India cruised to a six-wicket victory over Sri Lanka in the third ODI in Kandy and in doing so, wrapped up the series with two games to go. The ease of India’s victory, after escaping with a narrow win in the second ODI, was too much for the home crowd and their frustrations boiled over when the away side required just eight runs for victory.
The series victory is India’s seventh in a row against Sri Lanka and clearly, the local fans had seen enough of their team’s recent inept performances, which include losing an ODI series to Zimbabwe only a few weeks ago. With Rohit Sharma and MS Dhoni calmly easing towards victory, the situation erupted on one of the grass banks at the stadium in Pallekele.
The passionate Sri Lankan fans, clearly enraged by their team’s lack of fight, began hurling plastic bottles into the playing arena and it took 35 minutes for security to calm the situation — which they did by taking the players off the field and evacuating the offending stand. When play resumed, Rohit and Dhoni knocked off the runs in front of a near empty stadium.
The poor behaviour of the fans and their interruption of the action out on the field was reminiscent of the spectator riot that held up play during India and Sri Lanka’s World Cup semi-final at Eden Gardens in 1996. In both games, the home fans were irate and upset at the performance of their team, albeit there was a lot more at stake in Kolkata. As was the case in 1996, the match in Kandy also had to be completed after fans were removed from the ground and that is not something anyone wants to see.
Like all sports, cricket is for the fans; it is a form of entertainment and it is the passion and enthusiasm of supporters that make cricket what it is, particularly in the subcontinent. The crowds in Asia have a reputation for making the most noise, and their love for their teams and the game of cricket is almost unrivalled. Cricket is so much more than just a game in the subcontinent; it is a religion and a way of life. But that does in no way excuse the kind of crowd behaviour witnessed in Kandy on Sunday night.
No matter how passionate, no matter how invested in the result and no matter how upsetting repeated poor performances from your team are, there is no excuse for throwing things onto the field of play. It’s dangerous, it’s a bad look, and it’s bad for the game.
Spare a thought for the Sri Lankan players. The national team is perhaps at its lowest ebb and is still reeling and recovering from the retirement of its golden generation. This is a young side living and playing in the shadows and aftermath of some of the world’s best-ever players, let alone Sri Lanka’s. This is a side full of inexperience trying to emulate those who came before them, their idols, their heroes. This is a side ranked eighth in the world trying their best against the powerhouse Indian cricket team.
After losing the ODI series to lowly Zimbabwe, they snuck home by the skin of their teeth in the one-off Test match. They then went on to be humiliated by India in the Test series, being clean swept by the world’s number one Test team, and now they’ve already lost the ODI series.
What this team needs right now is support. Yes, the fans are frustrated, they expect better from their team, but unruly behaviour at matches helps no one. Sri Lankan fans demand the best, they are a proud cricketing nation with a history of success and punching above their weight in the international arena, but right now the team is struggling and they need the passion of the fans channelled in the right direction.
When a young side is struggling against a far superior opposition the spectators can become a vocal 12th man.
Think back to the second ODI when Akila Dananjaya was on a roll and making a mockery of the Indian middle order, that’s when the crowd lifts its intensity to match that of the players. That’s when things become uncomfortable for the visiting team, when the pressure piles on and when the heat goes up in the kitchen.
It’s easy to be a good fan, to cheer loudly and passionately, when your team is doing well. The real supporters, the real lovers of their team and the ones who love and respect the game of cricket are the ones who are there through the highs and the lows, through thick and thin. They are the ones who find their voice when their team is down in the dumps.
Regardless of how displeased someone may be at the state of their team’s cricket there is no place in our game for the kind of scenes we saw in Eden Gardens in 1996 (and 1999 during the India-Pakistan Test), and after the poor crowd behaviour in Pallekele on Sunday night let’s hope we never see that sort of unpleasantness again.