IPL: Happily flunking the loyalty test

By, Kolkata
Apr 15, 2023 05:57 PM IST

Unlike fans in global football or NBA who breathe hostility at rival teams , spectators at the world’s most popular cricket league are happy to go with the flow

Eden Gardens thrummed with activity on Friday. In heat so fierce that Andre Russell, the star all-rounder for Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), collapsed with cramp, the crowd, wearing bandanas, faces streaked in paint with team names, home outnumbering away, moved in an orderly manner towards the cricket cathedral. On footpaths, vendors sold fake KKR and Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) shirts for 150.

Fans cheer for Virat Kohli.(PTI) PREMIUM
Fans cheer for Virat Kohli.(PTI)

In the throng was Sourjyo Ghosh and his father. They called themselves IPL fans. “Of course, we would like KKR to win but we are here to experience IPL,” said Sourjyo, 15. It was the same for Ritabrata Upadhyay sitting a few rows away. “I am from Jharkhand so (MS) Dhoni is a favourite,” he said. But he had come for the KKR-Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) game as well. This was the season’s first outing for the Ghoshs but they said they have tickets for two more KKR home games.

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“Into orbit” flashed on the scoreboard as SRH’s Abhishek Sharma sent Varun Chakaravarthy deep into the stands. A roar went up as it did when away team opener Harry Brook notched up the season’s first century. With KKR set a mammoth target of 229, Ghosh said he was having a good time.

It was the same for many at KKR’s first home game, against RCB, and will be when Dhoni and Chennai Super Kings visit a sold-out Eden on April 23. Like it was at Wankhede when Dhoni had fetched up. “We talk about it as overseas players,” said KKR fast bowler Lockie Ferguson, referring to Eden’s lusty cheers for Virat Kohli. “It’s amazing that regardless of the game, the conditions, the score, the support, the noise, the excitement is always there. So, it is a lovely place to play.”

Aiden Markram, the SRH captain, said the crowd at IPL is “quite unique”. It gets upbeat be it for the team that is doing well or the team that is not doing so well, he said.

A little over 24 hours later, chants of KKR crescendoed as Nitish Rana took 28 off Umran Malik’s first over. Cheers blended with gasps when Rana was out after a 41-ball 75.

Built on the idea of cities, or states, backing teams, IPL, in its 16th season, continues to spread love for the away team. A short season possibly leading to the absence of emotional and economic investment needed to follow a team, cricket’s fandom hinging on support for the national team and sport in India not being a way of life seem to be why IPL fans do not exhibit the kind of hostility seen in, say, NBA and football.

Sunil Chhetri knows about it and gets it. “Why would a Mohun Bagan fan not want to make my life miserable when Bengaluru FC come visiting,” he said over the phone from Kozhikode on Saturday. “I was born in Mohun Bagan so I knew East Bengal supporters would hate me. For a long time, nothing changed when I came to Kolkata with Churchill Brothers, Dempo and Bengaluru FC,” said the India captain in his third decade as a footballer.

In NBA, Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t baulk at jeering Michael Jordan, called Superman in basketball shorts by Los Angeles Times, when Chicago Bulls travelled.

Cricket too has such rivalries. Think the Roses game between Lancashire and Yorkshire. Termed 150 years of testiness by Wisden, it had a Yorkshire player getting into trouble in 2014 for calling one from the rival ranks “Kolpak” (named after Slovak handball player Maros Kolpak, it is a ruling that allows a citizen of a country with a free trade agreement with European Union to not be considered an overseas player). In ‘Manchester United Ruined My Life’, Colin Schindler recounted how, as a six-year-old Lancastrian, he was taken by his uncle to pay “grudging” respect to Yorkshireman Len Hutton. Schindler’s most abiding recollection from that game? Hutton being “ignominiously bowled for 2…”

Even though franchises do a lot of fan engagement during the season – from getting metros to run late on matchdays to wooing the young – why is IPL immune to such tribalism?

The fundamentals are different, said former India wicket-keeper Deep Dasgupta. “For someone from Bengal like me, you are usually born into a family that supports Mohun Bagan, East Bengal or Mohammedan Sporting. It happens that way all over the football world. Often that has a lot to do with history and politics. By the time IPL came along, hadn’t our cities become more cosmopolitan?

“Also, it lasts only two months. For the rest of the year, they are often playing together for India,” said the former India wicket-keeper over the phone from New Delhi where he was on an IPL commentary assignment.

NBA, Major League Baseball or the football leagues run for nearly six months or more. “So, the kind of loyalty football fans show will never happen,” said Dasgupta. “If the IPL were to run for eight months, who knows.”

Little would change, said Joy Bhattacharjya. “In India, we do not do leagues, we do tournaments. Events happen in bursts; the volleyball league runs for one-and-a-half months, IPL for two. In India, sport is an occasion, abroad it is a habit,” he said, in a phone call from New Delhi. Bhattacharjya is a former KKR team director and CEO of the Prime Volleyball League.

Bhattacharjya said he wasn’t sure those who ran sport in India understood the psychology of fans. “How often have IPL teams retired jerseys? How many have created a Hall of Fame that would take fan engagement beyond the season?” Only the Indian Super League (ISL), the country’s top football competition, is trying to create a habit of following your team, he said. ISL runs for six months.

It seems to be working. Over the years, Chhetri said the belligerence in Kolkata has come down a notch “but fans in Chennai, Kerala and Mumbai have become very hostile after being very nice to me in the first few seasons of ISL.” After Chhetri’s goal, from a quick free kick, led to Kerala Blasters walking out of a play-off game last month, even his wife wasn’t spared on social media. “Abuse me if you have to but please keep family out of this,” said Chhetri.

There has been some change since IPL started in 2008 with icon players, again an idea to nurture a city’s support for a star, and by extension, his team. Shah Rukh Khan was booed in Mumbai, said Bhattacharjya. “Franchises have developed hardcore fans but they are not the majority of those who come to games. The economics of going to seven home games possibly doesn’t work for most of them.”

A fan’s relationship with her team is a product as much of local history as it is of commercial integration efforts, according to a 2015 article in Economic and Political Weekly. IPL possibly promotes uncritical viewing and precludes long-term emotional investment in a team. That could explain why the world’s most popular cricket league, and one which India arranges its life around, doesn’t pass the loyalty test. There is no right or wrong way about this. As Schindler has written, “Passion for sport defies logic.”

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    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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