June 8, 2010

Never mind the heckling, we're cricketers

Players must smile even as they are abused, harassed and vilified. In India it's worse than elsewhere

So what exactly is a role model?

Mervyn Dillon is called a black bastard by the North Stand crowd at the Wankhede Stadium. Sri Lankan cricketers are repeatedly called worse at the SCG. Justin Langer has to go through "pretty strong abuse that went on for a long time" during the Old Trafford Test. What does a role model do? There is a Test that has to be won, don't forget.

"It is a 100% one-sided contest," says Langer. "You just can't react. You have to concentrate on what's important. Almost like a Zen master." Langer didn't react on the field at the time, but condemned the crowd's behaviour in a press conference. He was called a coward on internet forums. Coward that man wasn't, as many a mean fast bowler will testify. "People who criticise you for this have no idea what it is like to be in your shoes."

All of it isn't only on the field. Irfan Pathan remembers what happened at the Mumbai airport when he arrived from the 2007 World Cup, a disaster for India. "Someone swore at me very badly," Irfan told Cricinfo later that year. "He was in the queue and pushing me and swearing at me. I got upset. But what could I do? Had I reacted, people would say it has all got to Irfan's head. I am a human being too. Eventually I called the police guy and said, 'Do something, he's harassing me.'"

Rahul Dravid signs autographs, is never seen drunk, is always on his best behaviour. "Luckily I haven't been in any incident off the field," he says. "I have had the odd offensive comment, but I have been able to brush it off.

"But that's not right," he says, questioning perhaps the unwritten rule that says the player should always walk away. "That's [abusing a player] unfair. It is cowardly. You know the sportsman has no chance to get back. If the cricketer reacts, he is done for. If he doesn't, you have had your fun and you have had a laugh. Many people, under the influence of alcohol, have this ego trip, and then they tell their friends, 'See I went there and I abused this player. What do these guys think of themselves?' It is a kick for them."

It happens during training hours as well. When India were in New Zealand last year, a senior player was waiting for his car outside the Basin Reserve. A bunch of Indian expatriates, respectable-looking people in their mid-thirties, started to heckle him. They chanted slogans, expecting him to finish the lines. Almost like playing with a kid, or a toy. "Bharat mata ki…" and they would expect the player to say "jai". "Jeetega bhai jeetega…" and they would expect him to shout, "Hindustan jeetega" (India will win). There were other slogans too, and this went on until he got annoyed and replied, "If you loved the country so much, why did you leave it?" That shut them up, and now we had a laugh. When told about the incident, Dravid smiles and says, "He was lucky there was no television camera around. This is prime story material." Welcome to the world of role models. No banter allowed, and keep that smile on.

It's not just the international cricketers either. Indian domestic cricket invites many spectators whose only interest in the match is to swear at the odd player who has been dropped from the national side and is trying to regain his spot. One such player was once asked to sign an autograph in Rajkot during an Irani Cup. The player obliged, and was asked in return, "Abbe #$&@*, naam kya hai tera? [Hey $&*@#&, what's your name?]"

Aakash Chopra has written about this problem, and Ramesh Powar and Praveen Kumar have been at the receiving end in incidents in the recent past.

The relationship between sport and abuse is not new. Many of us use the ubiquitous four-letter word in exasperation and in exultation. Players curse each other too. "That's part of the game," says Langer. It's one-on-one, man to man, and both parties stand to gain or lose from it "But it's a lot easier to abuse from outside, to pay some money and say whatever you like to the players from the comfort of the crowd."

Abuse from the crowd is not new; it was on even before Douglas Jardine annoyed the Aussies with his harlequin cap. But from the often witty sledging of the famous barrackers of the past, it has now mostly deteriorated to racism and swearing.

Players have learned to deal with it. There is a lovely eyewitness account by a user called vcfsantos, presumably an Englishman, on a BBC blog, of how Glenn McGrath won over the Bristol crowd in 2005.

"Fielding on the boundary at long-off, he was copping a load of flak, most of it in good nature, and giving it back with interest and with a grin on his face. When one lagered-up fan started to become abusive, GM walked up to him as close as he could get and simply smiled. Didn't say a word. Remarkable self-restraint, and a touch of class. By this time he'd won most of us over, so a few of us got together and took the abusive fan to the stewards. He then took the time to say thanks and sign autographs for all the kids."

Ian Chappell, never a man for nonsense, made sure crowd abuse didn't affect his side. "A couple of times in my career we had a fan abusing a bowler and he was starting to become distracted," Chappell says. "The next time the fan yelled out, I called back something that got his attention and he started abusing me. As I was prepared for it, the abuse wasn't a problem, and the bowler was better able to get on and do his job."

Not everyone has the McGrath charm, or the Chappell toughness, but abuse - like packed schedules - is something the players have learned to live with, except for the odd Inzamam kind of incident, where the player takes matters into his hands and ends up being crucified. But when it goes off the field, infringing on a player's life and personal space, it's a different kettle of fish.

That's when these superstars, these young millionaires, these icemen on the field, plead with the fans to understand that they are human beings too. "We are always under pressure on the field," says Dravid. "We need to get away, we need some release to bring a sense of normalcy in our lives. Some people find it in family, some in books, some in music, some people find it in going out. If people are going to become Mr Room Service, it will affect their personality and the way they play."

Chappell had a simple yardstick. "After the game I believed it was my private time. It caused a few fans to become irate when I wouldn't sign [autographs], but if I was paying for my drinks in a bar, I felt I had the right to some privacy." He once nearly paid the price. "At The Oval in 1979, some goose became so angry because I wouldn't sign that he grabbed me by the hair," he says. "When Rod Marsh arrived on the scene he decided to scarper."

A sound enough argument, but in a different culture, say India's, this sort of behaviour by a player will be considered the worst form of rudeness. "We are different people," Dravid says. "We are lot more personal. Pressures on an Indian cricketer are different, unreal. Some of the foreign guys ask me, 'How do you do it?' And I think that myself sometimes. But it is the passion, drive, emotion and love of the Indian fan that makes sure cricket is not a minor sport." There is a clear understanding among the players that it is this passion that makes them what they are, not least financially. Yet just how much of their lives should they give in return for that passion and money, they are not sure.

Usually players from outside the subcontinent are spared off the field, but there has been a rise in pub incidents: Jason Gillespie was hit outside one in Traralgon in 2008, and Jesse Ryder has had his troubles.

It is sad enough that fans drag cricketers into altercations; it is sadder when it is the other way round. Players are easy targets, but on rare occasions they turn the tables. Alcohol is a big problem with sportspersons across the world, across disciplines, and sporting success itself is a big high. On rare occasions, often while under the influence, cricketers can behave like brats. There have been reports from fans alleging a few young Indian cricketers of causing trouble by making indecent comments about the fans' female companions.

It might be human to make such mistakes at a young age, but there is a certain basic awareness any public figure - sportsman, actor, politician - needs. Malcolm Knox, the respected Australian author, has written about how he - in the pre-IPL days - "saw Australian cricketers coming across Indians sleeping on a railway platform in Jamshedpur and nudging them awake with their feet in order to take a happy snap". While many tourists can be accused of indulging in such poverty porn, not least Indians who have moved to greener pastures, cricketers are supposed to be better.

All that said, for every drunk idiot, there are at least 19 others who sacrifice their comfort to sell stadiums out, who are happy just patting a player's back and letting him know he makes them proud, who forgive and forget and support their team despite losses. Like Dravid says, "I don't want to sound like being an Indian cricketer is tragic. I wouldn't want to change for anything in the world. There are more positives than negatives. It's the other nice people we play for." For every brat cricketer, there are tens of well-behaved gentlemen.

From Langer to Chappell to Irfan to Chopra, they agree. They also concur that the world has changed. Chappell is thankful there were no cell phones with cameras in his day. Adam Gilchrist is thankful the press did not make stories out of the internet rumour that the baby his wife had just delivered was actually Michael Slater's. "With media becoming bigger and bigger, almost 24x7, they need to find a new edge to everything," says Dravid. "Incidents of cricketers being heckled by the public are not news; cricketers' reacting is not new. This has not happened for the first time, but they get blown out of proportion. A small argument becomes a brawl, a brawl a punch-up, a punch-up a full-blown war."

Of course it would help if the fans and the media saw the cricketers as human beings. Humour, charm, mental toughness are a cricketer's friend, but they don't always help. Cricket boards can give players talks on how to politely walk away from situations - Cricket Australia does that - but there can't be one right way.

David Lloyd, an immensely likeable former cricketer, coach and umpire, endorses the CA way. And he does enjoy his pubs. "I would be disciplined enough to walk away from a situation," he says. "It just isn't worth it. There are far more important things in life. I would expect any player in any situation to handle himself in a proper manner, because to some extent we are public property. I always told me England lads to not do anything their parents wouldn't be proud of."

Dravid's way is pretty effective too. "From the team bus, when I put the curtain down, I often see there are people lined up waiting for you, waving at you," he says. "There is a young kid on the road, selling magazines. He smiles at you, recognises you through the tiny window, waves at you, does a cricket action for you. That's passion. That's what it is about. I always look at it and say, that's the world game. The whole world's got to be grateful for that. And when I came across the rare idiot of the other kind, that kid is what I think of."

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo

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