October 12, 2014

The visceral beauty of fandom

It is the fans' money and attention, and the players' skills and efforts that are indispensable to sport. Investors and broadcasters merely market the show

Fans must lead a double life. They must not just be consumers of the show, but guardians of the sport © AFP

I have, over the years, been sceptical of the notion of the "fan". In my mind, the idea is saturated with unsavoury connotations. A fan is the chump who is willing to fork over enormous sums of money to buy clothing and memorabilia with emblems of his or her team. In a ridiculous reversal, the franchise is paid by the fan so that the fan can advertise it. To be a fan is to be a part of the show whose first purpose is to make a lot of money for very few people. The details of the sport don't seem to matter very much. Fans don't ask too many questions, and the presenters of the show - the commentators on TV, and the reporters on the beat - don't provide too many answers. A whole language has emerged due to this new alliance. It has emerged largely in franchise cricket, but is slowly creeping into the representative game as well, especially the short-form versions.

How many fans of the Indian cricket team care if India's ace offspinner, potentially one of the most productive all-round cricketers of his era, is getting enough match practice in first-class cricket? How many fans care if India play practice matches against serious opposition in the lead-up to major Test series? By care, I don't just mean talk about it. By care, I mean, vote with their wallets and their attention.

Fandom begets empty punditry and vacuous commentary. Take two phrases that have become commonplace in today's professional game. The first is the mantra about adaptation. The second is the nonsense about "executing plans". Each originated among pundits and received a boost when punditry went micro on Twitter.

"Players must learn to adapt to different formats". The people who came up with this guff are not exactly autodidacts. No one who has actually had to learn anything would bandy this phrase about as though it were some magic spell. Asking a young fast bowler of 21 to "adapt" to all three formats is a bit like asking someone to beat Viswanathan Anand at chess while cooking a fine dinner for ten while reciting the Mahabharata backwards. Such supermen are rare. And even these polymaths need time and the right conditions in which to learn.

"They executed their plans". The phrase was born to that black hole of thinking and information called the post-match interview and its nihilistic spouse, the post-match press conference. It is difficult to imagine an emptier phrase. "They were on the field" comes to mind.

A fan is one who thinks his team can still win even when the situation is utterly hopeless by any reasonable measure. Fandom is also about worrying about all that could go wrong when one's team is on top

These phrases, like so many others, describe nothing at all. Yet people are paid to say and write them. Players are beginning to use this language as well. If you took all the lines spoken by players in all press conferences in the last five years, you would probably hear the same ten lines over and over again, each emptier than the next. And yet, the fans lap this up. They must be, because it seems to happen more with each passing year. And if there is one thing TV and media know, it is "what the people want".

The fiction that one is purely a spectator and not an agent whose money, time and, in some cases, words are valuable commodities is encouraged by broadcasters (who are the chief money funnellers in today's game). How often have you heard about the "electric" atmosphere at a ground? When referring to a match in the subcontinent, likely as not this is said about (usually male) spectators who, unmindful of people sitting behind them, stand up while the ball is being delivered and dance a jig, or ogle at cheerleaders. That an all-male cast of commentators - sportsmen all - sees this abusive, dehumanising environment on the broadcast like you and me, and can, at best, manage an uncomfortable silence, ought to bother any fan of sport.

Yet, as we have seen with many other issues, ranging from DRS to chucking, to spot-fixing in the IPL, the commentary box is where self-censorship is practised assiduously. After all, commentators need to keep their jobs too, just like journalists. It is not for nothing that the ICC has gone from being run by ten boards to being effectively run by three with little or no scrutiny. Any actual argument that consists of there being multiple facets and multiple viewpoints are considered too "controversial" for the broadcast. No wonder you are left with the "electric" atmosphere and played "executing their plans".

Collective environments can be great things. The feeling that one is part of something greater than oneself is one of the most exhilarating feelings one can have. There is noise and enthusiasm at a cricket ground, but I wonder how many at the ground are in fact its victims. The broadcast today is a device for marketing the show more than it is a way of describing the game and the larger sport.

Fandom keeps this alive, because fans do not pay attention to such details.

And yet, there is something viscerally beautiful about fandom. People worry about their teams even if they don't "follow the money" in their analysis of our sport. I have come to realise that I am a fan too. Of India. Of Bombay. At the heart of my fandom lies unabashed unreason. A fan is one who thinks his team can still win even when the situation is utterly hopeless by any reasonable measure. Fandom is also about worrying about all that could go wrong when one's team is on top. When India chase 100 odd to win in the fourth innings I get truly worried that some upstart opposition bowler will take a lucky hat-trick and ruin the day (there is little basis for thinking this). When some pesky wicketkeeper refuses to get out on the fifth day, I begin to despise the second-rate so-and-so who never does anything against anybody else, but is going to thwart my team.

Strong teams tend to have more fans because they tend to win more. But I wonder whether being a fan of a team like Australia from 1999 to 2009 (three World Cups, two 16-match streaks, home and away wins against all opposition) might end up being boring after a while.

In the international game, being "strong" is meaningful. In a franchise, it depends on how much money and effort the private owner is willing to invest. Many franchises do not or cannot spend enough money to compete for the best talent. They still get to be part of the show and partake of the profits.

What then is a fan to do? How do the two sides of fandom - the wonderful unreason of partisan support, and the curiosity about the sport and its place in the world, co-exist in a world in which sport is a show first and a contest later? Television and its minions would doubtless like unreason to rule and reason, if it absolutely must exist, to do so in relatively uncontroversial areas like statistical records. Much better to have an "electric atmosphere" and unquestioning consumers who want to spend money, with more numbers to throw when the bat is not being swung.

Fans must lead a double life. They must not just be consumers of the show, but guardians of the sport. The show has to be protected from itself if the sport is to survive. It is the fans' money, time and attention on the one hand, and the players' talents and skills and effort on the other, which makes the sport and the content of the show. Investors, owners and broadcasters, by definition, are replaceable.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here