One of the disappointing things about the World Cup was that it was played on the subcontinent. It is thought that India loves cricket. This is incorrect. India loves India. Cricket gives us the opportunity to express this affection. The local cricket match in India is unattended. Even World Cup matches featuring two other sides will be played without spectators, no matter what the calibre of the players. This is unlike World Cup football, or American football and basketball. What attracts Indian spectators isn’t cricket the sport in that sense.
Let us observe the pattern of crowd behaviour.
Tedious: (above and left) Banners in India are often unimaginative; and Sachin Tendulkar. Photographers: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP and Gurinder Osan/AP
Indian spectators express themselves physically, through dancing, screaming and jumping about. This is done communally, in groups often including middle-aged men. It is done emotionally, with strong facial expression. Sunil Gavaskar says he was amazed to first play at Lord’s 40 years ago because of the way the audience applauded. It was, he said, always three claps. Clap-clap-clap-silence. But that is why cricket is an English sport. We behave like a WWF audience. Strange things excite us. Like Kolkatans setting their stands alight at the end of a match, a neanderthal fascination with fire.
In European nations (I mean race, not geography and so: England, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand), spectator behaviour is more individual. Where communication is visual, it is not through facial expression, but fancy dress.
Also Read Aakar’s previous Lounge columns
Instead of screaming, expression is through the written word: banners.
In India, signs are held up which are either obvious or embarrassingly banal. A decade ago, they were also poorly spelled. These days they’re not because advertisers hand out printed ones. This defeats the purpose of spectator banners, and that is spontaneity. There is never real humour, which can only come when we are able to laugh at ourselves.
In February 1993, South Africa were chasing 208 against Pakistan at Durban. From 158 for 1 they were all out for 198, five of them clean-bowled by the great Waqar Younis.
As his yorkers were bringing doom to the last few, a South African held up a large sheet on which she had scrawled “WAQAR THE SPRINGBOK FAQAR”. So clever, I remember it 18 years later. Indians write rubbish.
Foreign commentators often say that the crowd in Chennai is “knowledgeable”. In saying this, they mean that they don’t go off on bump balls, like the crowd does elsewhere in India.
One unique thing is how Indian spectators are silent when the other team scores. On television it’s as if the screen has gone mute. It’s not about enjoying a sport and appreciating the ability of professionals to play it. It’s about nationalism, which in India is narrow and zero-sum. If they score even a little victory, a boundary, our tumescence droops. The Bengali thinks he’s different, but this is untrue. Imminent defeat against the Lankans in 1996’s World Cup resulted in Kolkatans rioting in Eden Gardens, and, as Indians tend to do, damaging the property that they could barely afford.
The Indian team is overrated because our fierce nationalism inflates its capacity. This has been amplified recently because of our economic power. Ten years ago, opponents thought little of us, and rightly. Against the quality team, India’s record is to fold. We regularly get a thrashing from Australia (won 36, lost 61), old enemy Pakistan (47:69), and newcomers South Africa (24:40). Even West Indies, 25 years in decline, have a superior record (39:54).
Usually, Indians are happy if their team wins the skirmish and loses the battle. This is because national honour is often safeguarded by the hero. The astute Ian Chappell noticed that Indians were content if Sachin Tendulkar scored his hundred even if India then lost. In Australia, this would never happen, he said, and it would be seen as defeat, which it is. Since his audience telegraphs this, the Indian cricketer plays for himself much more than players of other sides. An analysis of Tendulkar’s scoring pattern between 90 and 100 will be interesting.
The other thing that separates the Indian audience from the European is the level of security.
David Gower remarked on why Indians flung things at fielders on the boundary. The intent wasn’t to hurt, he said generously, just to distract, “though there were one or two good arms out there”.
Why do we throw things? It’s difficult for others to follow our manner of forcibly inserting ourselves into the action through such simian behaviour.
The Indian is deeply prejudiced against Africans and black players have always been targeted (some will be offended by this sweeping allegation. I am open to the suggestion that the Indian is an equal-opportunity vandal). A bottle hit Vasbert Drakes at Rajkot in 2002. This sort of thing has now stopped. Why? Because Indian spectators are watched over, like inmates.
On all Indian grounds, a wire mesh now separates players from the unpredictable Indian audience. This is shameful, but passes unnoticed in our culture. In Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, West Indies and England, this isn’t needed.
The policing here is excessive, but necessary. Geoffrey Boycott was upset after his sandwiches were confiscated by security in Delhi in February. I sympathize with him for being forced to eat the crew’s Mughlai lunch. Sir Geoffrey is working class and sees no appeal in the exotic. I think a bit of racial profiling is fine, and we should be firm only with Indians.
The greatest commentators in sport are Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen who for years have guided Tour de France viewers through the countryside. Their quality has elevated the event. Second best is Channel 9’s team of Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell (I don’t like Bill Lawry: too excitable). Of the others, West Indians Michael Holding and Ian Bishop are first rate: polished, elegant speakers.
Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri are second rate: no lucidity, little insight and speaking only in stock phrase and cliche. In Shastri’s case, this is often incorrect cliche: “You can be rest assured...” Sanjay Manjrekar is better and so, though more evidence is needed, is Sourav Ganguly.
Navjot Singh Sidhu is original, and perfect for Indians. He’s Wodehousian, spouting rubbish with an air of magnificence. A sort of developing world’s Psmith. It is why he’s so popular with us, because the equation is: content < spectacle. Harsha Bhogle works on his language, and is committed enough to wear a hairpiece, but he’s fluffy and boring—a unique double whammy. If we must have fluff, I prefer Mandira Bedi. Lovely body and she puts it on display well.
The one way Indian commentators could immediately improve would be to talk less. Gavaskar says his best lesson in commentary was in Australia when he was with Benaud. When an Indian batsman hit his hundred, the crowd applauded. Gavaskar brought the microphone to his mouth, but stopped when he felt Benaud’s hand on his wrist. Gavaskar said later he realized Benaud wanted the TV audience to take in the moment of the batsman in his solitude, a gladiator in an arena.
Lesson not learnt and no chance of enjoying this in India, with Bhogle and Shastri twittering over everything, and the crowd screaming all the time (silent only during enemy advance).
Between its spectators and commentators, Indians have ruined cricket for everybody. With the growth of our economy, this has got worse. Indian money has been poured into cricket, sloshing in its crevices, spilling out of its guts.
For Indian players this has meant more cash—vast sums from advertising. For Indian spectators it has meant more advertising. Advertisements between overs, advertisements between balls. Intrusive, invasive, relentless, shameless flogging. Strokes renamed by sponsors, sixes renamed after sponsors. Such vulgarity is not off-putting to Indians, which is why it continues and has increased in time.
This could never happen in Australia or England. These places are the refuge for fundamentalists who like cricket played, shown and seen in the orthodox fashion.
Those who wake early to watch the beautiful Test match telecast from Australia are inevitably rewarded. The crunch of the ball hitting the pitch is always clear. The ads for cricket memorabilia are always tasteful. There is the restrained commentary, the women in bikinis (unthinkable in Delhi), the glasses of cold beer (unthinkable in Ahmedabad). Relaxed bodies on sloping green knolls.
No danger of such small rewards of civilization ever reaching our shores, but at least we have Sachin.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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