As a nation, let's stop caring about cricket

The ugly Indian fan has become a rich bullying brat who wants to win everything

59-An-Indian-fan-at-the-Narendra-Modi-Stadium Cheering them on: An Indian fan at the Narendra Modi Stadium | Salil Bera

Let’s not even pretend that we aren’t sore losers. Way back in 1996, when Sri Lanka stormed into the semis of the Wills World Cup playing an audacious, revolutionary game nobody had ever seen before, the Indian fans at Eden Gardens, fresh from defeating Pakistan in the quarter final, behaved like spoilt, petulant brats whose Diwali firecrackers had been snatched away unceremoniously and dunked into the Palk Strait.

A spoilt, entitled fandom, fed on a steady diet of jingoistic propaganda pretending to be cinema, got up and left the world’s largest stadium when the Australians started winning.

India had been chasing a doable target of 252 and when they started collapsing like bicycles in a stand, fans (one man, I clearly remember, was dressed as Sri Ram himself, a novelty back then) set a section of the stadium on fire and pelted the outfield with fruits and water bottles. Warnings were issued and the match resumed, but so did the pelting, with the result that match referee Clive Lloyd called off the game and awarded it to Sri Lanka (We were 8/120 in 34 overs, so it was all over anyway, really.)

To be fair, nobody had expected Sri Lanka to be so kick-ass. They were a dark horse, back then, so much so that none of their players even featured in the multi-starrer World Cup campaign I’d spent most of 1995 creating (Pepsi’s rather cheeky ‘Nothing Official About It’, which took a swipe at Coca-Cola’s status as the official drink of the World Cup). It featured Indians, South Africans, Brits and West Indians. We had written scripts for Australian and Pakistani players as well, but we couldn’t swing those contracts in time.

Our campaign simply celebrated the strengths and the quirks of the various players (Jonty Rhodes’s insane fielding, Courtney Walsh’s merciless bowling, Sachin’s irreverent boundaries.) If there was a bad guy/enemy at all, it was Coke, the boring official drink. But we hadn’t even thought about writing a script for a Sri Lankan player. Sri Lanka went on to win the final (played at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, back in the days when India and Pakistan were couth enough to co-host cricket events.) Their sudden, swaggering supremacy was utterly unexpected, the stuff of legend, and after that first spoilt-brat outburst in the Eden, Indians quickly became fans of the swashbuckling Lankans, with Sanath Jayasuriya, Arjuna Ranatunga, Muttiah Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga going on to become massively popular across the subcontinent.

Pepsi followed the same ‘joy of cricket’ brief for the 1999 and 2003 World Cups―putting out fun films where Shah Rukh Khan wears a curly wig, pretends to be Sachin Tendulkar and sneaks into the Indian locker room to steal a Pepsi or where Shane Warne and Carl Hooper kidnap an amnesiac Sachin and pack him off on a plane to Honolulu. We even did a couple of ‘friendship series’ ads with the Pakistani team, which sounds surreal given the current climate, but believe me, they happened. But in 2007, Pepsi buckled to the increasingly prevalent jingoism. They rejected all the agency’s fun ideas, (causing me to become a gibbering wreck, abandon the brand and switch to writing novels instead) manufactured a blue coloured Pepsi (it looked like Colin glass cleaner, tbh) lined all the players up to scowl grimly into camera, and proclaim they were out to quench ‘The thirst of the Blue Billion’.

A day to forget: Aravinda De Silva, with his player of the match trophy, escorted from the field by Indian commandos after the 1996 semi-final between India and Sri Lanka was marred by crowd trouble; the match was awarded to Sri Lanka | AP A day to forget: Aravinda De Silva, with his player of the match trophy, escorted from the field by Indian commandos after the 1996 semi-final between India and Sri Lanka was marred by crowd trouble; the match was awarded to Sri Lanka | AP

It was a full panauti campaign. India crashed out of that World Cup without even making the super-eights. This excerpt from 2008’s The Zoya Factor sums up how I felt then.

“Backing cricket is always a gamble. You spend like half your annual advertising budget on a cricket campaign and then they go in there and play abysmally and the public says it’s because they do too many ads and they start hating your product. It happens without fail after every major tournament. Even after our best performance in recent times when our team managed to make it to the finals (and then lost miserably, but why go there?), this chain sms did the rounds saying, ‘On this shameful day we hereby promise to boycott every product the team endorses, Jai Hind.’

It doesn’t help that the channel guys seem to get a sadistic pleasure out of running a player’s ad right after he gets out for duck. One moment he’s out, and the next he’s in the ad break, receiving calls from his mother telling him, Veeru beta, karlo duniya mutthi mein.’ That’s why I say, give me movie stars every time. I mean, a lot of people say Shah Rukh Khan can’t act for toffee but at least he’s never given a performance so bad that it incited people to climb up ladders and smear gobar on his hoardings.”

CRICKET-ICC-MENS-WC-2023-IND-AUS-ODI Bitter end: Fans during the India-Australia final at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad | AFP

See, basically, gobar-on-hoardings is standard Indian fan behaviour. We know it, the players know it, it’s accepted as a form of extreme, intimate love, a Kabir Singh/Arjun Reddy sort of toxic emotion where we hit each other in order to prove how deep our emotions run.

The IPL helped roll back the jingoism a little, because it de-linked cricket from nationalities, and fans got to see players from all over the world (except Pakistan, of course.)

And then came India’s big wins under Dhoni. Suddenly, we had so much victory that we could be generous. Even large-hearted and gracious. The pressure was off. It was a golden period.

But there’s been a drought of wins post 2013.

And there’s been a surge in ‘spectacle’.

Social media has made ordinary folk hungry to become superfans, to be different and noticed and earn mega-likes. There’s been mainstream movies glorifying badass fandom like Fan and Selfiee. Fangirling or having a fanboy moment for your favourite player or team is something even celebrities like Abhishek Bachchan, Varun Dhawan and Dhanush do.

A young Pakistani fan went viral with a vengeance when he tearfully bemoaned his team’s fondness for ‘peezzay’ and ‘paastay’ instead of practice and performance. There’s been the sly, but wildly popular ‘mauka-mauka’ campaigns that actively make fun of the Pakistani fan. India superfan Sudhir Kumar Chaudhary, with his distinctive Sachin paint and get-up, and Bangladesh’s Shoaib Ali with his yellow and brown stripes and stuffed tiger (which was sadly ripped apart by ugly Indian fans in Pune) are well known and followed on social media. It’s cool to be a fan.

Add to that the fact that the IPL, over the years, has become purely performative. The matches are rock concerts, and taking a cue from rowdy football fans, RCB and CSK fans have become infamous for their obnoxiousness. And when you factor in spiralling unemployment (which directly impacts the marriageability of young men), the increased tolerance to hate speeches of the right-wing variety, and the active fomentation of hate, things start to get ugly.

Today, we’re seeing venom and trolling at an insane level. Virat Kohli is routinely vilified for requesting people to not burn crackers, or to not hate on Mohammed Shami or for endorsing Manyavar, a formal Indian garment brand that is brave (and savvily inclusive) enough to say ‘Har tyohaar, India ka tyohaar’. We’re seeing wives, girlfriends, mothers and daughters being trolled and threatened.

But the final, deeply problematic turn of the screw which we witnessed in this just concluded World Cup was the everything-official-about-it inclusion of political and religious discrimination into the BCCI’s planning itself. How else to explain why Pakistan’s match against India was in front of a massively hostile Ahmedabad crowd? How else to explain why Mohali and SMS Jaipur, both world class stadiums in cities whose audiences are generous and informed enough to appreciate the nuances of the game irrespective of nationalities, didn’t score a single match in the schedule? How else to explain why cities with a historic, well-established cricket culture and love for the game like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata (water-bottle hurling at the Sri Lankans notwithstanding) didn’t get to host the final, but the Narendra Modi stadium did?

No wonder a spoilt, entitled fandom, fed on a steady diet of jingoistic propaganda pretending to be cinema, got up and left the world’s largest stadium when the Australians started winning, thus proving that we have the world’s smallest hearts. Honestly? The ugly Indian fan has been revealed to be a rich bullying brat who wants to win all the games at his own birthday party, simply because he’s hosting it.

So as the team, which seems sensible and level headed enough, philosophically goes back to their regular lives, we need to figure out what to do with ourselves.

Let’s not label this one or that one a panuati. Let’s not say the Gujju crowd was too rich to cheer as loudly as Mumbai would have. And please let’s not troll the wives and daughters of the Australian players.

Instead, let us resolve, as a nation, and as fans of the game, to stop caring so desperately about cricket. Pat Cummins could stand there, casually dangling the cup we’d have sold our collective kidneys to have won simply because he doesn’t care that desperately. His entire country is not a pack of manic, frantic, helicopter parents, feverishly putting pressure on their one and only offspring to fulfil their long cherished dream. Cummins has that slightly neglected middle-child energy. Australia have middle-child energy. No wonder they won their sixth World Cup.

Please let’s put aside fomented hate and seek success and fulfilment in our own lives. Let’s be fans who don’t give so much of a damn. That’s the most effective kind of fan.