CRICKET: THE FIRES OF RESENTMENT

June 30, 2019

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Hearts on fire at Eden Gardens in 1996
Hearts on fire at Eden Gardens in 1996

The viral video of a Pakistani fan bullying Pakistan cricket team’s captain Sarfraz Ahmed, following the team’s loss to India in the ongoing World Cup, didn’t surprise those who have been following cricket for a while now. Cricket fans in the subcontinent, after all, have a knack for making heroes out of nobodies overnight and turning the legends of the game into villains on the basis of just one bad performance.

From lighting fires in the stands to pelting stones at the opposition’s team bus, there is nothing that fans in our part of the world haven’t done to express their anger towards their team, or the opposition for that

matter. When India collapsed against Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata while chasing 251 to qualify for the final of the World Cup in 1996, it was too much to handle for Indian fans. Even though Sri Lanka was awarded a win over the hosts after play was abandoned, it left a bitter taste in the mouth.

The personal abuse hurled by a fan at Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed after the World Cup loss to India was only the latest in a long line of boorish behaviour by subcontinental fans expressing anger at their under-performing teams. It’s time this unruly attitude changed but is the media fanning the flames?

The West Indies, too, have been victims of tantrums of fans in the subcontinent when they beat Bangladesh comprehensively in Dhaka in the 2011 World Cup. Not only was the team bus attacked on its way to the hotel, some of the players, including the likes of Chris Gayle, narrowly escaped getting seriously injured.

Of course, crashing out of the group stages or losing a knock-out match in ICC tournaments is always disappointing; but what makes it worse is the unwarranted abuse that is hurled towards the players and their families. Sometimes things can take an ugly turn, so much so that players have to seek help from law enforcement agencies. And who knows it better than M.S. Dhoni, the former Indian captain, who, despite having done so much for his country, has had security deployed at his residence on various occasions after his team lost an important game or crashed out of the World Cup in the early stages.

Two years ago, when the two Asian giants, Pakistan and India, met in the final of the ICC Champions Trophy 2017, both teams knew very well that the losing side would have to bear the brunt of the local media and enraged fans. Unfortunately for India, the result went in Pakistan’s favour, which meant that they had to face the music at home. Indian fans were so angry and frustrated that they burnt posters and effigies of Virat Kohli — arguably the all-time greatest white ball Indian cricketer — R. Ashwin and M.S. Dhoni, who had captained the Indian team to three ICC tournament wins.

Not only did angry fans come out in large numbers in different cities, but many of them also broke their TV sets on the roads to express their frustration over Kohli’s decision to bowl first. It wasn’t the first time either. The Indian team, M.S. Dhoni, in particular, had to experience an all-too-similar reaction a few years ago when India had lost to England in a must-win encounter and got knocked out of the World T20 2009, and in the following year after losing to West Indies at the World T20 in 2010.

The fans didn’t take the defeats lightly. They marched on the streets, ‘condemned’ the dismal performance of the Indian team and burned Dhoni’s effigy. It reached a point where the former Indian cricketers had to urge the fans to exercise restraint. Back in 2003, the players’ homes also came under attack when India lost the World Cup final to Australia in a lopsided contest.

In a recent interview given to the Hindustan Times, the former West Indies great, Sir Vivian Richards, asked the Indian fans to be patient with the team. “Indian fans sometimes lack a bit of patience. Burning effigies is a little silly,” he said. The Caribbean legend pointed out that nobody plays to lose, and that no one should be regarded as ‘hero’ one day and ‘zero’ the next.

That being said, the situation is no different in Pakistan. It is very common for the players to receive life threats, abusive messages on social media and see their posters and effigies being burned on the streets. For instance, former Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi was at the receiving end when Pakistan failed to progress beyond the group stage of the World T20 in 2016. His effigies were burned publicly and hundreds of Pakistani fans gathered on the streets asking Afridi to apologise to the nation.

If there is anything more exciting than winning a match it is the burning of effigies after losing a match here
If there is anything more exciting than winning a match it is the burning of effigies after losing a match here

Legendary left-arm fast bowler Wasim Akram also revealed in a TV interview a few years ago how the team management feared that the team would be swarmed by thousands of angry fans if it travelled together in daylight. With so many examples of players being given a hard time by subcontinental fans, one wonders why is there no other region that treats its players in the same manner in which Bangladesh, India and Pakistan do.

And even though the media cannot be blamed for the wrongdoings of the fans, it, too, should be held responsible for instigating the fans with reports that are far from the truth and thrive on sensationalism. A few years ago, a private news channel aired a news segment in which the corpse (read: cricket equipment) of Pakistan cricket lay in the backdrop while a sports anchor was seeing reciting its last rites.

Ahsan Iftikhar Nagi, Pakistan correspondent at Cricbuzz.com, feels there is a need to set things right in the media to avoid any such deplorable act by fans in future. “The blame of what happened after the defeat against India lies solely on the media. A news item was aired by a private news channel in which the players were seen hanging out allegedly the night before the India game,” says Nagi.

He says that when the PCB clarified that the footage was two to three days old, everyone retracted from the story they ran on their news channel. “What happened, though, is that the footage had a snowball effect on the fans who abused the players and called them names because they got traction for doing so on social media.

“Instead of criticising the players for their shortcomings in the game, the fans made personal insults such as calling then ‘mota’ [fat] and ‘parchi’ [undeserving selections]. It was inevitable after the environment created by the media.”

The writer is a member of staff
He tweets @HumayounAK

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 30th, 2019