Why Indian fans treat their sporting heroes so harshly

Indian cricketers, and other Indian sportsmen, are constantly vilified and denigrated by their 'fans'

Amit Varma
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Friday, September 3, 2004
2.50pm IST - Beating up little brother
Samir Chopra responds to my earlier post about why Indian fans are so hard on their sportspeople, and says, "lots of Indian fans that probably write to you are writing from the great diaspora, and part of the frustration expressed in those emails comes from the team's perceived failure at backing them up in those edgy conversations they seem to be perpetually having with other expats about cricket." Samir continues:
I'm sure there are many fans back home who are armchair enthusiasts in the way you describe, but I think by far the most vocal is the Indian expat who gets to work and has to listen to his Pakistani, English, Aussie, South African or Kiwi office-mate ask him, "Say, Vijay, what about your boys last night?" The Indian, used to endless jokes about his accent, his country's poverty, the wierd movies with the actors that run around trees in saris singing songs, seethes internally and curses himself for having been born in a country whose cricket players do not provide him sufficient rhetorical ammunition for these encounters. When he gets home, he fires off his emails.
It's a bit like beating up your little brother when you get home after you've been slapped around a bit in the school yard.
Hmm, no wonder the kid's growing up so traumatised.
Thursday, September 2, 2004
5.00pm - A touch of schadenfreude?
Feroz Faisal from Malaysia writes in to say that it isn't only Indians who are hard on their sporting heroes. England is quite harsh on its sportspeople, he says, and cites Paul Scholes as an example, ascribing his retirement to the harsh treatment he received from fans and journalists. He continues, "In Malaysia we used to have a hockey coach, Terry Walsh, now coaching Holland, a football coach, Claude LeRoy, former coach of Cameroon, and Morten Frost Hansen used to coach our badminton team. All three were forced out by the mean-spiritedness of the National Press and the lack of affection from the fans."
He says that this mean-spiritedness comes from our tendency towards schadenfreude: a German word meaning delight in another person's misfortune. And jealousy, perhaps? The bigger they are, the harder we wish they fall, because we ourselves are so small? Feroz ends his mail by saying, "I believe sport brings out the baser and uglier aspects of human behaviour and that is why we kill our idols."
I think he's right - but that's not the full truth. At quite the other extreme, sport can also bring out the finer emotions in all of us. Most cricket lovers I know would agree with that, though many would, regrettably, add the caveat: only when we win.
4.20pm - Nationality? What's that?
Ahmad Raza sends me a mail with a suggestion on how India's lack of a quality allrounder can be solved. He says:
Bring in Azhar Mahmood of Pakistan into the Indian side. It is apparent that Azhar is not on good terms with PCB. It is no secret that he is talented. And he's been constantly kicked back to the floor by the PCB, so if a good enough deal is offered, he might be willing. It is rumored that Bob Woolmer is thinking of bringing him into the Pakistani side, and before he does anything, the BCCI needs to act ... I'm telling you, this is a great solution. Go ahead, there's nothing wrong with thinking it over and trying.
Hmmm. This is heading into John Lennonny `Imagine there's no country' territory. Maybe India should just offer Pakistan a swap - "You give us Azhar Mahmood, we give you Javagal Srinath". Think they'd agree?
4.10pm - Javagal demands an apology
Indian fans may be too hard on their players, but you'd imagine that former cricketers would be more understanding. Javagal Srinath's latest column, referring to yesterday's loss against England, is headlined: `Indian batsmen owe an apology'. (Read the last paragraph to gain some true insight. Imagine what he'd be like if he was India's coach.)
Srinath is an entertaining man, though often not by his own volition, and I struggle to remember his apology after the bowling attack led by him conceded 359 runs against Australia in the World Cup final last year. Quite to the contrary, he was caviling about how former players like Sunil Gavaskar and Navjot Sidhu were too hard on the team. I wonder how his former team-mates feel about this transformation.
Wednesday, September 1, 2004
6.20pm - `The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, nor in ourselves, but in our sportsmen'
Are Indian fans too hard on their sporting heroes?
Last Saturday a wonderful game of cricket took place, in the Videocon Cup final, between Pakistan and Australia. On a two-paced pitch with variable bounce, Australia, batting first, realised early on that there was no point in biffing everything from the outset, as they normally do. So Matthew Hayden grinded his way to 59 off 114 balls, of which the first 24 came off 73. It was an innings of sense and character, grounded in the moment, suited to the context of the game. And yet, I could not help thinking that had it been India in that situation, and had Sachin Tendulkar instead of Hayden played an innings like that, Indian fans would have been unleashing invective, and letting off steam about how he was selfishly batting for personal milestones.
I saw just this tendency when, in their match against Pakistan in the Asia Cup recently, India were 151 for 5 in 29 overs, needing 301, with a victory just not possible in the circumstances. Tendulkar was at the crease, and instead of panicking and playing a rash shot chasing an impossible target, as a less mature batsman might have done, he realised that, in the context of the tournament, India needed to avoid conceding a bonus point. He milked the bowling sedately with that end in mind. I happened to be blogging that match, and I was flooded with emails ranging from merely miffed to intensely incensed, all on the theme of the man's selfishness. Pakistan's excellent bowling, and the context of the game, counted for nothing. Their hero was letting them down, and was an [expletive deleted], and a [expletive deleted again], for it.
But it is not only towards Tendulkar that Indian fans are harsh. Peter Roebuck, in a recent column in The Indian Express, wrote, "Great men are remembered for their failures, ordinary players for their triumphs." Not so in India. Roebuck says that Ajit Agarkar is remembered chiefly for his century at Lord's and his match-winning turn at Adelaide; it would be nice if that were so, but the truth is that he is known most, by the average Indian fan, for his series of ducks against Australia, which earned him the nickname of Bombay Duck. And despite Mohammad Kaif's heroics at the 2002 NatWest Trophy, his house was stoned when India began the 2003 World Cup on a losing note.
Cricketers at least get both extremes, receiving both disdain and adulation, but India's other sportspeople are not quite so lucky. The manner in which Indian fans reacted to the recent Olympics is a case in point, with much bemoaning of how we got just one medal out of it. The day after Suma Shirur came eighth in the final of the 10-meter air rifle event, the headlines screamed, 'Suma comes last'. Last, gentlemen? Eighth in the world? Kunjarani Devi came fourth in women's weightlifting (48kg), Abhinav Bindra qualified third and came seventh in the 10-meter air rifle, the Indian women came seventh in the 4x400 metres relay, Anju Bobby George came sixth in the long jump, and all of these performances were made out, by the Indian media, to be part of a litany of shame.
Am I saying that Indians should be proud of the way India performed in the Olympics? Of course not. For a country with over a billion people to get just one medal is a matter of shame, but it is our sporting system and the support infrastructure that we should be ashamed of, and not the individuals whose achievements come despite the system. Each of the men and women fought against the odds, with little governmental or financial support, making personal sacrifices that they hoped would one day seem justified, if not in terms of medals won, at least in terms of the respect they received. When they climbed one step, the system pushed them back two, but they went on climbing. After the brickbats they have received, and the vilification some of them have been subjected to, would you blame young aspiring sportspeople if they decided not to bother, and to just go and get that MBA degree?
Why are Indians so harsh on their sportspeople, then? There are two reasons for this. One, wonderfully explicated by Ramachandra Guha, is that in India, "sport has become a vehicle for the unfulfilled aspirations of everyday life". One of the most important components of our sense of identity is our nationality; there is little else that can give us pride on a regular basis. We are a third-world economy, a marginal player on the geo-political stage, and nowhere near the global cultural mainstream. And as Guha says, "it is the cricketers, and they alone, who are asked to redeem these failures, to make one forget, at least temporarily, the harsh realities of endemic poverty and corrupt and brutal politicians." When they fail, thus, the disappointment is visceral, and goes beyond the context of sport.
The other reason for this harshness is that, in this television age, a significant chunk of spectators prefer the game to be an exhibition rather than a contest - a topic I have blogged on before ('Is there a crisis in cricket?'). They watch cricket for attractive strokeplay and all the big hitting that goes on, and care little for the nuances of the game, and the test of character that it inevitably is.
These kind of spectators, of course, are the commercial backbone of the game today. They were created by the sudden and rapid spread of satellite television in India in the early `90s, and most of them converted to cricket because of the entertainment it gave them. There were still, of course, the hardcore cricket fans who had followed, and loved, and played the game from before it reached out to this wider market, but they were vastly outnumbered by this new breed of peripheral supporters.
The reason that so many from this vast penumbra of cricket fans are cricket illiterate is that India is not a naturally sporting country. It is a point often made that Indians are a sedentary lot, in stark contrast to, say, Australia, which is an outdoors country with a strong sporting culture. Most of the game's constituency in India, thus, has not actually played any kind of competitive cricket, and does not understand the vicissitudes and the nuances of the game, and takes no pleasure in the drama inherent in every ball of a good game of cricket. What's a maiden over to these gents (and ladies)? A waste of time and money.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.
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