trophy semi-final turned into an Ashes clash, the crowds stayed away.

One journalist walking into the ground an hour after play started wondered if the match was really on at all. And you couldn't blame him: a tea party in a geriatric ward on a good day would have had more atmosphere. Only about 8000 of the 23,000 seats were taken, and, while the crowd at the India-Pakistan match here two days ago was over the top in its hooting and honking, this crowd was downright polite. Even Michael Vaughan finding one-day form and caressing four boundaries in a Brett Lee over - including a pair of the most gorgeous cover-drives you could hope to see - failed to get the fans going.

The odd Warwickshire member sitting in the stands at the City End, listening to commentary on a pair of headphones large enough to double up as ear-muffs, was occasionally stirred into apologetically bringing his hands together in appreciation. The clearest measure of the silence was the fact that you could hear Adam Gilchrist's encouraging chirps as far as the boundary line.

Many reasons have been put forward for the lack of crowds. It was a working day, and people could not book tickets in advance because England only qualified to play this game a few days ago. The football season has begun. This match came at the end of a long and bountiful season of cricket for England. But none of these cut much ice. England had not beaten Australia in a one-dayer in more than four years, and this was their best chance.

On the eve of the match, Vaughan called on England supporters to back their team. "It is always very special to play Australia, and both teams have shown good one-day form during the Trophy. We've had fantastic support this summer from England fans and we'll need them on Tuesday when we measure ourselves against the most successful one-day team in the world. We're ready for the challenge."

In the end, England did all right without the support, but such a plea is unheard of in places like India. Why, even the India-Pakistan match at Edgbaston was sold out months in advance, and £35 tickets were being flogged for as much as £120 on the black market. But today, when England set up a famous win, and are in sight of winning their first major competition, the fans failed their team.

Some old-timers reckon that the best indicator of the health of a sport in a country is the patronage it receives at grounds. Vaughan has felt time and again recently that he has let his team down - he came into this game averaging just 18.07 in his last 15 one-dayers. The day he turned things around, and played an innings of true character, he deserved better than a one-thirds-full ground. His flowing cover-drives, off front and back foot, and his authoritative pulling against one of the world's fastest bowlers demanded a more fitting celebration.

When Vaughan finally fell, ballooning up a catch while trying to pull Brett Lee, he had made 86. He fully deserved to reach his maiden limited-overs century, but perhaps it was better that he fell 14 runs short. When one of the most beautifully brutal batsmen in world cricket lifts his game to reach a special landmark, it deserves to be treated as more than just another good knock.

The Oval, where England will play either Pakistan or West Indies in the final, promises to be a sellout. England will be desperate to end their successful season on a high note. Whether the fans can rise to the occasion, like their team, remains to be seen.

Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.