Have you ever felt alone as a sports fan? I mean, truly alone, as if you're the only person who cares about your stupid, complex but unbreakable obsession? Have you ever seen a passage of play that you simply have to tell someone, anyone, about - but discovered that no one cares, or that if they do at some very basic level, the interest they've shown in the past turns out to be 95% politeness?
That was how it felt to be sitting high up in the press gantry in the Olympic Stadium on Sunday afternoon, ostensibly watching the Boston Red Sox take on the New York Yankees in the second leg of Major League Baseball's London excursion, but, in fact, caring only for another ball game taking rather epoch-defining shape 100 miles away in Birmingham.
India were batting at Edgbaston (and so too the Red Sox in London, as it happens). ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball commentary was front and centre on my desktop, with a delayed Sky Sports feed streaming on my phone. It meant that I knew it had happened before I saw it - Chris Woakes was about to take a stunning and match-turning catch on the square-leg boundary, and I instinctively looked around to see if anyone else was aware.
But the Anglified American who had leaned over for an update some overs earlier was now lost to the rhythms of his primary sport, and the rest of the stadium simply looked alien and implacable. I found myself adrift in a world of hot dogs and popcorn, soda and peanuts… and felt also as though I'd found the definitive answer to the sort of philosophical question that the cricket World Cup has been asking itself all summer: if Rishabh Pant falls in a run chase, but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Emphatically not, seemed to be the unfortunate answer.
It was admittedly a strange choice of venue at which to watch England fight for their World Cup lives in the most significant match of the tournament so far - but it also felt like an important exercise in bubble-breaking. After all, if this year's event has had one abiding theme (over and above England's wild ride towards the semi-finals and those torrents of rain in the early weeks) it has been the perception of public apathy.
The cricket World Cup was meant to be the times of our lives. Instead, the sport has found itself working the room like a socially mortified host at a low-key drinks reception. Okay, so the usual suspects have turned up on time, as they invariably do, but my God, aren't they tedious bores. Why can't we get some of those younger, more interesting folk round the corner to show up? Oh, what's that? The Women's football World Cup is putting on a bigger spread over the road, and there's not even a subscription for entry? Why, the nerve…
"It is strange that as cricket becomes ever more reliant on India as its solitary income source, MLB is now starting to recognise that it cannot rely on being a US-exclusive sport for evermore"
And now, what's this? Oh, please no, not here, not now! Yep, as if cricket's paranoia about its place in the public discourse could not get any more acute, here were those dreadful, brash American cousins, popping up out of the blue for a no-expenses-spared weekend vacation, right on our doorstep.
I'm joking of course (mostly) but let's address those clichés head on. Baseball shares a deeply intertwined heritage with cricket, as well as a mutual suspicion. Americans claim cricket is the one that is "boring" (we'd prefer to use the word "sophisticated") and yet theirs is the one in which entire innings can go by without anyone so much as laying bat on ball, let alone scoring an actual run. And so on and so forth until hell freezes over.
But deep down I've always known I would appreciate baseball if I gave it a chance; I'd simply never seen any reason to do so until this weekend, when - in a masterstroke of aggressive marketing that has put the ICC's sheepish World Cup promotions to shame - the sport chose to plant its two most iconic teams right here in the sporting heart of the capital. Apart from anything else, it would have been a failure of curiosity not to allow my interest to be piqued by that sort of a stunt.
For it wasn't just any old venue that they chose to colonise. The capacity of the Olympic Stadium is roughly equivalent to that of Lord's and The Oval combined, and it is no secret that the ICC desperately wanted to stage some of their World Cup matches on this very site. Their plan had also been to co-opt the adjacent park as the ultimate fan hub, to create scenes they hoped would be reminiscent of the 2012 Olympics. And given the demand for tickets from those already immersed in the sport, a fixture of the magnitude of England v India is precisely the type that might have been staged here.
The stated reasons that it could not happen were long-winded and faintly ludicrous - not least the realisation that the only viable alignment of the wicket (east-west, to meet the constraints of an oval-shaped venue) would have clashed with the setting sun. Baseball, requiring only a 90-degree arc for its action to take place, was clearly far better suited to capitalise on the available space, and did so with a configuration that met with widespread approval from fans, players and organisers alike. It will be repeated in 2020 when the St Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs make the trip over.
In fact, aside from a slightly too deep foul area and having to squint a bit at fly balls as day turned to night during Saturday's evening fixture, there has been more approval for this temporary home over one weekend than West Ham United's disgruntled fans have given to their new permanent residence in three years. And that in turn speaks to the appalling fudge that the Olympic authorities made of their so-called "legacy" after 2012, and of the ECB's missed opportunity to tailor a publicly funded venue to meet their own sport's needs.
It is not the most heinous error that has been made in English cricket in the past 15 years, but it is a fact that - with even the slightest will at the time of London's successful Olympic bid, back in that now seminal summer of 2005 - the stadium architects could have been asked to take cricket into consideration. It wouldn't have taken much to have that conversation either, given that the oval dimensions required for track-and-field meant that cricket was always a much more obvious (and less costly) fit than either rugby or football have proven to be.
They'd have got it for a song as well. West Ham ended up paying the LLDC £2.5 million a year for the right to be primary tenants (less than the average matchday turnover, and they get their corner flags thrown in for free) but the ECB had little interest in future-proofing its sport in those heady years of plenty, when cricket seemed rich with cash (from the inaugural Sky deal) and flush with public interest (from the miracle of the 2005 Ashes). There were vested interests at work too - Lord's and The Oval were understandably reluctant to sanction a new London venue. But the benefits that could have been gained from leveraging the Olympic opportunity are exactly those that MLB took advantage of this weekend. Access.
"The cricket World Cup was meant to be the times of our lives. Instead, the sport has found itself working the room like a socially mortified host at a low-key drinks reception"
A venue with double the capacity is double the opportunity for casual fans to take a passing interest; fans such as those who flocked to the baseball over the weekend - some old, many young. Some with cricket knowledge, others flown directly in from Boston or New York to follow their teams to the ends of the earth. There was room within the combined two-day capacity of 120,000 for a full cross-section of society to participate, with the uninitiated taking the lead from those in the know, and vice versa, to create the sort of growth opportunity that cricket - with its shrinking horizons, 18,000-seat venues, and ten-team World Cups - simply can't bring itself to countenance.
As for the action itself, three things struck me about my first attempt to focus on a baseball game. Firstly, it took effort to acquaint myself with the intricacies - strikes and balls and walks and fouls, and how it's the loading of bases rather than the belting of home runs that really cranks up the tension. And if that sounds like a glib observation, you need to remember that, in its advocacy of The Hundred, the ECB has essentially declared itself to be ashamed of cricket's own complexities. They'd rather introduce a whole new ball game to attract the mums and kids than risk the possibility that that audience might get bored by their first match. Careful now, it could be that a rather more ambitious organisation has already spotted the gap in the market that you've created.
Secondly, there is significantly more action in your average T20 contest than you'll ever get in a baseball game. Saturday night's opening contest was a humdinger by all accounts, 17-13 to the Yankees, but that was the exception, not the rule. Sunday's match was more of a grind in spite of another ostensibly high score (12-8) - there wasn't a single run scored for nine consecutive half-innings until the Yankees cut loose at the top of the seventh.
That isn't to say that there wasn't tension (as a novice I get the gist, even if I don't follow the nuance). But as I tried to imagine myself selling the sport to my kids, just as I try to do with cricket - "That's actually a really exciting bit of non-action because [insert reason]" - I recognised that baseball cannot help but encounter similar bouts of ennui. The fact that the sport projects itself more confidently is a major help, of course, as well as its ability to fill the idle inning with a hot dog the length of your forearm. But the sport wouldn't be over here - and spreading out to Japan and Mexico too - if it was not conscious of the need to keep its image fresh in a changing world.
And how strange, too, that as cricket becomes ever more reliant on India as its solitary income source - with the IPL's success derived in such a large part from the learnings that Lalit Modi took from his studying of MLB's methods - MLB is now starting to recognise that it cannot rely on being a US-exclusive sport for evermore.
And thirdly, the narrative arc of the Red Sox on Sunday afternoon was one that any long-oppressed cricket fan - English or Pakistani in particular - could latch onto and claim as their own. Hope sprang eternal after three home runs at the bottom of the first - a feat they had not achieved since 1979 - but that advantage was flushed away in a miserable nine-run meltdown in the seventh, the lowlight of which was a shocking let-off at first base that brought to mind Phil Tufnell's infamous fumble on the 1990 Ashes tour.
The end, when it came, was futile and familiar. A bout of ambitious slogging as the Red Sox sought to claw back a four-run deficit in something resembling a last-wicket stand. Then a floppy, one-sided finish as another swing across the line finished with those imaginary timbers cartwheeling. A pop of tickertape signalled the end of the fun, and 50,000 people were left to reach their own conclusions about the spectacle they had witnessed.
It was not a classic, that much I know. By a distance, the day's most gripping tussle had been the one that England had closed out, roughly an hour earlier, in Edgbaston. But what you can't see you cannot hope to know and love. The MLB are doing it right, whatever "it" may be.