November 29, 2013

Who's your second-favourite team?

Often, watching as neutrals allows us to appreciate the beauty of the game, its ebbs and flows, and the skills of its practitioners, better

West Indies in their pomp were always everyone's favourite second horse in the race © Getty Images

As I watched Mitchell Johnson rip the English batting to shreds in the recent Test match in Brisbane, I marvelled at his pace and accuracy. It was brilliant bowling backed by aggressive captaincy and sharp fielding. At no point did I feel the English batsmen to be pathetic or gutless - just outplayed by better opposition on that day.

My detached appreciation was a contrast to my agonised reaction to India's 4-0 drubbing by England a couple of summers ago. Watching Yuvraj, Raina, Gambhir - really, everyone except Dravid - hop around like epileptic cats on a hot tin roof, I sneered: "Flat-track bullies. Hopeless, the whole lot of them - they all ought to be sacked forthwith." I spent barely a moment appreciating the skills of Broad, Bresnan and Anderson and their relentless pounding of the batsmen, forcing the errors.

What is it about watching your own team that pushes you to either extreme of the emotional register - euphoria or deep dudgeon? Why is it that we are able to appreciate the game, the players and the performances, with greater equanimity and objectivity when "our" team is not involved? Can we ever be fair or dispassionate when it comes to our own team, and is that even desirable? These are questions worth pondering - as long as one doesn't expect any definitive answers.

Today I'd like to pose a slightly different question: whom do we support when, as the saying goes, we don't have a dog in the fight? I can't speak for everyone, but at least for Indian fans, certain preferences seem to be fairly ingrained.

Most Indian cricket fans would, on balance, tend to support the Aussies over England when it comes to the Ashes. Mind you, it's not always easy and we get there with a fair degree of agonising. One has to balance distaste for the relentless aggro of the Australians and their often dubious claims to playing "tough but fair" with admiration for their all-out style, where they go for a victory every time, draws be damned. Their resilience - not until their last batsman has been dismissed or the winning run scored is victory assured for their opponents - is another source of their appeal. England, on the other hand, especially in the era before India's ascent to economic dominance in cricket, often seemed to be both reluctant and stodgy tourists. For some of us England are unfortunately associated with the deadening defence of Chris Tavaré and the whiff of John Lever's Vaseline.

Strange as it may sound to many hyper-nationalists, for those of my vintage (who fell in love with the game in the early 1970s), after India it was always Pakistan we supported. There was such panache to the likes of Majid Khan, Zaheer Abbas and Wasim Raja. But most of all, Pakistan had what India lacked: fast bowlers who could strike fear in the opposition. A favourite pastime was arguing over the composition of a combined India-Pakistan XI. For what it's worth, here is mine from those days: Sunny and Majid opening; Zaheer, Vishy and Javed in the middle order; Imran and Kapil; Kirmani keeping; Abdul Qadir and Bishan Bedi as spinners; and Sarfraz Nawaz completing the attack. With two of the greatest allrounders in it, this team could have held its own against any World XI - provided they could agree on who out of that array of prima donnas was going to be captain.

Until recently, another fairly safe prediction would have been that Indians would mostly back West Indies against all comers outside of the subcontinental teams. The sheer exuberance of Caribbean cricket - as embodied by the likes of Lloyd, Richards, Kallicharran and Fredericks in previous years, and Lara, Richardson and Sarwan in more recent times - made them immensely likeable. Of course West Indies have now declined precipitously, making it harder to rally behind them, except in the way that one supports the underdog. Which is not really support so much as sympathy. (You know things have changed a lot for West Indies when their fast bowler has the surname Rampaul while their lead spinner's surname is Shillingford - and not Ali or Narine or some such name of Indian extraction!)

My India-Pakistan XI would be: Sunny and Majid opening; Zaheer, Vishy and Javed in the middle order; Imran and Kapil; Kirmani keeping; Abdul Qadir and Bishan Bedi as spinners; and Sarfraz Nawaz completing the attack

You can't help supporting New Zealand against whoever they play. Their population is about the same as Chennai's, and their cricketers get to play about half a dozen first-class matches every year before taking on others in Test matches. And a lot of their best sporting talent is lost to rugby. To me it is amazing that New Zealand can produce the likes of Richard Hadlee, Glenn Turner, Chris Cairns and Martin Crowe out of their domestic set-up. When Bevan Congdon made those two huge centuries (176 and 175 in successive Tests in England in the summer of 1973) you thought to yourself: "Wow, now there's a captain for you." At the risk of romanticising current realities, one could say New Zealand are the last amateurs in a world that has been disenchanted by professionalism, and often worthy of support just for that.

For similar reasons, I've always had a soft corner for the Sri Lankans. The annual Gopalan Trophy matches that pitted them against Tamil Nadu gave a glimpse of cricketers who looked like Indians but played more like the Caribbeans. Dashers like Duleep Mendis and Roy Dias, and classicists like Anura Tennekoon and David Heyn, made lifelong fans of many of us across the straits. Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara are worthy heirs to a great tradition of classy batting.

Post-apartheid South Africa have a lot going for them. I suspect for many Indian fans they are the preferred team when they play England or Australia. Players like Steyn, Kallis, AB de Villiers, and especially Hashim Amla, seem like wonderful throwbacks to an era in which players let their game do the talking. Terrific fast bowling alongside the best fielding is bound to win you a lot of fans in India.

It's hard for Indian fans to develop any allegiance or antipathy towards Bangladesh and Zimbabwe at this point - more players with the charisma of a Tamim Iqbal are desperately needed for us to care one way or the other.

In summary, then, for the average Indian fan I would hazard that our preference ordering in match-ups not involving India goes something like this: Subcontinent (defined as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and sometimes Bangladesh) > New Zealand > West Indies > South Africa > Australia > England. While this is probably true on the whole for most of us, a particular series may be viewed differently depending on a bunch of contextual variables. Nor does this prevent us from liking a particular player even if we aren't particularly enamoured of his team or nationality. Unfortunately all this adds weight to Mike Marqusee's claim back in the early 1990s that for a lot of cricket fans it's "anyone but England".

Beyond the match-ups and our preferences within them, the larger point is that watching as neutrals allows us to appreciate the beauty of the game, its ebbs and flows, and the skills of its practitioners - which our passionate partisanship often blind us to. Sometimes caring less means enjoying more.

Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Martin on December 10, 2013, 15:52 GMT

    I am an Aussie, living in Europe .

    I totally agree with the writer - I find watching non "home" teams more enjoyable because I can just enjoy excellent cricket without a vested interest in the result. When Australia used to play the triangular ODI series I used to prefer watching the two visiting teams play each other for that very reason. And attending the recent ICC Champions Trophy was like being in heaven!

    For me the test is - who do I pay to go and watch? For Tests it is South Africa, and for ODIs it is Sri Lanka. I am a big fan of Amla, Kallis, de Villiers and Steyn and the tough, competitive way South Africa fight out a Test match. In ODIs I love watching the speed of Malinga, and the sheer class of Dilshan, Jayawardene and (especially) Sangakkara.

  • mohan on December 9, 2013, 6:17 GMT

    "Most Indian cricket fans would, on balance, tend to support the Aussies over England when it comes to the Ashes." How can the writer generalize something just based on his personal preference? Right from 2000, I have not come across a single Indian fan who supported the Aussies. Everyone hated them for their behaviour. It is only post-2009 when the top guys retired and the team got weaker did people start supporting them for being the underdogs, otherwise it's England always in the Ashes.

  • Android on December 2, 2013, 10:15 GMT

    Being a Pakistan I always support it but if second choice is asked then Windows would my second choice they have always won hearts if not games

  • Dummy4 on December 1, 2013, 23:39 GMT

    Second team is definitely Zimbabwe. The pure heart of getting out and playing for your nation despite the obvious adversity is amazing. Down the other end of the scale is India who seem top think they are a fantastic cricketing nation despite the fact they don't win away from home and can't seem to get past short term thinking in preparing their pitches (for a short period under Ganguly I was impressed by the change in attitude but this seems to have been wiped out under Dhoni).

  • Dummy4 on December 1, 2013, 21:05 GMT

    Always felt proteas have been very unlucky not to have won a single world cup or any such major trophy. They are my second favorites after India . This African team deserves to rule Cricket in next few.years like Windies and Aussies ruled in past . I hope they make it count !!!

  • Owais on December 1, 2013, 17:30 GMT

    Very nice article. I agree till late 80's, Pakistanis would have supported India after Pakistan. In 90's India was taken over by Sri Lanka for their shear brilliance. Jayasuria and Aravinda DeSilva were such phenomenon. In 2000's it has become on series to series basis. Basically any underdog is generally supported against the stronger team. Proteas derserved to have some silverware in their closet...

  • Harsh on December 1, 2013, 7:07 GMT

    Morally,South Africa should have won the 1999 world cup and the title of one day world champions.I have never seen a more athletic team on the cricket field who looked like acrobats on the field.South Africa in 2000 became the first team outside the sub -continent to beat India in India since England did in 1984-85 and even the mighty Australian teams of that era twice failed to achieve thta.The springboks gave the Aussies a good run for their money in drawn test series at home and away in 1994 and in hard fought series at home and away in 1997 and 1997-98 where they lost by the margin of one test.

    I can't express my jubilation of South Africa attaining the status of world test match champion after beating England in England in 2012 .I also was overjoyed with the springbok's triumphs in the series in Australia in 2008-09 and again in 2012-13.

    Pakistan under Imran Khan was like an army ressurected from a grave and their win in the 1992 world cup was the ultimate spectacle.

  • Harsh on December 1, 2013, 7:00 GMT

    Morally ,Pakistan should have won the unofficial world championship test tiltle in West Indies in 1988 but dubious umpiring cost them that distinction.It should have been Pakistan first and not Australia that should have toppled West Indies from the test world championship crown.Pakistan had the most versatile bolwing attack of all which was more lethal than that of West Indies and Australia.The right-arm-left-arm combination of Imran Khan and Wasim Akram who were the sultan's of swing bowling combined with the wizardly of Abdul Qadir made the Pakistan attack lethal.Pakistan also had batting depth upto no 10 with Qadir batting last man ,who was a capable bat.After the retirement of Imran Waqar Younus adequately replaced the Pak armoury and so did Saqlain Mushtaq.

    From 1994 I became a fan of South Africa.I greatly admired the spirit with which they played the game,their phenomenal acrobatic efforts on the field,their great batting depth and allrounders and their great bowling.

  • Harsh on December 1, 2013, 6:52 GMT

    Infact morally I ask myself why does one have to support his or her own country?The spirit of sport was not originally developed in the light of nation s proving their superiority.

    Fascinatingly although being an Indian and a die hard Indian fan since I was interested in cricket from the age of 11 ,my loyalties changed in the cricket world from the age of fifteen.The amazing talent of Imran Khan's Pakistani team and it's past history of coming so close morally to attaining champion status but just denied at the brink made me a die hard fan of Pakistan.Infact had they done justice to their talent Pakistan might well have won the 1975 and 79 world cups and won the 1971 series in England and 1972-73 series in Australia.No side had a stronger batting line up or batsmen with such artistry like Zaheer Abbas or Majid Khan.In the 1980's Pakistan had the most lethal attack with Imran Khan being aided by Abdul Qadir's tantailzing spin and Wasim Akram's left-arm genius.

  • Dummy4 on December 1, 2013, 2:15 GMT

    As an Aussie, Sri Lanka is my choice for second team. The way they went from being thrashed every game to World champions is such a short period of time is quite simply, remarkable. Fighters to the end, yet not as brash as Australia, I really like the way Sri Lanka play the game. In fact, I must say, I hate the brand of cricket Australia play under Michael Clarke - it's taking things a bit too far. If you're going to sledge, don't do it with such disdain and arrogance as Clarke likes to indulge in, do it with some wit and character. But with Clarke clearly lacking in both departments, it isn't going to happen anytime soon.

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