Sachin Tendulkar wafts at an innocuous James Anderson delivery and walks to the pavillion leaving India at the jaws of defeat.
Then the unthinkable happens.
The Mumbai crowd booes Sachin Tendulkar. Can this be happening in independent India?
Sambit Bal opines.
Of course it was disgraceful and sickening, as it always is when any sportsperson is booed. But crowd behaviour in Mumbai has been appalling for the last few years. Rahul Bhattacharya recently wrote about the racist abuse hurled at West Indian cricketers in 2002, and Sourav Ganguly has been regularly hooted by a crowd once known for its cricket knowledge and fairness. But Tendulkar? Who would have thought it would ever come to this?
Now this I do not understand. If sportsmen are willing to put up with cheers, fawning fans and sweet endorsement deals that result from their popularity, then they should be equally prepared for the jeers and booes that follow a bad performance. Hence I cannot call the Mumbai crowd’s reaction “disgraceful and sickening” by any yardstick.
However it does get disgraceful and sickening when things are hurled with the intention to injure or humiliate a player (Examples: Calcutta crowd in 1983, 1996,1999, the Madras crowd in 1983, the Bangalore crowd in 1997, the Ahmedabad crowd in 1983). Booing however is a legitimate expression of dissatisfaction on the part of the paying audience at poor cricket.
So do I support the reaction of Mumbai crowd? No. “Wait” you say. Isnt that just what you did—support the Mumbai crowd reaction? I say “No”. What I did was support their right to boo and express democratic dissent at the performance of those they have paid to watch. What I did not mention yet is how merited I think this particular reaction (i.e booing Sachin) was.
I agree with Wadekar when he says that the standards of cricket appreciation have markedly gone down all over the country. My father and his friends used to repeatedly express their anguish over the Eden gardens crowd and how the composition of those attending cricket matches has gradually changed over the years. In the 60s and 70s, the people who watched games at Eden Gardens appreciated good cricket—regardless of which side played it.
However starting from the 80s things changed dramatically. People came to Eden interested in 1) seeing India win 2) fours and sixes. Great cricket from the opposition went unapplauded (sometimes booed), 4s and 6s were all that mattered, and the desire to appreciate the finer nuances of the game of cricket (and that meant good bowling) was supplanted by a blood-thirsty lust for a gladiatorial spectacle —with the painted faces and megaflags acting as an accompanying expression of the worst kind of pop-patriotism.
And I think this criticism applies to more and less all grounds in India—-Mumbai being no exception.
First up, something a bit unrelated. I discerned a rather radical and disturbing shout from the audience—ostensibly to pump up the Indian team. It was “Ganapati Bappa Moriya”. Now I have never heard this chant before from the Mumbai crowd but then again I have not closely followed Test cricket from 99 onwards (by closely I mean continously watching it on TV). This was the first time I heard it anywhere and I found this form of cheering religiously charged and rather exclusionary for a team which has players from the minority community in it. I presume that this is inspired by the “Allah hu Akbar” cry of the Pakistani crowed but please let us not let Pakistanis guide our behavior. Let’s keep cricket secular.
The reason I mention this is that the people who come to watch cricket are more and more resembling a mob whose only purpose of attending is to see the bat dominating the ball (unless it is India bowling), fours and sixes raining and their hero Sachin getting a century.
Instead what do they see?
A brilliant bowling performance by England. It was pure cricketing excellence the way they stifled Sachin for 21 deliveries. The English bowlers gave nothing away—keeping the ball just short of good length (par for this pitch). Sachin has got out many a time in the recent past, bowled through the gate as he tried to force the ball on the legside. You could see Sachin trying not to do that—keeping his bat as straight as possible. The English bowlers did not overpitch even once, pegging away at Sachin’s insecurities. The Sachin of old would have backed himself to handle this length by rocking back on his back foot and thumping the ball through the covers but of late, Sachin tries to avoid these shots and favours the straight shot through the V or a push to leg. And as the bowlers slowly strangled his scoring, Sachin became more and more desperate, manifested by an almost-suicidal single he tried to take.
And then when Anderson bowled a rather harmless delivery outside the off stump, Sachin just had to take advantage of that lifeline. A younger Sachin may have swung at the ball and even if he had not connected, the flashing edge may have flown over the slips. But the Sachin of today went half-way (neither attack nor defence) and attempted to play a percentage shot—-opening the face of the bat: a shot fraught with risk when slips are in place. And paid the price.
Meanwhile, the Mumbai crowd had been totally blind to this ongoing cat-and-mouse game —precisely the thing that makes Test cricket such an absorbing contest. All they had come to see were sixes and fours and India going into a position of dominance. And when things didnt happen according to script, they vented their frustration out on Sachin. According to them, it was Sachin’s fault that he got out. The sheer brilliance of the English bowling and Flintoff’s captaincy was totally lost on them. Which is a pity.
This reminded me of 1983. Calcutta Test. Second innings and India are batting to save the test. Michael Holding comes in and Gavaskar cover drives Holding for four. The entire Eden erupts in joy—80,000 people going up in applause. Holding charges in again. The same result—Gavaskar goes down on his knees and sends the cherry careening to the fence. The crowd goes berserk, calling Sunil Gavaskar’s name in a mesmerizing chant.
Holding charges in from the shadows. The slips go down.
An identical ball. Gavaskar, with the cheers of the crowd reverbating in his ears and adrenaline pumping, gets down on his knees for another free hit. But no wait, it is not an identical delivery. Holding this time has gone wide of the crease and the ball, unlike the previous two times, straightens–Sunny however is committed to the premeditated shot, goes through with it, the ball takes the edge and flies to Dujon who makes no mistake.
As Gavaskar himself says in his autobiography, he realized immediately that he had been masterfully set up by those “four” balls. India folds up for 90 and the Eden crowd hurls debris at Gavaskar for his “shot of rank irresponsibility” little realizing that it was sheer bowling genius that had led first Sunny (and the crowd) up the garden path and then sprung the trap.
So in conclusion, if we claim to be a cricket-mad nation, let us first learn to appreciate cricket for what it is—a battle between bat and ball —-and leave the madness for later.