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Ahmer Naqvi

Is sporting fandom a set of rituals or a relationship?

Do you have to be obsessive in your love for the game to qualify as a true fan?

Ahmer Naqvi
Ahmer Naqvi
Fandom: an escape, an opportunity to learn life lessons, or just a simple pastime?  •  AFP

Fandom: an escape, an opportunity to learn life lessons, or just a simple pastime?  •  AFP

I think it was born of overcompensation, but after several years of writing on cricket and refusing to deal with statistics, I have spent the past year or so learning how to enjoy them, and have come to share the fascination they have for others. But today I wanted to return to writing on ideas that can't be improved or disproved through the use of numbers and context. I wanted to write on an idea that has developed through my personal experience of watching and loving cricket, yet one I feel others have experienced too.
Is following a sport a set of rituals or a relationship?
Taken literally, that sentence doesn't make immediate sense, so allow me to elaborate. When I was young, and for a long time after, the true mark of a "cricket fan" was the depth of his engagement. The proof of this depth was provided through a series of practices that felt ritualistic to me. A true fan would watch every ball of every match; a true fan would wake up at odd hours and stay up even later; a true fan spent his spare time reading up on cricket and collecting scorecards and finding ways to get autographs of the team when they stayed at a local hotel.
The rituals served a practical purpose too - it ensured that you had great access to the extremely nuanced narrative and constantly evolving context that is so vital to appreciating cricket. They were even more necessary for Pakistani teams, which had the habit of winning or losing games from assorted jaws of victories or defeats.
But these rituals were also essential, at least for me and the fans I grew up with, in terms of notions of masculinity and patriarchal tradition. Real boys went outside to play cricket, they memorised Waqar's strike rate, they pasted the cut-outs for fantasy cricket tournaments in pre-internet newspaper days on their walls or in their diaries. Hitting two sixes over long-on would help the gang of sneering teenagers embrace the American-born desi who pronounced "Louisiana" in a funny way; answering the trivia question on Javed Miandad would help the nerdy boy get a few smiles from the opposite sex. Some boys I knew could only ever bond with their taciturn fathers while listening to them complain about the run rate during a chase in Sharjah.
One of the most telling instances of these masculine desires, and how they played out, can be seen in a classic Pakistani drama series called Aahat. Originally (and quite brilliantly) written to address family planning in Pakistan, it chronicles the story of a young couple growing apart due to the pressure of their desire for a son. The husband realises the toll - both physical and mental - that it is taking on his wife, but he can't relent because of one reason. Having been forced to abandon his own cricketing dreams due to material reasons, he wants to have a son who will one day captain Pakistan's cricket team.
At some point in my life, though, the rituals began to lose their hold over me. A part of me actively wanted to resist it. There was no ideology, as such, to replace them, but a part of me hated the fact that I constantly had to prove my "faith" to others or to myself.
The realisation coincided with a time in my life when I was experiencing and learning to enjoy so much more that the world had to offer. There were concerts and day trips to the beach and pointless hangouts with bored friends, all offering their own unique joys. Perhaps most importantly there was the intensity of falling in love and having your heart broken. And the pursuit of these myriad pleasures and pains would come at the cost of the ritual - suddenly everything in cricket (other than perhaps an India-Pakistan game) was expendable in a way it hadn't been before.
And it is then that a part of me could finally accept, and be even confident of the fact, that not adhering to the rituals I had made up in my head didn't mean that I didn't love the game. Because eventually it wasn't about what I needed to prove to others but about what it gave to me.
Forcing yourself to watch every match, to stick through thick and thin, can also create a constant sense of anxiety and pessimism in some. It can cause a constant cynicism; it can create the kind of fan who, in Pakistani circles at least, feels every match is fixed. It can also create constant divisions - one corollary of adhering to rituals is to dismiss all casual fans, and especially to treat all women as non-serious fans. It can cause you to dismiss others who don't meet your exacting standards of what constitutes "true" fandom.
But what really drove me towards viewing this dynamic between me and cricket as a "relationship" was in the aftermath of the heartbreaks it caused. Few of us can return to what breaks our heart, and doing so is often considered a sign of poor mental health. But we keep coming back to our team no matter how wretched it makes us feel. And I wondered how it was that we were so magnanimous in forgiving our teams or sport when we wouldn't do the same for loved ones.
I felt perhaps it's because our fandom becomes akin to those sorts of rare relationships where we manage to possess both the honesty to see someone at their most broken and still have the courage to love them. It becomes one of those relationships where you can trust that what you want isn't happiness; you just want them to be with you forever, regardless.
In many ways the internet relaxed a lot of the dichotomy between ritualists and romantics. You no longer had to rote-memorise stats because there was Statsguru; you could at least appreciate Michael Holding because there was YouTube; you could find that subgroup of fans who used the same pop-culture references as you to celebrate their heroes.
Ultimately I want to be very clear that I don't see this as black and white. What I get from viewing fandom as a relationship could be the exact things that others get from viewing it as rituals. Some find our fandom an escape and a sanctuary, some use it as a way to learn and apply lessons to their own lives. Ritual or relationship, it certainly helps all of us find meaning.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @karachikhatmal