Samir Chopra February 27, 2009

Indian Foreign Service

When India play at home, they provide entertainment, razzle-dazzle, and a display of sporting skills

My gut reaction to India's losing the two T20s against New Zealand was disappointment. Not because a couple T20 internationals had been lost. In the larger scheme of things, these still rank third behind Tests and ODIs. But because, these days, every time India loses a match overseas, I instinctively sense a lost opportunity to give the "boys overseas" - the large, vocal, Indian diaspora--something to cheer about. It's yet another burden for the Indian team to bear but it is one they should be familiar with.

When the Indian team first played in the West Indies in 1953, they provided plenty of joy for the Indo-Caribbean spectators that came out in throngs to see them play (the best description of this reaction can be found in Mihir Bose's A History of Indian Cricket. And when India won the World Cup in 1983, an Indian expat living in London on a visit to India, said to an uncle of mine, "World Cup jeetne ke baad hum mahinon tak chati nikaal ke chalte te London mein". [For months after India won the World Cup, we walked around with our chests stuck out in London]. Like it or not, when the Indian team plays overseas, they do duty of a sort very different from that when they play at home.

When they play at home, they provide entertainment, razzle-dazzle, and a display of sporting skills. When they play overseas, they provide ammunition for bragging rights, comeback lines and a cushion of respect (which might help, for instance, in making sure you get picked up early in a pickup game).

Back in 2004, shortly after Amit Varma had started his now-defunct blog 23 Yards, and had written a post wondering why Indian fans treated their teams so harshly, I wrote to him, offering a tongue-in-cheek explanation:

Lots of Indian fans that write to you are writing from the great diaspora, and part of the frustration expressed in those emails comes from the team's perceived failure at backing them up in those edgy conversations they seem to be perpetually having with other expats about far the most vocal is the Indian expat who gets to work and has to listen to his English, Aussie, South African or Kiwi office-mate ask him, "Say, Vijay, what about your boys last night?" The Indian, used to endless jokes about his accent, his country's poverty, the weird movies with the actors that run around trees in saris singing songs, seethes internally and curses himself for having been born in a country whose cricket players do not provide him sufficient rhetorical ammunition for these encounters. When he gets home, he fires off his emails.

But speaking more seriously and from a broader perspective than just jousting with the locals, Indians overseas are aware they are slowly settling into societies not fully adjusted to all the differences between their respective cultures. The Indian cricket team gives them a point of contact with the local culture. They want that point of contract to be one they can take pride in, one that is not to be hidden away or disowned, but to be highlighted and bragged about. Like it or not, their expectations, even more heightened than when they lived back in India, add to the Indian team's already heavy baggage.

From personal experience I can tell you that after Kolkata 2001, the best place in the world to be an Indian fan was Australia. Nothing will quite match the feeling of walking out on Cleveland Street in Sydney's Surry Hills, hearing the hooping and hollering of all the "locals" that had turned out at the Crown Hotel to watch the dramatic final moments of that game. And nothing will quite match the pleasure I took in all the conversations over morning coffee the next day at work.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here