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It's just not cricket

Even as Match Referee Mike Proctor led West Indies off the Rajkot ground last week following crowd trouble, most of us would have remembered Kolkata, March 1996.

india Updated: Nov 17, 2002 14:06 IST

Even as Match Referee Mike Proctor led the West Indies off the Rajkot Municipal Corporation ground last week following repeated crowd disturbances, most of us would have remembered Kolkata, March 1996.

The World Cup semi-final against Sri Lanka is probably the most vivid incident in Indian cricket’s Hall of Shame. India was 120 for eight and needing a distant 252 to win, when sections of the 100,000-strong crowd rioted. Fires began across Eden Gardens and anything at hand was thrown on to the field. Match Referee Clive Lloyd stopped play and awarded the match to Sri Lanka.

The Rajkot incident was the third in a row following crowd trouble in previous games at Nagpur and Jamshedpur. As a result, Friday’s game was played under unprecedented security.

For the spectator, entering the stadium at Motera was like entering a garrison in a war zone — short of being strip-searched. Nothing was allowed in, you were frisked, manhandled, possibly ducked a blow from a freely-wielded lathi. All this after probably buying your ticket for twice the original cost and standing for hours under a blazing sun till the gates to paradise opened.

If you wanted water, go drink it at the stalls provided and come back. If you wanted food — and you probably did at some stage over nine odd hours — ditto. But go at the risk of losing whatever cramped space you occupied, as the aisles were full of people patiently standing and waiting to grab the first available seat.

Watching a one-day game in India will probably be like this for some time to come. But it’s not as if things have been all that much better in the past and the fault often does not lie with one or two crazed fans. Kolkata faced a problem as far back as 1967, when the administration sold too many tickets leading to a riot.

The problem is things have become much worse — spectators are more aggressive, police are more brutal and society is in a flux.

And there are no options left after the recent incidents. No one trusts the crowd anymore, not the players, not the sanctimonious officials and probably not many in that amorphous mass itself. It can transmogrify into a mob before you can say crikey!

Cricket as redemption

The odd part is that most in the mob would probably be embarrassed about it later. Some sociologists put the peculiar phenomena of a sane group of cricket-loving middle class Indians turning into a bunch of cricket-hating, raving loonies down to a reaction against everything — corruption before they enter and brutalization when they do, coupled with a complete churning of social values against the backdrop of a rising right-wing nationalism.

“One-day cricket heightens jingoism,” says sociologist and cricket historian Ramachandra Guha. “One mistake by an individual can cost the game and the crowd won’t have that. For instance, Harbhajan Singh had a good Test series but the crowd jumped on him following one bad over in the Jamshedpur game.”

For the common man, success in cricket has become a substitution for failure in all other spheres in life in an increasingly globalised world. “People see politicians as corrupt, film stars as promiscuous and believe only cricketers can redeem them.”

So all nationalistic expectations are channelised into the game and all reactions are exaggerated. A win is followed by excessive outbursts of patriotic pride but a loss signifies collective national humiliation.

The stadium is often the stage for a collective outburst of frenzied passion. For the irrational minds of cricket-obsessive fans, it’s the logical thing for the players/ground to bear the brunt of their ire.

The increasingly aggressive spectator is one of spin-offs of the right-wing movement. “We just haven’t understood the dimensions of things but we know that the greetings of Jai Shri Ram for instance, are indicative of a profound change in society,” says sociologist Deepak Mehta, of the Delhi School of Economics.

“There’s all kind of pent-up emotion waiting to explode. Explanations for why they commit excesses on a cricket field might be inadequate. It’s probably a reaction to everything that’s happened, a strong Hindutva nationalism, a reaction to the blatant corruption before they enter…”

Waiting for the next one

And even the wait for them to react can be scary. As the shadows lengthened and wickets fell while India chased a mammoth 324 on Friday, there were wary faces in the increasingly restless crowd. And as the chants of Jai mata di in a section of the stands became more vehement, the lounging policemen stood straighter.

“Nothing will probably happen,” said a watching cop. “But we’ve gone through so much here and this is a volatile crowd.” In the end, this crowd, at least, behaved impeccably.

“They had to,” says Gandhinagar Range IG, Pramod Kumar. “They knew that no nonsense would be tolerated. In 1993 in Motera, we had a big problem. Someone threw something on to the field, there was a minor scuffle in the stand and a lathi charge. Every small incident could take a big turn.”

Matters are bound to get worse. People are dehumanized and ready to react. And they need a scapegoat to vent their fury on but are stumped by yet another problem — the lack of accountability. “All our institutions are breaking down,” says Guha. “We don’t know how to punish our prominent people. There was a stadium collapse in Nagpur a few years ago, it should never have been given a match. But Mr Jagmohan Dalmiya needs the votes of the Vidarbha Cricket Association, so it gets a match. Neither the cricket administrator nor the stadium manager is held accountable for anything. And the spectators know exactly what’s happening.”

The other problem of course, is that people haven’t just come to see the match. They’ve come to be seen. They believe they’re part of the huge drama being played out, that they’re on television. Most people watching the match live can hardly see the game clearly. Many miss the most crucial moments — you blink and it’s gone.

They come for the atmosphere. One-day cricket is supposed to be exciting and if doesn’t give you that rush of adrenalin, then it’s their job to create that edge. And damn the consequences.

History of crowd trouble during cricket matches in India

India-WI Kolkata 1966-67: Crowd got agitated by duplication of tickets. The total ground capacity was 50,000, while about 75,000 tickets were sold by the organisers. After a police lathi-charge, the second day’s play was abandoned.

India-WI Bombay 1974-75: After West Indies captain Clive Lloyd completed his double century, a fan entered the field to congratulate him. The police manhandled the spectator which infuriated the crowd and the remaining day’s play was called off.

India-Pak Ahmedabad 1986-87: Spectators pelted stones on Pakistani fielders on the fourth day. Play was suspended for a while and when it resumed the Pakistanis fielded with helmets.

India-Pak Kolkata 1998-99: Play halted for 25 minutes on the 4th day when Sachin Tendulkar was run out after colliding with Shoaib Akhatar. On the final day, the crowd started pelting stones and fans were evicted. Play was concluded in an empty stadium.

India-SL Kolkata 1995-96: The World Cup semifinal had to be stopped after the crowd got unruly over India’s ordinary performance. Match referee Clive Lloyd declared Sri Lanka the winners.

India-WI Ahmedabad 1993-94: The match was halted for 48 minutes when some spectators became disenchanted with India’s score of 57 for 6 in 16.1 overs. They hurled stones, bottles and other things on the Windies fielders.

First Published: Nov 17, 2002 01:27 IST