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March 7, 2013

India

India's No. 1 fanboy

Dave Hawksworth
N Srinivasan and his personal, life-size MS Dhoni model  © AFP
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I can remember the first time I encountered hero worship of a cricketer. It was when I was growing up in Yorkshire during the 1970s, which should give you a clue as to the subject of adoration, and it happened, oddly enough, at the barbers.

Back then, boys under a certain height were made to balance on a plank of wood placed across the arms of the hairdresser's chair. You spoke when you were spoken to, which you never were, and the style of haircut you got was none of your damn business. It was a pretty miserable experience, one I hated.

Fortunately I had an understanding mother who was willing to traipse me around town from one hairdresser to another until we found the little backstreet barbershop owned by Freddie.

Freddie was different. He didn't care if you hadn't started school yet; you could still sit on the seat of his leather chair, where he'd talk to you like you were a grown-up and where, once he'd finished cutting your hair, you'd be offered a quick burst of Cossack hairspray, which in '70s Yorkshire was the height of sophistication.

That's why I liked Freddie. He treated you with respect. He was a gent. And man, he loved talking about cricket. With the customers waiting patiently in a line of chairs formed against the backdrop of his frosted shop-front window, he had a captive audience.

"Another century yesterday," he'd say as he snipped away.

"Averaging over 60 this season, I see."

Both were comments about Yorkshire's only world-class player at the time: Geoff Boycott.

Boycott was Freddie's favourite cricketer. He'd praise him to the assembled customers, who in turn would nod in agreement. Because you don't argue with a man about to cut your hair. Not unless you want a fringe resembling the coastline of Norway.

And just to underline Freddie's allegiance, on the wall of his shop was a signed photograph of the man himself, surrounded by press clippings of his career highlights.

A home-made shrine. Carefully positioned to be in pride of place, directly above the till. Outside of Freddie's little backstreet barbershop, Boycott didn't quite enjoy the same unanimity of support. He was a divisive figure, often criticised for slow play and portrayed as selfish. Just how divisive we discovered in 1983, when Yorkshire's committee decided not to renew his contract - a decision that engulfed the club in bitter infighting.

Freddie wasn't the only one for whom Boycott was a hero and others who felt the same way got themselves elected to the Yorkshire committee, effectively taking control of the club. Boycott got a new contract and played for three more seasons, topping the club's batting averages each time.

It was a dramatic example of player power, and one where the power came from those who hero-worshiped him.

"If there's any country in the world where you're still likely to find a home-made shrine to a cricketer on the wall of a barbershop, it's India"

After he eventually retired, Boycott moved on to work in the media, with India a regular destination. It's a good fit. Boycott has a reputation for only offering praise when it's earned and readily bestows it on the golden generation of batsmen India has produced over the last 20 years. In return, India has given him respect and regular employment.

But then if there's any country in the world where you're still likely to find a home-made shrine to a cricketer on the wall of a barbershop, it's India. They know how to put successful players on a pedestal.

For the most part that support is benign - the enjoyment of a favourite player's success that I remember from the times when Freddie cut my hair. The kind of chaos that erupted when Boycott's supporters took control of his domestic team wouldn't happen now, in India or anywhere else. Cricket has moved on. It is big business and keeps supporters at arm's length. The ordinary supporter at least. The average guy whose influence extends only as part of a game's television ratings.

But India has another kind of cricket fan - the rich industrialists who own IPL franchises and form the boards of its governing bodies. They're a curious mix. Men for whom cricket is a business but ones who still, deep down, are involved because they're fans of the game with favourite players of their own.

The most powerful man in Indian cricket, BCCI president N Srinivasan, is the most obvious example. His close ties to MS Dhoni, who captains both India and Chennai Super Kings, owned by Srinivasan's India Cements, raise questions of conflict of interest from a business viewpoint. But however shrewd a businessman Srinivasan must be, there's also an element of the fan about him.

Srinivasan probably doesn't have a collection of press cuttings about Dhoni on the wall of his office; instead he has the man himself installed as a vice-president of his company. A rich man's version of an ordinary man's show of support.

Dhoni is a fine player and a fine man, but there are legitimate questions to be asked over his ability to continue captaining India in all forms of the game. Yet when the BCCI selection committee reportedly made the decision to replace him there was no need for his fans to rise up in protest as Boycott's had done thirty years before, because apparently one supporter was already in a position of power to veto the move.

If Srinivasan did block Dhoni's sacking, as Mohinder Amarnath alleged, it's hard to say whether he acted out of a genuine belief that he is the best man for the job or out of support for his favourite player. It is possible for an administrator to be a fan of a player in the stands, a friend to him in the hospitality box and still an objective abettor of what is best for cricket in the boardroom. The question for India supporters is whether the most powerful man in world cricket is able to maintain those distinctions.

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Keywords: BCCI, Fans, Offbeat

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dave Hawksworth
Dave Hawksworth has been in a relationship with cricket for over 30 years. During that time he's seen Ken Rutherford score 300 before tea, Geoff Boycott hit the first ball of the day for a boundary, and drunk a lot of beer. He's never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses.

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