Hate or indifference? India's cricket fans go for the latter
One almost gets the sense that the overriding sentiment the Indian team has provoked in recent times is not outrage. It's apathy. The Indian fans could try to care but they're not sure it's worth the bother.
The stands at Eden Gardens weren't set ablaze when India lost six wickets between lunch and tea on the fourth day of the Kolkata Test. No straw figures of MS Dhoni or Duncan Fletcher were set on fire in the effigy-burning capital of the country. No water bottles or orange peels were tossed at the Indian fielders despite their comic fumbling of simple catches. No riots followed India's spineless display in a city that needs no reason to take to the streets.
What followed India's loss at Eden, the venue of its greatest Test victory, was silence. Followed by a shrug of the shoulders. A crowd that knew Indian cricket was ailing paid their team a visit to see if it would limp off the hospital bed and fight its way to recovery, or lapse into a coma that would call for divine intervention. They stayed to the end to see it all fall apart; then they walked away quietly.
I'm not for a moment condoning violent reactions from irate fans or justifying them. They are unacceptable and unnecessary. I'm saying such reactions are often prompted by shock and disbelief because one's expectations have been shattered. The outpouring of anger and frustration are a result of the bitter disappointment that accompanies a callous, sub-standard performance from a team that is capable of much more. Nobody, it seems, even expected any better from this one.
I can recount several conversations with Indian cricketers who have lashed out, off the record, at Indian fans, the country's hyperactive media and ex-cricketers-turned-columnists and commentators, for overreacting to humiliating defeats. They often remark how misunderstood they are, how unreasonable the expectations are, and how fickle the Indian fan is. Loving them when they win, hating them when they lose.
When the West Indies team was attacked in Bangladesh during the World Cup last year, MS Dhoni, in an obvious reference to the public outrage that followed India's first-round ouster from the 2007 World Cup, said at a press conference, "The real fans will be with you when you are not doing well, when you are a bit low. Others just follow the wins of the team."
Dhoni is not wrong. There are plenty of capricious fans. Like the kind who stoned his home in Ranchi during the 2007 World Cup or blackened the walls of Mohammad Kaif's in 2003. There is no dearth of ex-cricketers making ludicrous statements like, "Sourav Ganguly should bat at number 16", as Kris Srikkanth had disrespectfully remarked after India were all out for 125 against Australia in the group stage of the 2003 World Cup.
The cricketers are not wrong in assuming that the 'Match ka Mujrim' variety of the Indian media is just waiting for an opportunity to gleefully kick them when they are down. The sort of media that will arrange for the captain's effigies to be burnt because it makes for good television.
This outrage is not a new phenomenon. If you look back in time, Indian defeats have often prompted intense reactions. When the team returned in 1974 from England after the 'Summer of 42', a reference to India getting bowled out at Lord's for their lowest Test total, Ajit Wadekar, the captain, had to be provided police protection from fans who tried to misbehave.
Wadekar's statue, erected in Indore when he led India to first-time series wins in England and West Indies in 1971, was disfigured. And he was sacked as captain soon after. Bishen Singh Bedi was part of that 1974 team that capitulated for 42, but that did not stop him from suggesting, in 1990, that the Indian team (of which he was coach) should be dunked in the Pacific Ocean after failing to chase a target of 190 in New Zealand.
In his 1987 autobiography, 'Cricket, My Style', Kapil Dev writes about how he refused to duck for cover when fans in Kolkata threw eggs and tomatoes at the team following India's dismal failure - 3-0 in Tests and 6-0 in the one-dayers - against West Indies at home in 1983-84. Kapil Dev may have won India the World Cup just a few months earlier, but public sentiment influenced the selectors to replace him with Sunil Gavaskar as captain.
More recent episodes in Kolkata are well documented, including the 1996 World Cup semifinal when Clive Lloyd, the ICC match referee, was forced to abandon the match with India at 120 for 8, chasing Sri Lanka's 250-run total. The crowd reacted to India's batting collapse by setting the stands ablaze. Three years later, in 1999, the stands had to be forcibly emptied out during a Test match against Pakistan because the fans were out of control once again after a Shoaib Akhtar-Sachin Tendulkar collision resulted in Tendulkar being run out.
It was Tendulkar who was entrusted with the responsibility of pacifying the livid Indian fan back home when India's 2003 World Cup campaign looked in tatters. "I am here on behalf of the Indian cricket team. We ourselves are very disappointed with the kind of performances we have put up and I also understand the disappointment you have gone through," he read out from a written statement to the Indian press contingent in Harare. "We will be fighting in all the games until the last ball is bowled so please continue to support us, as you have done in the past, which will surely help us."
This love-hate relationship is problematic for the players only when it comes to the hate end of this bargain. But there has been plenty of love and adulation too. Thousands of fans awaited the team at the airport in 1971 as Wadekar was escorted in a cavalcade. The heroes of 1983 are still basking in the glory of that summer day that changed Indian cricket forever. More recently, millions lined the streets all the way from the international airport to the Wankhede on a rain-soaked September afternoon in Mumbai after Dhoni's team brought home the World Twenty20 trophy in 2007. And India's 2011 World Cup victory sparked off the longest sporting celebration recorded in world history.
The Indian cricketers and the BCCI need to stop taking fans for granted. They won't always be around. The cricket over the past year, India's worst run in over a decade, has prompted a few calls for Dhoni's head and many questions about Tendulkar's retirement. But that's it. The fans have switched off more than just their television sets. And taken to making fun of the team instead.
There are plenty of jokes on Twitter about Indian selectors having begun the purging process in reverse alphabetical order with Zaheer and Yuvraj, on Kohli being retained in the team for applying fairness cream to the ball and on the BCCI finally supporting technology because robots will play the Nagpur Test. There aren't even any angry responses to Virender Sehwag's ill-timed tweet asking his fans to prove themselves worthy of the title in the 'Sehwag ka #SabseBadaFan' contest. At Eden Gardens, it was the Barmy Army that accorded Tendulkar a standing ovation after he was out in the second innings. A motley crew of Indian fans followed them out of courtesy.
One almost gets the sense that the overriding sentiment the Indian team has provoked in recent times is not outrage. It's apathy. The Indian fans could try to care but they're not sure it's worth the bother. As the Romanian-born American novelist Elie Wiesel wrote, "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference." And anyone who knows a thing or two about love will tell you that indifference is a whole lot worse than being hated.