April 2, 2011

India or Sri Lanka: whom to support?

Which team does a second-generation British Asian fan cheer for? It's not all that straightforward

Most British Asian cricket fans thrive on their identity. But if I'm honest, I have struggled with mine. As England will find this summer when they meet both World Cup finalists, Sri Lanka and India, Asians in Britain are among cricket's most fervent supporters. Today, as passions brink on overspill in the restaurants and homes hosting World Cup get-togethers, I'll be thinking of all the old friends from school who branded me the ultimate "coconut". Raised in an Indian household, I am an unashamed England supporter.

Allegiance is central to sport - it gives a veneer of meaning to an otherwise trite pastime - but as I found, just what drives someone to support one team over another is no straightforward thing.

It was easier when I was younger. I supported England because they were the team I knew. Introduced to the game in time for the 1993 Ashes, there was no question of backing Australia, so England were my team. As each of the players and their conundrums became more familiar - Will Hick ever make another Test hundred? Has Fraser lost his "nip"? Should Stewart open? - the tie grew stronger. It was a whole six Test series before the ultimate question of allegiance was thrust upon me, and by then it was too late.

England v India in the summer of 1996? Of course I supported England, they were my boys. Childish rebellion drove me to scream my colours ever louder. Wedding receptions became my own, nonsensical underdog struggle as I raged against the family establishment that was instructing me to support India. I proudly passed the Tebbit Test, having no clue of the sentiment that underpinned it.

Familiarity and defiance may have once been the root of my support for England but at secondary school I learned just why it was so sacrilegious. Colonial history and the experience of Indian migrants in England gave an altogether weightier feeling to the question of allegiance. For my parents' generation, supporting India was about maintaining a connection to the old homeland. It was about sticking one in the eye of the coloniser. It was about expressing an identity that was mangled in the process of adapting to a new country.

My childish resistance quickly gave way to a more sombre assessment. Though I still supported England, I insisted that was the fault solely of coincidence. If the first series I watched had involved India, there would have been no question about following the family line. As it was, I glibly accepted my schoolmates' decree that I was brown on the outside and white on the inside. Visiting India as a young teenager I apologised for supporting the old enemy and swore earnestly that against anyone else, India was my team.

Fast-forward 15 years and the context has changed. Indian cricket can exert an influence even greater than the Anglo-Saxon colonisers could ever manage. The mammoth TV-viewing public offers advertisers a market they are prepared to spend vast swathes of cash reaching. The IPL is a chest-thumping celebration of a modern India that the world's best players are longing to play in, and the BCCI can dictate terms to the rest of the game. The on-field ascent to supremacy has followed, and MS Dhoni's side stand within one match of crowning the transition by claiming cricket's biggest global prize. Fair to say the new India offers little by way of romantic struggle.

For most British Indians, like my friend Shamik, the shadow of the past is still what matters. "Basically it's history," he said. "Even though financially the power rests with India now, the context of colonialism and family makes India the team I support." But for me it's different. I cheered when India floored the boorish Australian side in epic series through the 2000s, yet now find myself begging for someone to challenge the new top dogs.

So coming to the all-Asian final, I'm left with another tricky question of alliance. I'm proud the best two teams in the tournament are Asian and compelled by the backdrop of two subcontinental giants playing their final World Cup match. Cricket-wise there is little to pick between the two sides. My roots tie me to India but the draw of a small island-nation scrapping against the game's powerhouse is almost irresistible. With a day to go I can't quite decide, but come the toss a jolt in my gut will reveal the answer.

Sahil Dutta is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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