May 7, 2008

A fan's dilemma

Just which team does one cheer for in the IPL? A cricket watcher agonises

Can't decide which team to support? Tendulkar is always a safe bet © Getty Images

The IPL games have been confusing the hell out of my six-year-old daughter. We've been watching them together, she and I, as we tend to watch the cricket ("It's social engineering and an imposition of your own tastes on her," one of my friends says about this), and I've been noticing that there's something bothering her.

It came out on the night of the last Kolkata versus Mumbai game. Nearly welded to me on the sofa in her customary cricket-watching posture, she frowned, then dilated her eyes and said with grave self-importance: "But Baba, who should we support?"

My daughter and I don't always support the same teams or players. We both go for Arsenal and Argentina in football; but I support Roger Federer and Justine Henin while she roots for Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova. But the thing is, there is always someone or some team to throw the weight of our passion behind. In cricket? Well, that's hardly a question, is it?

Till now.

So what happens when it comes to the IPL? Who, indeed, do we support? Because without a genuine allegiance, without a true repository for our frenzy, watching sport loses its pleasurable (often masochistic) allure.

That's because the covenant between a team and its fan is inviolable. It is not like the colas or cars or credit cards that the team's players endorse. Don't like them? Flush them down the toilet, stop using them, buy a new one. The relation between a team and its supporters is sacrosanct. We're in it for the long haul, and we know it. We'll be there for better or for worse (often for worse), but we'll be there.

Till now, deciding which team to support when it came to cricket was more than straightforward for any fan. The IPL has mixed it all up. When the season started, I thought I'd support individual players, not a team. Oh, what wouldn't I give to be charmed by Shane Warne waddling in or Muttiah Muralitharan putting his guile on display? So on a given day, I said to myself, I'd root for the team that had my favourite player(s).

Big mistake.

Which team to will on then when Warne bowls to Rahul Dravid?

I went back to thinking about it. And I realised that, for me at least, it would have to be support for the team that bore the name of the place I come from: Kolkata. You can't choose your hometown, just as you can't choose your parents, and wherever you live afterwards, and whoever you become, that place remains with you, becomes a part of you in a way like no other. (Read Philip Roth, or listen to Bruce Springsteen, and you'll know what I'm talking about.)

In a way, it's not so surprising; provenance always decided which team you rooted for in English football. If you came from a particular area of London, you'd support West Ham; if you came from another, you'd go for Arsenal.

This was of course before the English Premier League, midwifed by astonishing amounts of money, was born, before the attitude of wanting to be closely identified with success - and super-successful, glamorous sides - became reason enough to support a team.

Nowadays, a boy who hasn't grown up anywhere near Chelsea could support Chelsea. The team, with some of the best players in the world, has its own cachet. But that wasn't how allegiance used to be determined. One would previously stand by one's home team, however crap it was, and endure games in rain and sleet and snow to watch them get thumped - again.

Julian Barnes, one of England's finest living novelists, once described how and why he supports Leicester City, a thoroughly and determinedly unsuccessful football side: "Leicester City are my team because I was born there, though we moved to London six weeks later," he told the Observer Sport Monthly in 2001. (I mean, six weeks?) "Starting to support them when I was four or five was a sentimental way of hanging on to Leicester. An emotional bond is formed at an early age and, unless you are a complete tart and transfer to a rich side, you stick with your childhood team."

It isn't merely English football. Indian cricket fans old enough to remember a time when our first-class game mattered anything at all, a time when Test players actually captained zonal teams, and the Ranji and Duleep Trophies were followed with fervour, will recognise the same impulse at play while determining support. (If there's anyone from Mumbai who supported South Zone or anyone from Bangalore who rooted for West Zone, I'd like to know.)

In the case of the IPL, a lot of fans - like me - will not have had the chance for these bonds to be formed at a young age. At the same time, many - like my daughter - would. And provenance is perhaps the way it is most likely to go.

I realised that, for me at least, it would have to be support for the team that bore the name of the place I come from: Kolkata. You can't choose your hometown, just as you can't choose your parents, and wherever you live afterwards, and whoever you become, that place remains with you

I'm not sure that that's how it will be for, say, Mohali or Bangalore, but, as Sambit Bal wrote so eloquently in a recent piece on Cricinfo, it's probably how it will be for Kolkata. (Apart from everything else, it's a marketing masterstroke to get Sourav Ganguly - who really doesn't deserve to be in any Twenty20 side, and this I say as one of Ganguly's genuine admirers - to lead the Kolkata team. Bal writes, too, of Kolkata's unique relationship with Ganguly. He is right: Ganguly's presence truly engenders and strengthens the fan's bond with the side.) But mostly, I suppose, it's to do with the nature of the place - and its sons and daughters. The Kolkatan, with his passive-aggressiveness, his implicit assumptions of his own cultural superiority, his bashful-yet-confident love for his own city, his apologetic, ironical view of himself and his hometown's place in the scheme of things, is city-proud in a way no other Indian is.

I live in Mumbai these days, after having lived in half-a-dozen cities in India and abroad. I've found that the Mumbaikar is tremendously city-proud too. But for the large part, too self-absorbed, too insular, too swaggeringly self-congratulatory about Mumbai to allow for the refined ambiguities of irony and self-deprecation.

So Kolkata it will be for me for the duration of the IPL season. I told my daughter as much that evening. Too confused by these new loyalties to argue, she pumped her little fist, and said: "Yay". At least something had been resolved. We were on it, supporting the same team, both of us.

That evening, we watched Kolkata getting stuffed by Mumbai - a team that had as yet won not a single game. It felt like familiar territory. As an India fan, I've had enough practice.

But I noticed something afterwards. When discussing the game with people, I kept saying "Kolkata got clobbered", rather than "We got clobbered". "We" is what I'd always say when talking about the Indian cricket team.

When it comes to the IPL - and me watching it - the line between the fan and his team hasn't yet got blurred. It's very early days yet.

Soumya Bhattacharya, deputy editor of Hindustan Times in Mumbai, is the author of the memoir, You Must Like Cricket?. His new book, on how cricket defines India, will be published as part of Penguin's India Essentials series later this year

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dinesh on May 9, 2008, 22:30 GMT

    The answer is quite simple, you support your home town or the town that you feel the most attached too. If a South Indian who has lived in Mumbai all his life, he will naturally feel attached to Mumbai more than Chennai or Blore! Also, if Shoaib bowls to Sachin, would you be wrong to to cheer him on if you are from Kolkata? Absolutely not. The reason for these doubts is the misplaced sense of patriotism. I am from Chennai and if Ntini is bowling to Sachin, I will be screaming my lungs out for the bowler because I want my team to win. Am I any less of a Sachin fan? Absolutely not. I have friends from Hyd, Blore and Delhi and it is so much to watch these games with them. Its about taking it in a sporting spirit. Its just cricket.

  • Samarth on May 9, 2008, 19:53 GMT

    I faced the dilemma early in the series too, but now i think i am able to sort my loyalities out.. though Delhi doesn't have any of my favorite cricketers (barring Gautam Gambhir, and he too is only a rising stock now) i am rooting for delhi coz i am a delhiite. I get sad when a mumbai or a bangalore team loses (becoz Tendulkar and Dravid have been my favorites) but i truly get upset when delhi loses. In every match that happens, i hope my fav cricketers perform the best no matter which team wins.(In case of delhi, i want them to win all). IPL has been hard on many fans who love their national team cricketers, but i guess thats the price they have to pay to get this kind of entertainment. I just hope all teams win 7 matches each and then final four are decided on net run rate.

  • Anand on May 9, 2008, 19:50 GMT

    Why would you want to support the team and go for a divide. Support the talent. Am a great fan of MCgrath and Sachin. I would be delighted when Sachin hits him for a six or he deceives him in flight, both are awesome sight. Teach the children the game rather than the supporting the individuals, they are smart enough to spot the talent and support them.

  • ALLIM on May 9, 2008, 14:20 GMT

    I am not a big fan of Indian cricket, but the IPL has been fantastic from start all the team have great players from India and around the world that makes it a must see event. i must say all the teams has something to cheer about so its hard to choose which side to be a fan of. i live in the united states where cricket is becoming a major attraction and having friends over to watch IPL everyone has their favorite team they support. i like Adam Gilchirst he is my all time favorite cricketer so i definitely support Hyderabad. the DC has ignited this IPL. Gilchirst, Laxman, Symonds, Afridi, Gibbs and co. I hope they win all their remaining matches.

  • Red on May 9, 2008, 8:18 GMT

    So what about me ? Having been born in Chennai, lived in Delhi, worked in Hyderabad,Bangalore ,Mumbai and now based in Kolkatta ?

  • Salim on May 9, 2008, 7:21 GMT

    I can't imagine a Bong supporting any team other than Kolkata. They are genetically programmed.

    Being a Mumbaikar myself, I support Mumbai in theory, but I often forget and root for Laxman, Zaheer Khan, Warne, Murali or sometimes whoever strikes me as the underdog. Besides, I still can't seem to remember who is playing for which team.

  • SGBatsForever on May 8, 2008, 21:27 GMT

    I am originally from Bangladesh but have now lived in the United States for almost 18 years. For me right from Day 1 there was never any question which team I would support Kolkata. Because of my Begali origins and Saurav Ganguly, who is my all-time favorite cricketer. The fact that SRK owns the team and Shoaib Akhtar has now joined the team has only strengthened my loyalties for KKR- I get up at 5 AM on the weekends to catch some of the Kolkata matches. The IPL has been fantastic and the close thrillers like the one today between Kolkata and Bangalore can only make things even more exciting. Go Kolkata Knight Ridders!

  • Prem Piyush on May 8, 2008, 16:54 GMT

    What about the people whose hometown dont have teams ... I am from Agra .. and waiting for the day when I can cheer for Agra Mughals or Guardians of Taj ...till then I am rooting for Delhi Daredevils ... but offlate .. I think Rajasthan Royals deserve to be cheered for ...

  • Daniel on May 8, 2008, 15:15 GMT

    I don't really support a team either in the IPL or the County Championship. One of the things I like about cricket is the absence of xenophobic tribal loyalty one sees in English football.

    However, I can't help but have a sneaking appreciation for the Chennai Super Kings. Any team assembled at the cost of some millions yet named after a packet of fags (cigarettes) gets my vote!

  • pubudu on May 8, 2008, 14:51 GMT

    i am not from india, but iwatch the IPl closely. i usully support teams which need to win that game desperately to keep the tournament live. but i don'think how people in a city would react in the next season, especially the teams which end up in the bottom of table, if fans feel their owners not doing enough to win, or get good enough players who can win matches for them. after all for owners this is a investment, not a situation where they try to win the trophy at any "cost" unlike regional boards.

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