In 2002, the West Indies came to India to play three Tests and seven ODIs. The first three one-day matches — at Jamshedpur, Nagpur and Rajkot, respectively — were exciting, high-scoring affairs. The West Indies won the first two, India the third. It’s unlikely that too many people would remember those three matches today, even if they featured Ashish Nehra and Yuvraj Singh for India, and Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels for the West Indies, all four of whom also starred in the just-concluded World T20 tournament.
But it’s also unlikely that too many people would remember those three matches for what else happened: At all three stadiums, the crowds disrupted the games, throwing bottles and other trash at the West Indians. In Jamshedpur and Nagpur, presumably the “fans” were upset that India lost. But in Rajkot, India was flying towards a victory when the crowd misbehaved. That game actually had to be abandoned then — and India was awarded a victory courtesy the Duckworth-Lewis rules for interrupted games. In any case, India was so far ahead that if the match had not been disrupted, they would certainly have won easily.
This crassness was a sad revelation to the West Indians, in the past invariably a hugely popular team in this country. In The Times of India, the great Viv Richards told us just how dejected he was by how the crowds treated his colleagues:
"[D]uring my playing days, Indian crowds had the reputation of loving their cricket and applauding even visiting players. I have scored a few runs in these parts, and I remember crowds applauding me whenever I reached a personal milestone.
"Sadly, the current spectators don't seem to love cricket, only Indian cricketers. I am saddened to note that no one claps when a West Indian [does well]. One would not have guessed that Sarwan had reached a half-century at Jamshedpur because the crowd simply ignored it.”
If that was a decade-and-a-half ago, Richards might have been writing about the West Indies victory over India in Mumbai’s WT20 semifinal on 31 March this year. I had my reasons for not watching that match, but I watched the highlights a day later. The huge cheers for Indian boundaries, I could understand. The huge cheers for each West Indian wicket that fell, I could understand that too. But the sullen and utter silence that greeted every West Indian boundary, as well as their eventual victory, was a disappointing, soul-destroying shame.
And yet it’s hardly new. Indian crowds did exactly the same thing in 2002. The police and our cricket authorities have learned their lesson, too. They now actually expect our crowds to misbehave. Which is why you cannot take bottles into the stadiums, and why the vendors inside will sell you ice-diluted Sprite in a paper cup, not in a bottle.
What accounts for this behaviour? In 2002, I tried hard to answer that question, finally writing this in Seminar “I was left with just one explanation. It has to do with the sullen, prickly, hyper- but pseudo-nationalism we have learned over the years in India. It has to do with the way we have drenched cricket in it. And it has to do with the immense expectations from cricket that kind of nationalism breeds in us.”
A decade-and-a-half later, we’ve only refined the crassness.
And because we burden our cricket and our cricketers with this albatross of our nationalism, we have the incidents that flared up after last week’s loss to the West Indies. In Lucknow and Srinagar, the result of the match caused Indians to attack other Indians. One group celebrated the West Indies victory over India, another objected and waved the flag, and before you could say “T20” there was stone-throwing and flag-waving, brawling and slogan-shouting. In both cases, the police had to intervene. In Srinagar, this happened at that city’s National Institute of Technology; authorities had to shut down the campus and ask students to leave for a few days.
This is how we react to cricket, these days. This is how we react to this game our once-colonial masters bequeathed us.
So get used to it, Viv Richards. Maybe you’re right: we no longer love cricket. Certainly we can no longer allow ourselves to applaud your compatriots’ performances. For these games our teams play are no longer just games. Instead, they have become vessels for a nationalism that grows shallower by the day.
After all, only two days after that semifinal loss to the West Indies, a chief minister announced that those who don’t chant a slogan have no place in this country. Talk about shallow.