What does being a sports fan mean in India? Especially in our culture of armchair sports-watching, where the TV remote is our “access all areas” pass and the laptop our gateway to instant and public punditry? How, in this age of terrible stadium infrastructure and the decreasing relevance of “local” sport, does one exhibit one’s fanhood?
I write this in the aftermath of the Indian Premier League (IPL) auction, which has further tweaked from local to glocal the rationale behind city-based franchises. But the thought actually came to me via the IPL’s inspiration and role model, the global marketing behemoth called Manchester United. Specifically, during an evening at the plush Manchester United Restaurant and Bar in downtown Bangalore, the first Indian restobar of the global chain (a concept, I’m sure, IPL ver. 1.0 would have loved to emulate). Sitting in the deep leather armchairs in front of a supersized TV screen, with signed jerseys hanging to the left and to the right, other memorabilia draped all around, this was manna from Manchester United heaven.
And yet something made me uneasy.
Passionate: Indian cricket fans love to celebrate victory on the field with outlandish gestures. PTI
Let me explain. I’ve been a Manchester United fan for years—since the days of Dave Sexton, which is a bit like being a Bachchan fan since the days of Saat Hindustani. It’s not that I was prescient or had a vision of what United would become—it was simply an allegiance handed down to me, like one of those heirloom pocket watches, by my father, a United fan himself for more than 50 years now. If it’s unhip to be a United fan today (because everyone is), it was sheer stupidity back in the late 1970s, because no one was—the only team to support then was Liverpool. Yet I wore my United jersey—a highly treasured gift from an uncle in the UK—when playing football, and risked the mickey-taking that adolescents revel in.
There were other reasons too that made being a United fan hard work in those days. The biggest problem, of course, was that one never watched any of the games—DD’s lone channel couldn’t be bothered with English football (the only sports programming was a weekly magazine show most memorable for its signature tune, a riff on the theme from Shaft), newspapers had one sports page filled mainly with local events and sports magazines were devoted largely to cricket. So following one’s team meant late nights listening to Saturday Special on crackling BBC shortwave, which had live commentary for the second half of the featured weekend game.
That was how we—including friends who followed tennis or the (very) rare Formula One fan—paid our dues pre-liberalization: scouring magazines, staying up late night to listen to shortwave radio, begging relatives for precious gifts from abroad. With live sport now on tap, allegiance is far easier than it ever was. Perhaps, too, there are more “followers” than “fans”. There are many more people today who would consciously take time off to watch the medal-winning sports—shooting, archery, boxing, badminton—for an hour or so on television than we ever did back then, but too few who would make the trek to the stadium, as the recent Commonwealth Games in New Delhi showed us.
It’s a complicated relationship—largely a function of India’s growing success in these sports, increased media coverage, the narrowing gap between small town and metropolitan India, and the dovetailing of said success with India’s growing clout in other fields.
What helps too is how all of this taps into our latent herd mentality.
Desmond Morris called it the “Soccer Tribe” but football (like New Zealand cricket) has retained its sense of humour; Indian sports fans have not. Something’s lost when something’s gained and what has clearly disappeared here is a sense of humour and perspective. The result is a zero-sum game without the leavening shades of grey; with us or against us, won or lost, champ or chump. No time for losers, as the song went. This is at its most obvious in cricket, and has been so for a while (remember the potency of Matthew Hayden’s house-burning sledge at Zaheer Khan in the 2003 World Cup final?).
It’s not just defeat we can’t take; even winning brings out the worst in us. Witness South Africa captain Graeme Smith’s tweet after India’s Durban win last month: “Looks like everyone on twitter in india feels the need to send abusive messages today!! well done and congrats on your win...” If it isn’t anger, it’s a sense of burning injustice—how could we lose? Cue, outrage among the talking heads on national television.
Which brings me back to the United restobar, and the questions I asked myself while sitting there: Would I be able to go on a match day? How would I square the overwhelming oneness, the sledgehammer subtlety of the majority, with my deep-rooted empathy for the underdog? Is there any place for that in the Tribe? And this one: Am I the real fan, or are they?
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of ESPN Cricinfo.
Write to Jayaditya at email@example.com