December 16, 2015

Just win overseas, India

Why the team's fans have developed an appetite for the kind of results their team has historically been unable to deliver

What the doctor ordered: winning on fast pitches with fast bowlers © Getty Images

On Saturday morning, I began writing a blog post for the Cordon that began as follows:

I've never been a political leader in my life. Yet I routinely criticise many who lead nations. I've never made a movie in my life, yet I criticise movie directors all the time. Interestingly enough, despite never having played a Test match in my life, I frequently critique the actions and decisions of those who do.

A short while later, I found that Sharda Ugra had beaten me to the punch in responding to Virat Kohli's recent outburst against the Indian cricket press. With some reluctance, I abandoned my original blog post. But Kohli's passionate interview still made the rounds in my cranial spaces. The emotions at play in the relationship between the Indian captain and the media contingent that follows the Indian team are worth a closer look. They should be of interest to all fans, not just Indian ones.

It is a reasonable surmise that members of the Indian cricket media are cricket fans; that is, they are members of that esteemed demographic termed "the Indian cricket fan". As such, some of their responses to the Indian cricket team's fortunes can be understood keeping in mind Indian fans' "aspirations". (If I may be so bold as to be reductive and to speak for an entire group.)

Underlying some of the "lack of support" that Kohli detects in the writing on his team's fortunes can be found some rather simple, long-standing desires of the Indian fan: that the Indian team develop winning ways overseas; that there not be such a sharp contrast between Indian results overseas and at home; that India develop an effective and match-winning stable of fast and slow bowlers alike. Quite simply, these are the oldest "complaints" - if they can be termed as such - directed by the Indian fan at the Indian team.

An older generation that wanted these results in Tests might have moved on, but a younger generation still hankers for victories that can fit into the template - even if only in limited-overs cricket - described above. Failure to deliver, while sticking to older formulas of winning at home with spinners, provokes impatience and frustration. Call these reactions unfair and irrational if you will - it is why I use scare quotes above - but they are most certainly present.

Kohli's visible irateness at the Indian cricket media might well be grounded in frustration at the same history that Indian fans want to put behind them

Of course, every ironic note many Indian fans strike when noting the hypocrisy present in the critiques - made more often by non-Indian media and touring teams - of dustbowls and too-short Tests in India is spot on. India's wins at home are not ersatz; touring teams should adjust to the conditions and deal with them. Indian batsmen and bowlers perform better in these conditions; they win deservedly. Other teams do not; their claim to be "better" teams than India are rendered suspect as a result. Batting and bowling on these wickets takes skill, just as it does on greentops overseas; not everyone has it. And so on. Every single concession possible in the cricketing sense can be made to the Indian team's position in their defence of their well-deserved victory over South Africa.

But Indian cricketing history has generated a record that is deficient in precisely the areas I noted above. And the fans who follow this team's fortunes - with its ever-changing rosters - have, thanks to that history, acquired a hunger for just those kinds of wins. Those fans include the members of the Indian cricket press. They, like the rest of us, have grown up on a diet of cricket writing and analysis that has convinced us that wins with fast bowlers, on fast pitches, at overseas venues, are the real McCoy. All else is imitation. And besides, that same cricketing history informs us that teams that won that way, have won more often in India than India have in their homes. To compare, to "match-up", India must win in similar fashion. Case closed. (Two "simple" results would do the trick: win Test series in Australia and South Africa with fast bowlers leading the way. It would be nice to beat England in similar fashion - 2011 and 2014 are still painfully fresh.)

So for the Indian cricket fan, when all is said and done, a result like the one in the series against South Africa, despite all the impressive cricket it showcased, merely serves as a reminder of historical lacunae. An Indian cricket writer cannot, I surmise, help thinking: "For crying out loud, why can't you guys win like this when you tour? Or even come halfway close to it? On a semi-regular basis?"

These kinds of seemingly irrational demands are almost constitutional in most sports fans. It is part of the fanatic in every fan; it is the bit that makes fans keep watching the game, hoping to see something that will assuage a subconscious need that has become a part of their sporting sensibility, one whose provenance they can only dimly trace in their autobiographies.

Virat Kohli has put India on the path to victory in Tests abroad, only to see the door shut in his face in the end © AFP

Here is the clincher: Kohli - an Indian cricket fan too - has the same aspirations. His visible irateness at the Indian cricket media might well be grounded in frustration at the same history that Indian fans want to put behind them. Think you saw him happy when he won the World Cup in 2011? Trust me, if he ever wins a Test series in Australia, he might well go into labour on the ground. The air would turn blue with his descriptions of what he would do to mothers and sisters the world over.

Let us not forget that Kohli has seen the door swing open to reveal the Promised Land (or variants of it) on three separate occasions:

1. In Johannesburg in 2013, Kohli scored 119 in the first innings, and then fell for 96 in the second, coming painfully close to a historic feat in a country considered the nemesis of Indian batsmen. His fall, and the failure of India to close the deal, ensured a great win - made distinctive by a signature statement of an Indian batsman's mastery of foreign conditions - slipped out of India's grasp.

2. In Auckland in 2014, India were chasing 407 to win against New Zealand. With Kohli batting beautifully on 67 (and Shikhar Dhawan scoring a century), India were 222 for 2. Then Kohli slashed wildly at Neil Wagner, and that began a long rot that ended with India losing by 40 runs.

3. Most famously, in Adelaide last year, Kohli, a fledgling captain, almost pulled off one the greatest wins in India's Test history. He scored centuries in both innings and led a gallant chase against a difficult target. With glory visible on the last day, he holed out on the boundary. His mates failed to back him up and India subsided to defeat.

So let me sign off in a manner analogous to Sharda's: just win overseas, Virat. Win with quicks. Win in style - perhaps with your dashing batting leading the way. All will be forgiven. And we'll play GIF'd and Vine'd replays of your celebrations all day long.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. @EyeonthePitch

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