The fast bowling great knew when it came to combustible India-Pakistan encounters, defeat meant facing the wrath of millions of ardent fans for both. Since Akram quit the game almost a decade ago, Bangladesh fans have also announced themselves as a massive grouping for whom unbridled joy and angry outbursts go hand in hand.
However, for their sheer number and spread, Indian cricket fans are the most visible lot who possess such wild mood swings, a trait hardly seen elsewhere in the world of sport.
As the wheels came off India on last year’s England tour and the side crumbled in the Test series in Australia, the Indian supporters’ ugly face has re-emerged.
The millions, whose wild celebrations after the World Cup reverberated across India, have reacted with contempt and disgust, almost suggesting the team was guilty of not measuring up to their own aspirations.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, whose Captain Cool image now lies in tatters, took aim at such behaviour when he pleaded with the fickle-minded fans while India were marching to the World Cup last year.
After Bangladesh fans, who had proudly celebrated the World Cup opening ceremony in Dhaka but went on the rampage and made skipper Shakib Al-Hasan’s home a target after their team was eliminated, Dhoni spoke about fair weather fans. “You need backing when you’re not doing well because when you’re winning and everybody’s with you, the emotions, the level of expectation, the appreciation, everything is there.
But the real fans of cricket will be with you when you’re not doing well, when you are a bit low.”
Dhoni’s own house in Ranchi was attacked after India were knocked out in the first round of the 2007 World Cup, only for thousands to turn up in Mumbai a few months later to give a heroes’ welcome to his team after the World Twenty20 triumph.
As India hurtled to defeat in Australia, an angry Indian fan living Down Under dubbed the performances shameful on a social networking site. He was particularly upset the home fans in his office were taunting him by asking the score! While violence between rival fans does impact sports in the world, how can one explain the Indian fan’s reactions?
Famous ad guru Prahlad Kakkar explains why well-off overseas fans get too desperate for the team to win. “The Indian cricket fan feels he is a second class citizen abroad; cricket is the only game where he can tell the local people ‘we got you’. So, it becomes hard to accept such losses.”
Of course, Kakkar does not think much about the average modern day fan. “The present day die-hard fan is an authority on everybody, including Sachin Tendulkar. You still have a small percentage of people who follow the game, regardless of which team plays. The average fan is only interested in India, that too when we win.”
Indian cricket fans are not brought up in the tradition of a foreign soccer fan, for whom loyalty to his club is paramount and permanent. Thousands of those fans are season-ticket holders, are influential and have a strong view on issues ranging from team tactics to who should be the coach. But there is absolutely no running down their teams, regardless of results. Kakkar blames India’s social set-up, where nothing can match cricket and films. “India is a huge success story as far as the economy is concerned, but do we have any heroes? In films, you can have a re-take, but there is no second take in cricket.”
Live telecast has only fed the mass hysteria. “Cricket matches on TV are the biggest reality shows in the world, great entertainment for the public,” adds Kakkar.
Stadiums in India have witnessed riots in the past: at the Eden Gardens during a Test against West Indies in 1966-67, and when India were on the verge of elimination against Sri Lanka in the 1996 World Cup semi-final that forced the game to be called off before the match was awarded to the eventual winners. To be fair, the Indian fan has been far more restrained this time, with anger more visible internet and TV debates.
However, that does raise the question whether the passion is on the wane, and indicates that urban youth also get their regular sports fix from watching NBA, Formula One and European club soccer as well. The team’s debacle in England could not have come at a worst time, when it was widely acknowledged that cricket fatigue would follow the World Cup high.
The Indian cricket fans have mutated since the pre-1983 World Cup. Until then they were devoted to Tests, and religiously followed all teams, voraciously devouring every statistic in the pre-internet era.
The romance of watching a Test then meant rising early, absorbing every word about the game in the newspaper, packing lunch, snacks and the transistor, and reaching the stadium before the first ball is bowled. The game then demanded as much patience from fans as it did from batsmen. Old timers recall watching left-arm spinner Bapu Nadkarni bowl a record 21 maiden overs in the Chennai Test against England in 1964. If a bowler were to show such impudence in this Twenty20 era, the crowd would surely bring the house down.
However, the older generation of fans receded into the background once the new wave of one-day spectators, forerunners of the current boisterous fan who seeks entertainment and has a sizeable disposable income to spend, took over the stadiums. Trips to match venues ceased to be the pilgrimage it was for purists, uncomfortable that clapping to hail success on the field had given way to thumping of chairs.
Another celebrated adman Piyush Pandey, who played Ranji Trophy cricket for Rajasthan, had more empathy. “It’s a bad phase for India, so the fans are violently morose.
“With such fanatical following, the emotions are bound to run high. But cricket is in the blood of every Indian. Let the team have two good matches and they will all be cheering again.”