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