What to do about cricket hooliganism

Print edition : December 06, 2002

Hooliganism has become a real problem on India's cricket fields, with West Indian cricketers becoming special targets. Zero tolerance is the need of the hour.

"Hang down your head, Tom Dooley; Hang down your head and cry." The words of that 1960s pop song might be most appropriately applied to Indian cricket spectators. In what can only be termed as despicable behaviour, crowd trouble marred the proceedings of the first three One-Day Internationals (ODI) between India and the West Indies. Hooliganism has truly pervaded the gentleperson's game and it is high time serious action were taken to stem the trend that has sullied Indian cricket's reputation.

A highly unruly crowd unwilling to accept India's impending defeat in the first ODI in Jamshedpur started throwing missiles onto the field and set off small fires in the stands, subsequently disrupting play. Despite assurances of safety from the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) after this incident, the West Indian players were targets of stone-throwing in the next match in Nagpur, in which Ramnaresh Sarwan was hit on the back. As if to suggest they too did not want to be left behind in the hooliganism, a section of spectators in the third ODI in Rajkot ruined a brilliant display of batting when they threw a bottle onto the field, which struck West Indian bowler Vasbert Drakes.

The incident at Rajkot was both shocking and baffling. By all accounts, the afternoon of November 12 was an ideal one for most Indian cricket fans. After watching the West Indies post a strong total of 300, spectators were treated to a dazzling display of batting by the Indian openers. Virender Sehwag was at his imperious best, scoring 114 off just 82 balls. His innings brought back memories of one played on the very same ground 14 years earlier by the most dominating batsman of them all - Vivian Richards. In January 1988, Richards made a blistering 110 off a mere 77 balls at Rajkot.

India was cruising at 200 for 1 in 27.1 overs, with victory very much in sight when the bottle-throwing incident occurred. Justifiably, the West Indian team walked off the field and refused to return until the stadium was cleared. Unable to restart the game, the match referee Mike Procter awarded the win to India by virtue of the Duckworth-Lewis (D/L) method (see separate story). To add insult to injury, the unapologetic attitude of Saurashtra Cricket Association (SCA) officials was appalling. Talking on Star News, SCA Secretary Niranjan Shah went so far as to suggest that the West Indies had overreacted in Rajkot. It is time that Indian administrators took the view that even one bottle thrown is one bottle too many.

This is by no means the first occasion that crowd trouble has occurred in India or abroad. The incidents during the 1996 India-Sri Lanka World Cup semi-final and the 1999 Asian Test Championship between India and Pakistan, both held in Kolkata, still rank high in the hooliganism hall of fame. Kolkata should have immediately lost the right to host matches for a period of five years after the first incident. Even Chennai, considered to be India's most sporting crowd, witnessed a minor incident during the recent India-West Indies Test series when Saurav Ganguly was adjudged lbw. The replay on the stadium's new large screen indicated that Ganguly, who got a thick inside edge, was wrongly given out and for a few minutes after the replay was shown, sections of the crowd vented their ire by throwing bottles onto the field.

England, the venerable home of cricket, was marred by pitch invasions and beer can-throwing incidents during the 2001 Natwest series among England, Australia and Pakistan. Spectators of Pakistani origin were found to be almost entirely responsible for incidents that included Michael Bevan being struck on the face by a beer can and a Headingley steward sustaining broken ribs during a crowd invasion. While people of sub-continental origin are targets of racism in England, such behaviour is totally appalling. Misbehaviour by drunken fans was also witnessed in Melbourne last year.

The psychology behind crowd misbehaviour in India has been insightfully discussed in Ramachandra Guha's excellent work, A Corner of A Foreign Field. Guha has this to say on the mood of Indian spectators in recent times: "India ranks at about 150 (currently 124) in the World Development Report, just below Namibia and just above Haiti. It is the cricketers, and they alone, who are asked to redeem these failures. Especially in the last decade, cricket nationalism has become more intense and ferocious. One sign is the increasing hostility to cricketers from other countries. In the past, the Indian cricket fan was inclusive in his sympathies; he would worship the West Indian Frankie Worrell and the Englishman Tony Greig alongside Vinoo Mankad and Gundappa Viswanath... Chauvinism has triumphed over generosity. Our side must win, at any cost. Stone-throwing, arson and other acts of vandalism have become increasingly common, especially when India is on the verge of defeat."

Those wonderful days when the Indian cricket fan was "inclusive in his sympathies" and could "worship" Frank Worrell as much as Vinoo Mankad are long gone. The behaviour during the current ODI series suggests that large sections of Indian spectators are not only jingoistic but are unwilling to accept even a single loss and seem incapable of demonstrating a basic degree of respect towards players of opposing countries.

More disturbing is the trend of behaviour towards black cricketers who visit India. The West Indies suffered unruly Indian crowd behaviour as early as 1967, when a police attack and subsequent mismanagement by local administrators led to the interruption of the Calcutta Test. In January 1975, a pitch invasion and subsequent riots in the final Test at Bombay resulted in the loss of 90 minutes of play. Even during their 1994 tour of India, there were widespread complaints from the Windies players about instances of stones, bottles and fruits being thrown at them. Courtney Walsh was struck by a glass bottle in a ODI at Kanpur on that tour. Statements from the West Indies players such as "we are not animals" should really make Indians hang their heads in shame. One uncomfortable question begs to be asked: Is there not a racist angle in the abuse of West Indian players?

The incidents of crowd trouble in the West Indies-India ODI series raise serious questions about the handling of such situations by officials and local administrators. In particular, the decision to award the win to India in the Rajkot ODI was questionable. While it might have been unjust to penalise the Indian players, Procter has managed to set a debatable precedent. There needs to be an International Cricket Council (ICC) review of the ex-post use of the D/L system in matches interrupted by an unruly crowd. The D/L method has been formulated with rain delays in mind and manages to incorporate the idea that a team's batting strategy is influenced by information available to the team at a given point of time. If there is a threat of imminent rain, the batting team has some idea of this since it observes prevalent weather conditions. Crowd interruptions are wholly unanticipated and a team cannot account for this in its strategy, causing the D/L method to be somewhat ineffective. In future, spectators with a basic knowledge of the D/L system can choose to influence match outcomes at opportune times. In tennis' Davis Cup, a `Partisan Crowd Rule' exists. This means a country whose spectators `unreasonably' interrupt or influence the match can be penalised a point or a game and even defaulted if the referee sees fit. Cricket needs its version of the `Partisan Crowd Rule' to serve as an effective deterrent.

The BCCI needs to rethink its policy of awarding matches to smaller venues. In particular, why was Gujarat, a State plagued this year by communal law and order troubles of the worst kind, allotted three matches? While crowd trouble is not exclusive to smaller venues, as Kolkata will testify, these cities seem ill-equipped to handle the security needs for international matches and are also lacking in international-standard facilities. It is hard to believe that the BCCI allots matches to non-Test centres in order to encourage the spread of the game in smaller cities and towns. Seats at non-Test centres tend to get sold out and allotting ODIs to smaller cities offers the BCCI an easy way of filling its coffers. In addition, there are factional political considerations at play. There has been a substantial police presence in most of the affected matches, yet the police seem to be incapable of preventing any type of crowd misbehaviour.

Perhaps the worst hooliganism in all of sport is prevalent in English football. Over time, the English Football Association and the British government worked at a series of measures designed to curb widespread violence and hooliganism in football games. Miscreants have even been prevented from travelling abroad to witness games, since English fans usually cause the most havoc overseas. Fines, bans and arrests are also widely used to prosecute offenders.

Cricket's crowd problems are not yet in the same league as football hooliganism. However, effective action to prevent and penalise crowd misbehaviour is an imperative. As has been suggested by many cricketers including Sunil Gavaskar and Krishnamachari Srikkanth, venues where crowd trouble has occurred must be banned from hosting matches for a period of five years. In the Indian situation, Kolkata remains a case in point. The ICC and the BCCI could have driven home the point in 1996 by announcing a policy decision not to award any international match to the world's second largest cricketing venue for half a decade.

In addition, installation of closed circuit television and careful videotaping of the crowd should be undertaken. Offenders caught on tape should be arrested and banned from future games. The BCCI needs to realise that merely having a large police presence is no solution. The police need to actively patrol the stands and remove any miscreants. The BCCI should also review its policy of allotting so many matches to non-regular centres. The ability to provide adequate security and facilities will be easier in Test match venues.

Now that players' associations of many countries have become more united, they should work with cricket's administrators to devise a set of minimum criteria that a venue should satisfy in order to host an international match. The ICC should also review the current system of using the D/L method for crowd-interrupted matches and should suggest a parallel to Davis Cup's Partisan Crowd Rule. Zero tolerance is the need of the hour and both the BCCI and ICC need to demonstrate ample political will to solve the growing problem of hooliganism.

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