Fans June 16, 2013

An anti-religious passion

The obsession with the game that India and Pakistan fans have is one to envy

Midwinter game of cricket at Kelburn Park © Paul Ford

As much as I'd like to be donning my raincoat and traipsing around the ménage à trois of Champions Trophy venues, I'm not. Instead I'm wearing my beige pyjamas, hydrating with a mix of coffee, cold lager and energy drinks, and soaking up a smorgasbord of late-night cricket viewing as the eight threads of this competition unravel.

I have also seen some live cricket this week, albeit in an improbable location among improbable conditions. Actually, there was a raincoat involved.

On Saturday afternoon, having taken a season out of my burgeoning social football career, I found myself at Kelburn Park. It's one of Wellington's prettiest cricket spots - in summer - with a vista that includes the CBD, the harbour and uninhabited hills in the distance.

But in the dank winter, the park is taken over by the football codes. I was there to soak up the monster tackles, trickery and brute force of a local rugby league match between the University Hunters and the Randwick Kingfishers, on the main footy ground.

The second ground is usually bustling with a lower-grade football match, with which I am intimately familiar. The ground was boggy and a council sign declared it closed for games. Yet there in the middle of the bog - where the football field circle was marked out muddily - a game of cricket had erupted.

A dozen blokes in sports shoes, sweatshirts and sensible pants were embroiled in a cricketing battle for the ages. I was massively impressed, and frequently my wandering eye was diverted from the combative footy in front of me to an assessment of the cricketing prowess in the background.

There were plenty of idiosyncrasies, as you would expect in a mucky midwinter Wellington cricket foray: the guy with the silky Hadlee bowling style who couldn't bat, the chap issuing 140kph thunderbolts off a two-step run-up courtesy a javelin-esque action, the batsman who could not be dismissed until he reverse-pulled one into the lawn bowls club at third man, the man in the deep with sticky fingers despite a very awkward-looking catching technique, and the fellow with a worse throwing arm than Michael Bevan - conveniently stationed about 90 metres from the batsman.

At one point I was watching a bowler thunder in and release the slowest delivery imaginable - the batsman backed up expecting a torpedo to arrive off a good length. Instead he found a ferocious offspinner who coaxed out a nervy forward-defensive.

I turned back to see the drinks handler and a couple of random people from the crowd join the league teams in a bit of second-half haymaker-throwing, with three angry blokes red-carded to a cacophony of car horns and sideline hollering.

It was no surprise to see the cricketers were of Indian extraction, comfortably the most obsessed of the world's cricket fans. This was a proper game of cricket, with none of those silly "one-hand one-bounce" or "can't get out first ball" rules in play. There was banter and humour, but runs were being counted and there were lbws on offer.

I admired their commitment to the rules from the warmth and laziness of my raincoat.

A few hours later I cracked open a Moa lager and settled in to watch India v Pakistan under the perpetually grey skies of Birmingham. It was the second big derby of the week, coming just a few days after the trans-Tasman clash between Hector Bailey's Australians and the Royal Stags of New Zealand.

In my mind the rivalries of these two clashes - from a cricketing perspective at least - are on par. The bully boy older brother nations up against pesky little countries that occasionally rise above their station, overshadowing their more moneyed and historied counterparts.

But about 11 seconds into the coverage from Edgbaston on Saturday, it was clear that my assessment was a poor one. The crowd was a seething congregation of patriotism with bursts of national colour present in everything from face paint and wigs to three-piece suits and banners. Even with the threatening - and arriving - inclement weather, the match was sold out, and even the commentators were talking about the hot demand for seats from friends and family.

In You Must Like Cricket, a book that explores "the troubling hold" cricket has over a billion Indians, Soumya Bhattacharya wrote that cricket is not a religion in India, despite many claims (and banners) to the contrary: "Religion has scarred India more deeply than anything else. Cricket is the balm that heals. Cricket is our anti-religion, our most precious, deeply secular institution."

Edgbaston on Wednesday was a pale comparison - the crowd was much thinner, much quieter and much less passionate. There was never going to be a banner spotted that confessed: "Some Things Never Change: Cricket Still Our Religion, Taylor/Watson Still Our God". Kiwis and Australians have a lot to learn from our Indian and Pakistani counterparts - their passion for cricket is a mighty one. And I'm envious of it.

Paul Ford is a co-founder of the Beige Brigade. He tweets here

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