May 25, 2010

Hooked on torment

What are you if you switch the TV on at three in the morning knowing full well your team will probably get a pasting?

Cricket gives me - has given me for as long as I can remember - a sense of time: a certain feeling or event in my life is referenced with the memory of a particular game. It also gives me a sense of place. This may be an extraordinarily blinkered way to look at the world (and you have to be extraordinarily blinkered to have Queen's Park Oval flash across your mind the moment someone says Trinidad), but I think of cities in terms of their cricket grounds. It is the most enduring geography lesson I have ever had, and it brings closer and makes familiar places with which I have little acquaintance. It is, I have found, something that gives my life a coordinate, a kind of centre amid the changing clutter of daily life with which it is tough to keep up.

But most of all, perhaps, cricket gives me a sense of myself. They say you only get a sense of yourself when you see yourself in relation to another. Cricket is that great other.

It's like a relationship, this thing between the fan and his sport, some say. Well, only those who are not fans say that. Because it is not like any relationship that I've ever known.

On the average day, it is a relationship that is too full of shame and humiliation, too unrequited and too committed at the same time, too like a one-way street. If my wife had let me down half as many times as India have on the pitch, I would have walked out on her. But when it comes to the game, I can never, however great the disappointment in the last match and however certain I am of impending doom in this one, bring myself to turn away.

Can you?

If my wife had let me down half as many times as India have on the pitch, I would have walked out on her. But when it comes to the game, I can never, however great the disappointment in the last match, bring myself to turn away

If you can, you are not one of us. Which, come to think of it, is not such a bad thing. Because you are spared the painful pleasure of being a masochist. All fans - the ones like me who need sport to give a sort of shape to life - are masochists. What else can you be when you switch on the TV at three o'clock in the morning knowing that your team is going to get a pasting - again?

For those of us who are too far gone, gone far enough in fact to embrace torment (We lost 0-3 against Zimbabwe? No matter, throw us a defeat against Bangladesh. We'll still watch), it's not a choice. It's a compulsion. Addiction does not have rationality at its heart.

The pact between a fan and his team is sacrosanct. It cannot be broken. It is not like the colas or the cars or the credit cards or the car tyres the players endorse. Don't like it? Flush it down the toilet. Sell it off. Exchange it for something better. Buy a new one.

When things go wrong on the pitch, some of us go on mock funeral processions. Some of us threaten players' families. (The first gesture is banal, the second despicable. But morality or ethics is not the issue here; it seldom is when you are talking about addiction.) Still few of us can stay away when our players walk out on to the field. Were we able to do that, TV ratings would slip and channels would not pay millions for satellite rights, companies would hesitate before pumping in billions to sponsor the team, and soft-drink majors would worry about putting their money where the nation's heart isn't. The fact that they have not suggests that there are millions out there like me. Sometimes it feels like a brotherhood of misery.

Every fan realises this: feeling miserable is part of the deal. But riding the misery and sticking with it is the deal. You can't support another team (Namibia?), or suddenly be passionate about another sport (ice hockey?). It's this or nothing. And nothing is so much worse.

Soumya Bhattacharya, editor of Hindustan Times in Mumbai, is the author of the memoir, You Must Like Cricket?. This article was first published in the print version of Cricinfo Magazine in 2007