What sets India apart in the world of cricket is the seemingly infinite number of people who follow the game. The business of cricket prospers with millions glued to television screens, while stadiums are choc-a-bloc whenever the Men in Blue take on teams of other hues.
The second lot — comprising people who endure a lot of inconvenience to see their superstars perform in their own city — has come under the microscope of late. Remarks, racist and otherwise, hurled at Andrew Symonds have raised eyebrows and tempers but if the people concerned bothered to take stock, they would realise that this problem was simmering for a while.
Wankhede Stadium, April 2006: Sachin Tendulkar walks back to the pavilion amid catcalls after being dismissed for one in a Test against England. It's his home ground, one which has a stand named after him. Where does the booing come from? Garware Pavilion, where most of those occupying the seats are either members of the prestigious Garware Club or their relatives.
Ferozeshah Kotla, April 2005: Chasing Pakistan's 303, India are reduced to 94 for six and a few demented minds in Wing B vent their ire by showering plastic bottles on the ground. Deputy Commissioner of Police Alok Kumar said the section that misbehaved was from a gallery that housed passholders and those who could afford high-priced tickets. Usually, he added, the students's stands caused trouble.
There have also been other, more memorable incidents. Like the Pakistan team getting a standing ovation in Chennai after winning a thriller of a Test match during the historic tour of 1999, or the crowd in Dharamshala breaking into a spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday” for Inzamam-ul Haq during a 2005 tour game.
But by and large, it has been a different story, including a revelation by Flintoff (denied by Delhi authorities) that in an ODI at Kotla in 2002, pellets of some sort were shot at him and he kept quiet at the behest of the team management.
Appreciating cricket seems to be quite low on the list of priorities of today's fans. They seem far more interested in being part of the spectacle, being decked out in splashy colours that will draw the attention of cameramen and if that isn’t enough, by doing anything and everything, often not quite pleasant, that will fetch them the same result. They try to relive what they see on TV, as a result of which, the focus shifts from cricket and leads to mass hysteria where sense often loses way when fans go berserk in joy and in defeat.
There had always been a faction of Indian crowds that behaved badly, but the alarming thing is that this bad behaviour is fast becoming the norm. A Kotla old-timer explained how. “You hear cries of Pakistan hai, hai, even when they are not playing, from the Club House area. It reflects poorly on the DDCA’s executive committee that distributes complimentary passes.”
Former Bengal captain and columnist Raju Mukherji felt this was inevitable once one-day cricket took over and in the days Twenty20, it would perhaps increase. "This change took place after cricket became entertainment. It used to be a game of character, patience and fortitude. It was not tuned to be immediate entertainment. The profile of the Indian spectator has changed because those going to the grounds want instant action. They cheer even if an edge goes for four."
Mukherji thinks those willing to treat cricket as a game and not a show are not an extinct breed... yet. "But they don't go to the ground anymore, at least not to Eden Gardens. They can't gel with the masses. These people watch it at home and afterwards, you do get meaningful discussions on the game." He has another interesting explanation on why most spectators don't follow cricket.
The failure of commentators
The author of Cricket in India: Origin and Heroes, Mukherji says most former India players commentating on TV or writing in newspapers should also be blamed. According to him, instead of helping the viewer or reader understand the nuances of the game or trying to tell them what to look out for, these former players end up misleading them.
“There is a history and language of cricket. Those commentating or writing must be versed in it in order to draw attention, narrate something interestingly and be able to describe something by putting things in perspective. What we get these days is mostly an avalanche of statistics. People like John Arlott or even Tony Cozier are rare.” Mukherji says commentators are often “negligent”. “A prominent former player described a full toss as a long hop.”
Question of identity
Dr Kushal Deb, professor of sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, gives another reason for the changing behavioural pattern of the Indian cricket fan. He says this outburst of hysteria around cricket has much to do with the absence of stars from other walks of life. "Indian cricket and cinema have been the major providers of national icons, as our developmental process has failed to produce other iconic figures, with a few exceptions."
And every nation needs such larger-than-life figures. "The sense of nationalism needs constant reinforcement and rejuvenation. A modern national identity is something that all citizens are supposed to play out actively in their everyday life. But we usually operate through proxies like eminent sportspersons, charismatic leaders, war heroes and others. In India, the national mood has come to depend upon the performance of the cricket team.”
Deb adds: "This is because a developing nation like India initially suffered the trauma of Partition post independence and since then, has seen a lot of poverty, violence and corruption. Its citizens constantly needed heroic icons to uplift them from the quagmire of pathos and pessimism. That's why cricket is so deeply enmeshed in the Indian national psyche.”
But why should that make the crowd increasingly intolerant and insensitive? Deb puts it down to a tendency to "enjoy vicariously the triumph" when Tendulkar knocks the stuffing out of a Warne in an evening in Sharjah or, when Yuvraj sets the T20 Cup alight with sixes.
"Many in the galleries have skipped work, lost a day's salary and want to have their share of fun and frolic. Life is often cruel to them and they have not come to the stadium for the reenactment of their daily humiliation and emasculation. The colonial legacy of cricket being a gentleman's game has no meaning for them."
Frustration leads to aggression
Bangalore-based psychiatrist DR Chandrshekhar says the excessive media coverage leads to an overdose of patriotism and sometimes, it leads to unrest. "Since everybody has played cricket at some stage of their lives, they get involved as if they are in action. High expectations and patriotism lead to frustration. The most important determinant of aggression is frustration. This leads to aggressive thoughts, words and deeds when people take it intensively. Violent, even abusive behaviour occurs when the balance between impulses and internal control breaks.”
The professor and head of the department of psychiatry at Bangalore Medical College and Research Institute also feels that people with unstable lifestyles, from a lower socio-economic background, and with less education were vulnerable to such behaviour.
This logic though, doesn’t explain the monkey chants in Mumbai by seemingly well-heeled sections of the crowd. That perhaps, is just their warped idea of fun.
Are they prepared?
The next carnival, featuring Pakistan, is expected to be an emotionally charged affair. The media hype will invariably make things hotter. And then, trouble of a new kind, the “ugly urban racist Indian”, bouyed by media coverage, might well be waiting in the wings.
The BCCI has just about shown (perhaps under pressure) that it is aware of the gravity of the situation by issuing a joint statement with Cricket Australia, but it needs to be more proactive. The police face the real test, as apart from ensuring watertight security, they will have to go that extra mile. We are likely to see cops in mufti in the galleries and a number of CCTV cameras, but they have to be ready to tackle some verbal trouble too. There might be a cold winter ahead and a fiery summer Down Under.
(By Atreyo Mukhopadhyay in Kolkata; G Krishnan & Amol Karhadkar in Mumbai; Robin Bose in New Delhi; Subhash Rajta in Chandigarh; and Sharad Deep in Lucknow)