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When Indian crowds heckle, the spectator loses

Suresh Menon | | Updated: October 7, 2015, 6:01 PM IST

The IPL aspires to be the EPL (English Premier League), so it is ironic that poor crowd behaviour - a feature of the EPL - should be a worry. After all, it is one more step in the 'right' direction. All we need now is racism and sexual innuendos hurled at the players, and then the IPL and EPL could be identical twins.

But I am being facetious. RCB skipper Virat Kohli's outburst after the match in Mumbai was merely putting into words what spectators at cricket matches across the country have known for a long time. That there has been a 'Bushification' of fans at every ground - everything is down to us versus them, and in the words of the former American President, "if you are not for us, you are against us." When the middle ground has all but disappeared from the national discourse, why should it be different in cricket, which merely reflects the society we live in?

What was surprising was the unexpected sliver of truth that managed to shine through amidst the miasma of paid-for (and gratuitous) PR spouted by commentators, pundits, coaches and captains. Kohli is an intelligent man, and a fabulous all round cricketer who will soon lead India, and it must be galling to be told by sections of the crowd that he is a 'cheat' or made to feel unwelcome. Of all players, he is least likely to turn the other cheek, especially when he feels he has done nothing to be ashamed of.

Part of the Mumbai crowd's reaction to Kohli was based on a misunderstanding of the laws of the game. When local player Ambati Rayudu was run by Kohli, following a mix-up with the bowler, it was a fair dismissal. The crowd probably thought Kohli should have recalled the batsman, and kept reminding him through the rest of the game leading Kohli to say later, "I don't know why they (the crowd) get so worked up during IPL. IPL is not the end of the world. It is only creating hate among the players."

He has a point. If it is so easy to create love and understanding among players (by merely turning up), then surely, hatred can also be created by something equally simple. But the confession that the IPL is not the end of the world might not go down well among those whose livelihoods depend on their believing (and propagating) the lie that it is indeed so.

To add to the irony was Sunil Gavaskar's comment in his newspaper column to the effect that Mumbai's spectator has a "big heart", is accommodating of players from other teams and so on.

Our crowds have been raucous and unsporting for some years now; sometimes even home players have not been spared. The deathly silence that greets a boundary from a visiting batsman at many venues is embarrassing. The great Sachin Tendulkar has been booed in Mumbai during a Test match, so Gavaskar's theory of the Mumbai crowd hardly holds any water.

Gavaskar himself was so badly treated by the Kolkata crowd in the 1980s that he swore never to play a Test there again, and kept his word. In the middle of a series against England (1984-85), he withdrew from a Test because he had been given the bird on the previous occasion at the Eden Gardens.

Half a century ago, the career of a promising player, Milkha Singh, maker of the first century in the Duleep Trophy, was ended prematurely by the crowds picking on him especially when he fielded on the boundary. So the tradition of boorish behaviour is not unique to the IPL, although the format, which lays great stress on 'loyalty' and 'fandom' and 'brand identification' probably invites sharp divisions. When devotion to a team is carried to an extreme, this is the logical result.

It is the same devotion that pays the fees of the cricketers, keeps the wheels of the advertising industry well oiled and places the food on the table for those who depend on the sport for a living. So it can't be all bad. Kohli is a natural when it comes to attracting the crowd's attention. He is aggressive and energetic, ironically the two qualities that make him such a darling of the advertisers.

His belief that crowds in other centers are well behaved is only partially true. The most fair crowds in India are probably in Chennai, but even there individuals have had cause for complaint.

The real losers in the Us versus Them atmosphere are the spectators who come to watch a good game of cricket no matter who wins.
First Published: April 29, 2013, 9:14 AM IST

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