Virat Kohli should take crowd reaction in his stride

The IPL is designed to create fan loyalties even if the clubs have very little of the corresponding cities in them, whether by way of culture, spirit or personnel.

Updated: April 29, 2013 11:42 IST
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I wasn't quite sure what the chant was about. It didn't sound like 'Gayle, Gayle' or 'Sixer, sixer', which is what fans might ask of the batting team, Royal Challengers Bangalore, ordinarily. But then, they were playing at Wankhede, not Chinnaswamy. So were they screaming for Sachin Tendulkar?

I was watching the match on TV, and all I could make out were the vowels: ee-aah, ee-aah. It was a while before the word formed properly: 'Cheater'. So, 'cheater, cheater' was the chant.

The 'cheater' in question was Virat Kohli. Towards the end of the Mumbai Indians innings, Ambati Rayudu was trying to make his ground at the non-striker's end after being sent back by Kieron Pollard. He hit Vinay Kumar's leg with his bat, and Kohli threw down the stumps with a direct hit. Rayudu was declared run out.

The crowd, clearly, did not know all the details, having watched the live version and then, on the stadium's screen, the freeze-frame of the ball hitting the stumps. But during the break between innings, more details must have filtered in. So when the Bangalore innings started, and then when Kohli came in to bat, the public decided they would make their opinion, well, public.

There are a number of debates that this sequence of events throws up.

One, about the intangible but ever-present Spirit of Cricket. Kohli's decision not to withdraw the appeal, with Mumbai then on 169 for 5, was a simple one aimed at trying to keep the Mumbai score to a minimum. It was completely legal, if not entirely ethical. Perhaps it would have led to a more heated debate had this been a Test match. But perhaps, in this age of cutthroat competition and professionalism, and in the IPL, it's best left undiscussed.

The second one is about fan loyalty and regionalism in Indian cricket. Mumbai has always been the dominant 'region' in Indian cricket, though its clout has diminished in recent times. On the field, Delhi, its closest competitor, has won the Ranji Trophy just seven times to Mumbai's 40. Among cricket fans, there's little love lost between Mumbaikars and Delhiites, or for that matter between Mumbaikars and people in the southern power centres of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

The IPL is designed to create fan loyalties even if the clubs have very little of the corresponding cities in them, whether by way of culture, spirit or personnel. That it has over the years actually created a frenzy - driven purely by the marketing guys - is often quite incomprehensible to me. And, as I've said before, probably unsustainable. But it's there for now. Or perhaps a more plausible explanation might be that the stadium is a colisseum and the crowd wants blood - in cricket terms, that's high-adrenaline entertainment.

The third debate is on a related point, and something Kohli pointed to after the game: "I don't know why they (fans) get so worked up during the IPL. It is not the end of the world. They forget that the players they are booing at also play for their country. It is only creating hatred among the players. When I come back and play for India, they are going to cheer for me."

Fair enough, except the use of the word 'hatred' maybe, but Kohli didn't leave it at that.

Perhaps he was a bit worked up, and the big defeat can't have helped. He went on to say: "I don't know what is wrong with people at this venue. If it was an intentional interruption from the bowler, then the umpire would have stopped the batsman (from walking off). It is his job, not mine. You should have that much cricket awareness. Whoever wins or loses, in any of the games in Bangalore, every captain is cheered, every Indian player is cheered. People appreciate good cricket."

To me, if anything, this mouthing off against the people of a city is even more unbecoming of a sportsperson than the conduct of the fans. And I say this despite Indian cricket fans having conducted themselves reprehensibly on many occasions in the past: from the 1996 World Cup semifinal at Eden Gardens to vandalising Mohammad Kaif's house in 2003, with other incidents before, in between and since.

As far as I am concerned, a sport exists because of the people who watch it. The crowd is an unempowered entity that can only do two things during a match - cheer and jeer - and only one more thing afterwards, which is to talk about the game, on street corners and on Twitter. An international sportsperson must be able to take all reactions in his stride, and know that he is who he is because of his fans. The fans don't exist because of him.

For better or worse, crowds will heckle. But as long as it is not racist, sexist or fundamentally hateful, it's all in the spirit of sharing the energy of the game. And the man touted as the future captain of the Indian national team should understand that quickly.

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