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

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