"India is the equivalent of Mecca for cricket," said Ayaz Memon, a journalist and commentator.
In what has already been a pivotal year for India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, another event is set to put the country in the limelight as the Cricket World Cup kicks off.
The ICC Men's World Cup 2023, which starts Thursday, comes at a time when the global center of the sport has shifted firmly to India, with domestic and global sponsors pouring millions into the world's most populous country to chase the promise of its 1.4-billion-strong consumer base. India is hosting the event for the first time in 12 years, a period in which the national governing authority for cricket has become one of the richest sporting bodies in the world.
"India is the equivalent of Mecca for cricket," said Ayaz Memon, a journalist and commentator who has tracked the sport over several decades. "It transformed how the sport is played and has become the epicenter now."
It's also an opportunity for PM Modi to show off his home state of Gujarat. In the state's largest city Ahmedabad, the 130,000-seat Narendra Modi Stadium - which underwent an abrupt name change two years ago - will host the opening ceremony on Wednesday, and the first match when England meets New Zealand. Long-time foes Pakistan will play the hosts there on Oct. 14, and the stadium will also be the location for the final on Nov. 19 and the closing ceremony.
The hype is drawing unprecedented numbers of visitors to Ahmedabad, which has not traditionally been a tourist hotspot. With hotel prices surging, visitors are looking for alternatives, such as by booking hospital beds, according to local media reports. Many in the Indian diaspora, or non-resident Indians, are also coming to the city to stay with family for the tournament, said Ashish Koshti, who manages the Instagram account Amazing Amdavad, using the Gujarati pronunciation of the city.
The World Cup also enables PM Modi's efforts to shift global perceptions of the city. After the deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2002, which took place when PM Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, he has tried to make the state more business-friendly destination by cutting red tape and bureaucracy. The success of that effort helped catapult PM Modi to the national stage in 2014.
Earlier this year, PM Modi invited Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to do a lap of honor in the Ahmedabad stadium ahead of a match between the two sides, and hosted a public function with former US President Donald Trump there in 2021. A successful World Cup could even bolster PM Modi's chances of retaining his post ahead of general elections slated for next year.
"Modi has shown himself to be an apt, astute politician who can time things well," said Binoy Kampmark, senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University in Australia. "And what's better than using India's most popular sport for himself."
The decision to host so many key fixtures in Gujarat, however, has drawn criticism in India from politicians and fans who question why other cities have been sidelined, particularly as Ahmedabad is not seen as a major center of cricket. In total, 10 cities in India will host matches, from Bengaluru in the south to the Himalayan town of Dharamsala, where the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association stadium has a capacity of just 23,000.
Earlier this year, the sports minister for Punjab wrote letters to the Board of Control for Cricket in India asking why the city of Mohali in the northwestern state was excluded from the list of host cities, addressing one to secretary Jay Shah, who has close ties to Modi's party. Opposition lawmaker Shashi Tharoor similarly asked in a TV interview in June why his constituency of Thiruvananthapuram in the state of Kerala was left out.
"That can't just be accidental," Mr Tharoor said on NDTV, referring to the fact that Ahmedabad is hosting the "two biggest marquee matches," England vs. Australia and India vs. Pakistan.
A spokesman for the BJP declined to comment. The BCCI did not respond to a request for comment.
The persistence to schedule matches in Ahmedabad has also drawn criticism from fans for poor planning. For example, India shifted the date for the coveted game with Pakistan by a day as it clashed with Navratri, a festival popular in northern and western parts of India, disrupting the schedule for other games.
Despite the political disagreements and logistical difficulties, Mr Memon, the cricket commentator, said that the World Cup will dominate the conversation during the next few months. "It is going to be a nonstop baraat," he said, referring to the term for an Indian wedding dance.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)