Fans watch the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023 final match. — Photo: ANI

Modi Stadium’s silence in World Cup final was fit for Vipassana. It wasn’t sporting culture

Building a deep-rooted sporting culture is perhaps more difficult than constructing the world's largest stadium.
Published November 21, 2023

Sunday, March 23, 2003 was one of the most heartbreaking days for every cricket fan in India. That day, Ricky Ponting scored 140 runs and crushed a billion Indian hopes as Australia defeated India in the World Cup final. After a few days, a rumour started circulating in India and, as rumours often do, it took the form of a fact.

The rumour was: There was a spring in Ponting’s bat, which helped him make the impressive score, leading to India’s defeat in the match. The claim seemed wild but the suspension of disbelief can be blissful on particular days. This might have been the 90s kids’ way of coming to terms with reality. One sees a modern version of this in Gen Z’s popular phrase: “Delulu is the only solulu” (Delusion is the only solution).

So, how should you deal with the hurt when your team is losing? Why is it considered taboo to appreciate the performance of the rival team? Do Indian fans only come to watch their team win and don’t appreciate the nuances of the game?

Let’s delve into the culture of sports spectatorship in India, examining the various turns it has taken and how it has been influenced in the age of social media.

The crowd in Ahmedabad watching the World Cup final on Sunday has been widely criticised for being too silent and dull when the Indian team wasn’t performing well. It’s been argued that while Ahmedabad may have better infrastructure, it lacks the sporting culture of Mumbai and Kolkata. Construction of genuine sporting culture perhaps is more difficult than the construction of the world’s largest stadium.

In fact, the crowd at the Narendra Modi Stadium was so silent that any spiritual person could perform Vipassana without getting disturbed. Maybe it’s just bad manners to appreciate and clap when your team is losing. Perhaps, it is like singing the ‘Baby calm down’ song at a funeral.

It isn’t just about rival teams; the crowd was also accused of being dull when the Indian team was going through difficult times. Many social media users posted on X that the crowd should have at least pumped up the morale of their team.

I remember watching many cricket tournaments, especially the Ashes, where the crowd seemed to be relaxed and appreciative of whatever they saw on the field. One could see them reading newspapers, lying on the grass, holding glasses of beer, or just watching life unfold in front of them. For India, the game is a do-or-die situation that must be won at all costs. The stakes are too high to chill. In fact, many fans also do “totkas,” or engage in superstitious activities, hoping it would help their team win. Some stay frozen in one position for hours because they think moving even an inch might disturb the supernatural energy of the universe. And possibly result in losing another wicket in an already collapsing batting order.

Amitabh Bachchan also tweeted that whenever he doesn’t watch India’s match, the team wins. Before the India vs Australia final, fans on X had asked Bachchan to not watch it. Now, the results suggest that perhaps Bachchan did secretly watch the game.

Perhaps the Western attitude toward the game can also be seen in the lack of passion; there’s not much to lose. The beautiful thing about not being passionate about anything is that the game’s outcome doesn’t give you any anxiety. This is evident in their high-wired energy toward football and Formula One, which tells another story.

In constant search for pride

Indians are too desperate to prove their place in the world. The remnants of colonial insecurity contribute to it. Sports, in particular, is viewed through the lens of hyper-nationalism, where Indians feel compelled to provide answers, even when they are not sure if any questions are being asked. The world doesn’t really take cricket that seriously, as it is only played in a handful of nations. However, the essence of pride lies in the belief that there are individuals who speak highly of you.

This is the reason why, at one point in time, we became obsessed with beauty pageant where every winner talked about Mother Teresa. I was a teenager when Lagaan (2001) didn’t win the Oscars, and I cried. I saw it as our only hope for prestige and to tell the world that we had arrived.

In the era of social media, this general attitude and desperation for validation can be seen when foreigners post pictures of cooking Indian food. “Proud to be Indian,” an Indian commented on a video of an American man cooking aloo gobi.

In this sense, any international game is not just a match but a vessel for the manifestation of a nation’s love affair with itself. In this competition and exam-obsessed nation, the psyche is shaped in such a way that we are hyperfocused on ‘clearing the exam’ anyhow. Any appreciation for the beauty of the game or its nuances is dismissed as trash talk.

That’s why sometimes fans even abuse Indian players for losing, or international players for winning. Furious cricket fans stormed the home of India’s former cricket captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, to express disappointment over India’s defeat by Bangladesh in the opening World Cup match of 2007.

Around 200 fans brought down walls and pillars of Dhoni’s house, which was under construction. The same fans might have thronged to India Gate to dance on ‘Chaar baj gaye lekin party abhi baaki hai’ when Dhoni led the team to victory in the 2011 World Cup.

If you existed in that era, you might not have forgotten the match played on March 13, 1996. It was the World Cup semi-final at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens played between India and Sri Lanka. After India lost its eighth wicket, sections of the crowd vented their disgust by setting the stands on fire. They started throwing fruits and water bottles onto the field. The match was briefly stopped, and when it was about to resume, the crowd again started the bottle assault on fielders. The game was then stopped, and victory was handed to Sri Lanka by default. To this day, the picture of batter Vinod Kambli crying as he walked back to the dressing room remains one of the iconic images of that tournament.

Manifestation of the elite

There is another side to it too. Sometimes there are admirers of the game at unexpected locations.

My village is situated in the mini desert of Rajasthan, with just 10 houses. The literacy rate may be very low there, but everyone is a hardcore cricket aficionado. The villagers watch every match and know the rules of the game by heart. During a 2002 ICC Champions Trophy match, a bowler named Douglas Hondo from Zimbabwe emerged as a surprising talent. He took four wickets against a strong team like India. At the time, a child was born in the village and he was named Hondo. To date, we call him Hondo, or, as Rajasthani people screw up names — Hondiyooo. The boy, who is now a grown-up man, remains a symbolic monument of fans’ love for the game in this faraway place. Perhaps there are some cricketing and life lessons to be learned from this quaint village.

There is also a stark difference between people who get to watch cricket in the stadiums and those who are true fans of the game. Tickets for the 2023 World Cup final were sold at exorbitant prices on the black market, making them affordable only to the nouveau elite.

In a world where everything is social media content, the game itself becomes a manifestation and announcement of the affluent lifestyle — a statement conveyed through selfies and Instagram posts to show the world that they have arrived. When the team underperforms, it dampens the joy of being in the stadium. The likes on the photos too seem like a bad omen.

In a social media-driven world, performance in a match needs to be viewed beyond just the players — the audience also plays a role. A life without a consistent stream of non-stop dopamine injections may not be worth it. For a dopamine junkie addicted to the reward circuit, every wicket becomes a short circuit.

This article was originally published on The Print and has been reproduced with permission.