Anyone for cricket?
To start with, the fans in the stands contented themselves with yelling abuse at a cameraman just outside the boundary. He had his headphones on, and couldn't hear anything, but it wouldn't have mattered, for he was white and didn't know Hindi. That seemed merely like a few idiots having fun. But when they trained their sights on the man posted to field in front of the stand, Anil Kumble, it was strange, to say the least. He could hear the abuse, and certainly understood it well.
The quality of Indian cricket has come in for plenty of analysis and attention over the last few weeks, and it might well be worth spending a moment on the quality of the fans. Increasingly, people are going to the grounds to be seen, rather than to see the cricket. Witty banners have always caught the eye, and in Australia a car company has actually given away a prize to the best banner each day during recent tours. But in India, it seems as if they are merely a way of getting the attention of the television cameras.
"Dr Dino, give some batting tips to Indian players," said one, obviously to get the attention of Dean Jones, who is commentating on the series. That, while being harmless, pretty accurately sums up the mindset of a good chunk of the spectators who come to the cricket. There isn't the slightest interest in watching the game - it's the players they have come to see, so they can one day say, "I was so close to Ajit Agarkar, I could have touched him."
Agarkar, who bowled a superb spell soon after lunch, when he had four maidens on the trot to marauders like Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer, must have wondered whether he was playing at home or away when he was fielding at third man. A constant stream of powerful invective - unimaginative and referring mostly to fornicating with various family members - came his way, and it reached the point when he was forced to ask one of the ballboys what the matter was. He, of course, didn't have an answer.
When you go to cricket grounds around the world, there are always a few punters, usually those that have had a skinful under the hot sun, who have a go at one player or another. But here in Nagpur, even with no alcohol available at the ground, whole stands full of people cursed and swore at any player within earshot. After all, while yelling out a name might fail to get someone's attention, abusing his mother usually does.
The tragic thing is, to some of these spectators, it seems irrelevant what state the match is in, who has done well or who hasn't. A bowler busting his gut in the heat, up against top-quality batsmen, returns to his fielding position for a breather and a sip of water - the last thing he needs is to be abused. When a batsman has played beautifully on a tricky pitch, and been dismissed for 99, you expect applause - even if it's grudging applause for a member of the opposition who has done well and hurt your team. Instead, all Simon Katich got was one-eyed cursing.
The sad part is, there are several Australian tour groups here, and they certainly know how to behave themselves. They don't look as if they're having any less fun, and they don't merely barrack someone because he's a celebrity. It is only small-minded people who attack someone when they cannot reply - like policemen who slap around a handcuffed suspect just for the thrill of it. The behaviour of the touring Australians might have shamed a few locals, but this is like a dinner guest teaching his host table manners - the lessons learned are often forgotten quickly. There's a widespread belief that Indian cricket fans are knowledgable and sporting - and it still holds true in places like Chennai - but in other places that is changing so fast that it might not ring true in the years to come.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.