We have been told enough times that cricket is a religion in India. As it stands now, cricket is a religion spiked with another religion, a political one: Hindutva.
Indian fans drive the global economy of cricket. On social media, they will pounce on anyone who dares say anything critical about Indian cricket. Chronically hyper-sensitive and hyper-nationalist, mean-spirited, intolerant, and downright crude, the contemporary Indian fan is a sad spectacle in a beautiful sport. His passionate heart is in the wrong place.
To be fair, the partisan crowds were always there. In interviews, Viv Richards has spoken about how playing in India was never easy. People would come with mirrors and shine them in the opposition batsman’s eyes. If India was losing the match, the incensed crowd would throw bottles onto the ground and set the stands on fire. It is what happened in the 1996 World Cup at Eden Gardens, Kolkata. The semi-final between India and Sri Lanka had to be abandoned, with the match referee, Clive Lloyd, awarding the match to the islanders. The 1999 Test match in Chennai was an exception, with the Chepauk crowd giving a standing ovation to the visiting Pakistan team; they even ran a victory lap.
While this kind of chaos is now thankfully in the past, we have found a way of sinking to new lows, an Indian specialty. Just look at what happened in the recently concluded World Cup. In Ahmedabad, the Pakistan captain, Babar Azam, was booed at the toss. The match had not even started. When Mohammad Rizwan got out, Indian fans gave him an earful of “Jai Shri Ram” as he walked back up to the pavilion. The PA system unnecessarily, and provocatively, blared the “Jai Shri Ram” chorus from the flop film, Adipurush. It pointedly did not play “Dil Dil Pakistan” (“Such a fair land, such a fair sky/ My heart is Pakistan, my soul is Pakistan”), a song by Vital Signs about flowers and clear skies, the unofficial anthem for sporting occasions. Mickey Arthur, the amiable Pakistan team director, said that the match “feels like a BCCI event, not the World Cup”.
In the final, when Travis Head scored a century and customarily raised his bat, he was greeted with an abrasive silence. (The Wankhede crowd was better, with a section gently applauding New Zealander Daryl Mitchell’s century in the semis.) It was as if someone had tied the hands of a hundred thousand people behind their backs, and sewed up their lips for good measure. It was like watching a match during the Covid lockdown.
In Bengaluru, when a Pakistan fan (the odd fan who had actually managed a visa) tried to egg his team on with a harmless slogan, he was asked to shut up by a policeman. In Pune, a Bangladeshi super fan’s tiger mascot—a stuffed toy—was snatched from him, thrown around, and ripped apart by Indian fans. When Mohammed Shami dropped a catch he was subjected to unprintable abuse on X.
All this, when the desi fan actually turned up. For they hardly came for matches that did not feature India. The truth is that we do not understand the true nature of sport anymore. All we care about is Team Bharat winning, which translates into the Hindu Rashtra winning. In a piece on The India Forum, Sharda Ugra writes about “the plan (later cancelled) to have the Indians wear a one-time all-orange uniform in the match against Pakistan at the Narendra Modi Stadium. India vs Pakistan, Hindu orange vs Muslim green, pick your team. Get it?” Meanwhile, orange is already the new blue in the dressing room, at least when the boys are not playing. It is the new uniform for both the support staff and the cricketers. Team Bharat: The men-in-bhagwa.
“I am not sure if Indian supporters have won hearts. Our turnout during non-India matches has been abysmal, making me wonder if we really love this game or we just love Indian superstars and the frenzy around them.”Gautam GambhirFormer cricketer & BJP MP
Gautam Gambhir, a sitting BJP MP, had this to say in his Khaleej Times column: “I am not sure if Indian supporters have won hearts. Our turnout during non-India matches has been abysmal, making me wonder if we really love this game or we just love Indian superstars and the frenzy around them. We booed Babar Azam and shouted unnecessary chants at outgoing Pakistani batsmen. It is unthinkable that a society that gave the world the very thought of ‘Whole World Is a Family’ is sounding so parochial.”
The provincialism of a billion people
And what happened after we lost the final? The straggle of remaining fans, having nothing to do, booed the umpires (while they were accepting mementoes) for no good reason. Not to mention that the ceremony began an hour late. When the trophy was being handed over to Pat Cummins, the fans started shouting, “Kohli, Kohli”, just to spite the gora, the same firangi who, in 2021, had donated $50,000 to the PM Cares Fund to help India’s fight against Covid-19.
And what happened the day after we lost the final? We went after the wives of Aussie players—on social media, the first and last refuge of the patriotic scoundrel. Glenn Maxwell’s wife Vini Raman, who is of Indian descent, responded: “Aaaaand (sic) cue all the hateful vile DMs. Stay classy...Can’t believe this needs to be said BUT you can be Indian, and also support the country of your birth where you have been raised and, more importantly, the team your husband and father of your child plays in.” Centurion Travis Head’s wife, Jessica, was also targeted with remarks she labelled as “disgusting” and “grubby”. The irony is that fans root for the same Maxwell come the IPL; it reminded me of the line from 3 Idiots: “Human behaviour ke bare mein hamne us din kuch jaana. Dost fail ho jaaye toh dukh hota hai, lekin dost first aa jaye to zyaada dukh hota hai.” (That day we learnt something about human behaviour. If a friend fails an exam, one feels bad, but if he aces it, one feels even worse.)
The provincialism of a billion people was there for the cricketing world to see. A subcontinent had become a smalltown.
- Chronically hyper-sensitive and hyper-nationalist, mean-spirited, intolerant and crude, the contemporary Indian fan is a sad spectacle in a beautiful sport. His passionate heart is in the wrong place.
- The truth is that we do not understand the true nature of sport anymore. All we care about is Team Bharat winning, which translates into the Hindu Rashtra winning.
- There were hardly any foreign fans thronging stadiums in support of their teams. No effort was made to promote the event in participating countries, invite tourists to Incredible India.
- Ahmedabad gets everything: bullet train, World Cup final, IPL final, maybe even the Olympics. Going by the crowd’s behaviour, it’s the last place to hold an elite sports event.
Ab aap chronology, sorry, hierarchy samajhiye
Now that it is all over, we can all breathe. And think clearly. When I say “breathe” I mean it literally. Imagine the number of hoarded crackers that would have gone off simultaneously had we won, plummeting the AQI to depths plumbed previously by only the Indian fan.
There was a curious moment in the Narendra Modi Stadium after the match. As the teary players grieved and mourned in private, Narendra Modi himself sauntered into the dressing room. The men in blue stood in a semicircle, their hands clasped behind their backs. The stiff headmaster had come to commiserate, deliver a booster-shot and an informal invitation to tea when they were in Delhi next.
Lurking in the background was Home Minister, Amit Shah. His son Jay, the BCCI secretary, who had spent the World Cup popping up next to celebrities—SRK, Rajinikanth, Tendulkar (the cameras, during matches, always looped back to where Jay was sitting)—and walking precisely one step behind Modi in the stadium, head bowed, was nowhere to be seen in the dressing room. Ab aap chronology, sorry, hierarchy samajhiye.
Junior, anyway, had not done a great job. There were hardly any foreign fans thronging stadiums in support of their teams. No effort was made to promote the event in participating countries, invite tourists to Incredible India. The tournament schedule came out on June 27, merely three months before the start of the event. Following this, a revised schedule with as many as nine changes was announced with less than two months left. This caused great inconvenience to visiting fans and journalists alike, as well as State associations who did not know if they were hosting a game or not. In contrast, the tickets to the football World Cup go on sale a year in advance. Ditto for the 2019 ODI WC schedule held in England.
Taming the beast
Three points to end with.
One, you cannot but feel for the team which played unbelievably sublime cricket. The loss meant the most for them. These are players—the ultimate nerds— who did not have a normal childhood or youth, all their energies devoted to the single-minded pursuit of a game, the pinnacle of which is winning the World Cup.
Two, Prime Minister Modi’s obsession with Ahmedabad. We know he’s dedicated to Mother India, but within the motherland he has his own motherland—Ahmedabad. The city gets everything: bullet train, World Cup final, IPL final, maybe even the Olympics. Going by the crowd’s behaviour, it is the last place to hold an elite sports event. Quoting again from Gautam Gambhir’s column: “We need to wear a more neutral outlook if we have to win the Olympic Games bid for 2036. Any deviation from this can invite a negative mindset towards India as a host for the Games.”
Three, saffronisation, like Suryakumar Yadav’s natural game, is a 360-degree sport. The present dispensation has managed to tame X, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video. Journalists and creative folk can be silenced. As The Washington Post reports, Anurag Kashyap’s (a vocal critic of the government) dramatisation of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City was dropped after being green-lit. The report also cites a former Netflix India employee as saying that “the company decided against releasing a Dibakar Banerji film about generations of an Indian Muslim family experiencing bigotry even though it was completed”.
A sport, though, is a different beast. The results of a cricket match are not pre-ordained. Players cannot be judged on the basis of religion, only performance. What can be gamed is the cricket fan. What can be rejigged are the slogans: “V vont sixer” replaced by “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”. What can be manipulated is the body that controls cricket in India—the BJP has firmly put the word “control” back into the BCCI.
And that is exactly what has happened. The results are there for all to see. We did not win. We lost, in more ways than one.
Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of The Butterfly Generation: A Personal Journey into the Passions and Follies of India’s Technicolour Youth, and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India.