Do we as cricket fans appreciate the game and the skills involved in a deeper way when we are neutrals rather than partisans? Are we more balanced and sensible when watching games that do not involve our own teams? Are we less likely to vent spleen and question the sanity (or worse) of batsmen or bowlers when they appear to fail? A couple of occasions in recent times got me thinking about such questions - and answering all of them in the affirmative.
When I switched on the live telecast of the final day of the second Test between Pakistan and Australia, it was well past lunch at the MCG. Day four had ended with Australia about 20 runs ahead and still playing out their first innings, so the match seemed headed for a draw.
As luck would have it, I tuned in just as Younis Khan was caught at short leg off Nathan Lyon and Pakistan were three down for 63. I was a bit surprised that they were over a hundred runs in arrears (the Aussies must have gone hell for leather in the pre-lunch session, I thought to myself). There were still about 47 overs left in the match, which had suddenly come alive. The captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, walked to the middle to join Azhar Ali, who had made an unbeaten 205 in the first innings and looked in very good nick.
Misbah reminds me of Rahul Dravid - they share an impregnable defence, enormous patience, and dogged courage. I enjoyed greatly his tendency to suddenly interrupt his favored tuk-tuk mode with gigantic sixes planted into the middle of the crowd. It was as if he wished to remind people that for a while he owned the record for the fastest Test century, and that if it weren't for the fragility of his team, he would just boss bowlers all the time. Misbah has been the calm eye at the centre of the volatile vortex that is Pakistan cricket. If anyone could see them through to safety today, I thought to myself as I settled down to watch what promised to be Test cricket at its gritty best, it's got to be Misbah.
His innings lasted exactly two balls. He attempted a wild sweep off his first ball, from Lyon, and was lucky to keep it down. A premeditated slog-sweep off the second was even wilder - the ball flew off the top edge and straight to the waiting short fine-leg fielder. The innings folded rapidly thereafter and Pakistan crashed to an innings defeat.
I was initially stunned at what seemed to be utter daftness if not rank irresponsibility. But I soon switched out of blaming Misbah to seeing things from a wider perspective. Perhaps he figured a couple of lusty blows at the outset would relieve some of the pressure and remind everyone it was still a good wicket to bat on (after all, Mitchell Starc had clobbered 84 runs with seven sixes just a couple of hours prior). Or he had surmised that Lyon, like many spinners, was a far lesser bowler when batsmen attacked him rather than when they just tried to defend. Or (as he admitted after the match) the pressure got to him and he lost his head. At any rate, my analysis went beyond Misbah's "failure" to an appreciation of the situation and to the fact that sometimes - in sport as in life - your hunches don't pay off.
What might my reaction have been had it been Virat Kohli or MS Dhoni in Misbah's place? I knew the answer: once you removed all the expletives, there wouldn't be too many words left in my "analysis".
Another graphic instance of how differently we view matches as neutrals rather than partisans comes from my frequent watching, on YouTube, of Stuart Broad's devastating spell of 8 for 15 as Australia collapsed to 60 all out on day one at Trent Bridge in the summer of 2015. Each of those eight Australian batsmen was caught in the slips off balls that seemed unplayable. There was swing, bounce, movement and pace - and nearly every one of them was pitched just short of a length and on or outside the off stump. As I watch, I am hardly ever critical of the Australian batsmen but am instead awed at one of the most brilliant spells of fast bowling in Test cricket.
Let me turn to a similar scenario but one involving India. When they came to Old Trafford in the summer of 2014, the series was level at 1-1. Dhoni won the toss and chose to bat. Inside the first six overs, India were 8 for 4 - with M Vijay, Gautam Gambhir, Cheteshwar Pujara and Kohli all gone, caught in the slip cordon off either James Anderson or Broad, three of them without scoring. I immediately indulged a familiar set of lamentations: our top order is hopeless abroad, they have no idea where their off stump is, they cannot handle bounce and swing, they are good only when the ball bounces no higher than the knee roll, and on and on. I spared not a thought for the brilliance of the bowling, for the conditions that favoured swing, or for that matter for the fact that all four batsmen in that top order had often shown both gumption and technique overseas.
It's obvious that for many of us being a fan often means wearing blinders that distort what is before our eyes. Maybe one way to appreciate our own team, and the game itself, is to watch more matches that don't involve our teams.