The ghost of match disruption due to crowd behaviour has come back to haunt us again. We in India, marching towards modernity and seeing visions of being a world power and culturally superior to all the civilisations, as is being articulated so frequently these days, have again been shown this ugly wart at Cuttack. The crowd, presumably unable to take an abject surrender from its team, vented their anger by throwing water bottles on the ground. The match at one stage was in the danger of being called off. What does it speak of the new India?
I, from my own experiences in the past, having been a witness to many such and even worse incidents on the cricket field, find the simplistic explanations of these violent reactions from the crowd not explaining the whole truth. It is not always easy to figure out why a crowd, a mass of people collected at one venue, behave the way they do, particularly when they target the same players whom they worship and idolize otherwise.
Over the years, these incidents have lessened and were thought to be a relic of the past, but Cuttack has suddenly reminded us that we may not have changed the way we believe we have.
In recent memory the worst of such incidents was in the 1996 World Cup semifinal in Kolkata, a place notorious for crowd behaviour. It was here in 1967 that a West Indian team along with its Indian counterpart had to bear the brunt of the crowd anger and some of the players even today thank their stars that they somehow escaped being lynched. It was not an Indian defeat alone that had angered the crowd; it was the inhuman conditions in the stands, packed as they were like sardines due to almost double the number of people being inside the stadium than its capacity, that had led to this anger.
In 1996, the anger of the crowd in Kolkata had more to do with the severe disappointment of the people at watching the unexpected loss of their team, leading to objects being thrown into the ground and newspapers being burnt to create such an atmosphere in the stadium that it seemed on fire. The 1996 World Cup was the first of the televised cricket events in India where the sponsors were building their brands around the World Cup and had created such a hype around the Indian team that the masses started believing that India and the World Cup were made for each other. That script went awry and the crowd in Kolkata erupted – this was one of the explanations. But there was another sinister angle on offer as well, that bookies had put massive sums of money on India winning the match and an India defeat would have made them go bust. By forcing the match to be abandoned, they were hoping the match would be replayed. Bizarre as this explanation may sound, it just shows that probably there is more than just one force at play when it comes to crowd behaviour.
From the reports emanating from Cuttack, it seems that getting into the stadium due to the unprecedented number of people wanting to get in was a nightmare itself. Tickets were being sold and bought in black, at even ten times their original price. This is not something new in India and happens at every venue. But all these travails of getting into the stadium and the lack of space inside to even move an inch do leave the crowd in bad humour. The compensation of their ordeal comes from the home team raising their spirits by playing well.
India, the home of T20 cricket and its thriving symbol, the IPL, were supposed to walk over the South African team. That in reality, it were the South Africans who trampled over the Indians, that too from the very beginning of the match, obviously left the crowd shocked.
That anger manifested itself in aggression, especially from the stands with the cheaper tickets, where the crowd must have had the most harrowing time in getting into the stadium. The Cuttack incident is symptomatic of a larger malaise where the hype around the Indian team, combined with the increasing jingoism afflicting the Indian nation which refuses to take even a sporting defeat in its right perspective and the lack of proper facilities for the crowd, become a trigger point. This incident also shows that we, as people and as organisers of events, have not changed as much as we would like to believe.