During my blissful two-week vacation in India last month, I came across a number of articles, by foreigners and Indians alike, accusing the average Indian cricket fan of bad faith. These authors argued that Indians are not “cricket crazy” per se; they are Indian cricket crazy. Most would decline the option of watching a fascinating contest between, say, Australia and South Africa — if only because their beloved Sehwag were not on the roster. Attached to this critique was the word “mature” — that is, “mature” cricket audiences clap when their opponents score runs, or when their batsmen reach certain milestones. Apparently, Indian audiences don’t count in this category.
Now, I’ve made similar observations in the past — I have said most Indians don’t care about the game itself, and I have defended the right for audiences to boo particular villains (i.e., Ricky Ponting). That said, Indian audiences aren’t uniformly bad; no doubt, they will cheer their own team more than the other, but I still note applause, however weak, when foreign teams perform well in India. But here’s my problem with the “mature” line of argument: first, I see nothing wrong with being “immature” (i.e. not watching games involving other teams, and not clapping for other teams). For one thing, this isn’t behavior unique to Indians. Witness the recent rout during the Ashes in Australia, when local audiences largely abandoned their team (and commentators fretted about whether Australian cricket had entered a dark new age). And isn’t it often said of the English that they only care about cricket when their team is playing against the Australians?
Secondly, what is so wrong with particular audiences watching a game only for particular reasons? Cricket doesn’t exist in a vacuum; for most people, it is a game connected with specific cultures and traditions. For cricket purists to wander the globe and parse through (the already small) population of cricket fans and say, “You’re a true fan; you’re not a true fan; you understand the nuance; you don’t” — well, it smacks of an elitism that would make proud the Victorian veterans of the game. And that, of course, is part of the larger problem — the post-colonial baggage we keep carrying around. Many of my American friends, as sports-crazy as they come, refuse to watch particular finals or match-ups when their home teams are not involved, or if the two teams playing don’t have particular heft. This is a natural reaction — but you don’t see many accounts from American essayists bemoaning a lack of respect or “true” interest in basketball or baseball or whatever.
Two quick final points: obviously, I love cricket, and I would, if I had more time, devote my life to watching all its games, even the ones involving the Netherlands or Kenya. Maybe I’m an exception. But two: Ashis Nandy, in his amazing Tao of Cricket (seriously: go read this book; it’s quoted almost everyday because of its famous first line — go look that up too) noted that Indian audiences often had a mythical respect for foreign teams that did well in India. I forget the details, but he said they looked on West Indian bowlers as necessary villains; that is, roles that needed to be played by particular people to make the story unfold. They hated the villains, but also respected them. (Again, I forget the particular mythologies Nandy cites — but it’s good stuff. Anyone have a copy and know what I’m rambling about?)