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The People's World Cup

To no other city, no other country, no other people, would this World Cup have meant more. And there could have been no better place for this World Cup to begin its journey

The crowd outside the Bangabandhu Stadium, Dhaka, February 17, 2011

The real deal was outside the stadium. Just to be there was stirring  •  Getty Images

Bangladesh welcomed the World Cup the only way it knows, and in a way only it could have. Stumpy, the tournament mascot, rode in to the Bangabandhu Stadium on a cycle trolley and the captains followed, in beautifully decorated cycle rickshaws as cricket lovers opened their hearts to their first World Cup. Kolkata would conceivably have matched the passion of Dhaka but perhaps not its warmth and enthusiasm. To no other city, no other country, no other people, would this World Cup have meant more. And there could have been no better place for this World Cup to begin its journey.
The opening ceremony was a spectacle in its own way, but it was not about the spectacle. There wasn't an empty seat in the stadium, but you had to peek out of the stadium to get a taste of the real deal. Whichever way the eye went there were people, chanting, swaying, waving flags, beating drums, and blowing, yes you guessed it, vuvuzelas. If they felt denied, there was no trace of it. They waved at you happily, and beamed smiles back when you smiled at them. It was impossible not to feel their joy and not be uplifted by it.
It was fitting too that the Bangabandhu hosted the opening ceremony. Cricket has moved away from here to a more swank, and more appropriately contemporary, facility in the Shere Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur. But the history and the memories live here. It isn't the prettiest of the grounds; it is surrounded by asymmetric blocks of concrete, spectator facilities are basic, and it was certainly not ready to host the media. But sports grounds are ultimately about how fans relate to it, and for the cricket fans in Dhaka there will always remain a special bond with Bangabandhu; this is where it all began.
If you were looking to find faults, many could be found. The security was haphazard and arbitrary; there was jostling at the gates; the traffic management was fitful and shambolic; and closer to the bone, the wi-fi in the media centre simply died. But to focus on the negatives would be to completely miss the sense of the occasion. Order isn't unworthy, but shouldn't come at the cost of spontaneity. By insisting on order the organisers drained the last World Cup, hosted in the most colourful and joyous part of the cricket world, of its very soul. What is the point of a World Cup if the locals aren't allowed to feel one with it?
There has been scepticism about holding the World Cup in 13 cities spread over three countries. There would have been more had Pakistan been able to host matches. It is an organizational nightmare for everyone - players, television companies, travelling fans. The Champions Trophy, admittedly a much smaller event, worked splendidly in the twin cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. But the cost of holding the World Cup in one subcontinental country would possibly mean Bangladesh would never host one. And that would be both a tragedy and a crime.
I have travelled in and out of a few Indian cities in the last few days, and even though the warm-up matches in Bangalore and Chennai have been played to full and raucous stands, nowhere has the presence of the World Cup been so palpable. The build-up to the World Cup in India has largely been drummed up by the media, and while there is no doubt that the matches will draw massive audiences, it is possible, if you so choose, to remain unaffected by it.
But in Dhaka you are drawn in to it the moment you step off the plane. The spirit of the World Cup is all pervasive. Billboards and hoardings either welcome visitors to the World Cup or exhort the fans to get behind the home team. Giant cricket bats invite fans to pledge their support in writing and there's even a 15-foot statue of a gorilla representing the might of the fan. But in the end, it's not about the decorations and garnish; it's about the way the fans have taken to the World Cup.
The one-hour ride from Bangabandhu to Mirpur in the night is an experience by itself. Even from the air-conditioned bus, it felt like Ramzan, Christmas and Diwali had arrived together. The roads were decked in decorative lights and the people were out on the street, in open vans, on hand-pulled rickshaws, dancing, partying, shouting slogans, taking photographs, or just silently soaking in the atmosphere.
And nothing would have prepared us for the sight outside the Shere Bangla stadium past 11 pm. The throng outside would have fooled you into believing that Bangladesh's first match was about to begin. But as a local journalist observed, many of these, like those outside the Bangabandhu Stadium earlier tonight, have either not managed to procure a ticket or couldn't afford one.
But they were there, nearly two days before the event, marking their presence near the hallowed ground, to feel close to something that matters so much, to spend as much time as they could there. Someone had described this as the People's World Cup earlier in the day. What it really meant became more and more clear as the day went by.
In all my years of watching cricket, I had never seen or experienced anything like this. To be there was stirring.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo