Though India started the limited overs series against England on a strong note winning the first match easily, the hosts managed to turn the tables during the two games that followed to script a convincing series triumph. This reversal would serve to lift India out of any trace of complacency that might have crept into the side after the easy wins against Ireland. Further, there is always a tendency to take England lightly, forgetting the fact that they are a very difficult side to beat in home conditions and only thrice could India achieve this objective during the last 85 years. Hence the Test series that would commence on August 1 promises to be a keenly fought one.
While the defeat at the hands of England came as a disappointment for the followers of the game in India, a bigger shock was the booing that the crowd at Lords’ subjected Mahendra Singh Dhoni to, when it became clear that the former skipper would not be able to pull a rabbit out of the hat and take India to victory from a near impossible position in the second one-dayer.
It is the lot of international sportspersons to face criticism and the occasional boos from the crowd, but it is only seldom that a player of the caliber and seniority of Dhoni is meted out such treatment. The trigger for this incident was Dhoni’s inability to create scoring opportunities during the first four balls of the 46th over when the asking rate had climbed to more than 20 and a Indian win was, for all practical purposes, ruled out. It was not that Dhoni did not try to push the score along; he was kept quiet by brilliant the England bowlers, who placed the ball in the right areas. Booing continued till Dhoni was dismissed in the next over, holing out to midwicket while attempting to clear the fence.
Rare off day
It was, without doubt, a bad day at the office for Dhoni, the batsman, who could score only 37 runs off 59 balls. He had walked in at the fall of the fourth wicket, with the side needing close to 170 runs in nearly 24 overs. This was without doubt a very tall order; this target was made to look steeper as the England bowlers bowled in a disciplined manner, without giving away any easy scoring opportunities. The spectators supporting India would have kept on hoping for some miracle to happen which could bring the visitors back into the game and frustration got the better of them when this did not materialise. Further, Dhoni has a reputation for taking the game into the final overs and winning the match by big hitting in the end. It was obvious that he was having one of those rare off days, which can happen to any cricketer, and was not able to push the score along. Thus, he became the object of ire of the contingent of Indian supporters who resorted to slow hand clapping and booing to demonstrate their unhappiness with the performance of the side.
This incident brought to one’s mind earlier instances when cricketing legends were booed by the fans of the game. Since India is home to the largest number of people who follow cricket and the game has almost acquired the status of a religion here, it is only natural that players who represent the country get elevated to the status of demigods. The ordinary cricket fan is a very emotional person who gets elated and thrilled when his side does well. But the flip side is that he feels deeply disappointed and dejected when the side does poorly and loses a game.
Further, Indian fans also exhibit a strange behaviour which was described by Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi in his autobiography “Tiger’s Tale” as a tendency to place all their hope on one or two heroes, who are invariably brought down when the cause is lost. This propensity to elevate players to the level of idols and to bring them crashing down to ground level when the team does poorly is a unique Indian trait and most of the top players have faced the effects of this phenomenon at some time or other in their career.
No cricketer would have faced the brickbats of Indian crowds more than Pataudi himself. This was quite surprising as it was under his leadership that India started winning matches at home. However, these rare victories only increased the appetite for more wins with the result that fans became disappointed when the expected outcomes did not materialise. Things were particularly bad during the 1968-69 season when New Zealand and Australia toured India. The national selectors, in their wisdom, decided to give chances to new players in the series against New Zealand thinking they were not a strong side. Unfortunately this move backfired as the visitors struck back strongly after losing the first Test by a narrow margin. They outplayed India in the second Test and would have won the last one also but for rain gods deciding to favour the hosts. Pataudi was criticised in the media for the poor performance of the side and crowds too voiced their unhappiness by booing him.
The same trend continued during the series against Australia also though there was a respite when India won the second Test at Delhi. But the loss at Kolkata, where the crowds tend to be more emotional, again triggered a round of boos and cat calls. Unfortunately, Pataudi was at the receiving end of the crowds ire even during the rare instances when he was not leading the side. In the last Test of the 1972-73 series against England at Mumbai, Pataudi came out to bat in the second innings when the match was petering to a draw. Spectators, who had expected some dazzling stroke play from Pataudi, felt down when he could only score 5 runs in 102 minutes and they gave vent to their feelings by booing him.
Ajit Wadekar, who took over the captaincy was feted as a hero when India won their maiden Test series in West Indies and England in 1971. When India won the home series against England in 1972-73, a huge “victory bat” was unveiled at Indore to commemorate this achievement of triple triumphs. However, when the side lost the series against England in 1974 by a margin of 0-3, his house was stoned and the victory bat was defaced by angry fans! Wadekar was even dropped from the West Zone team after this, forcing him to retire from the game.
Kapil at the receiving end
Kapil Dev became the toast of the nation when he led from the front during the 1983 World Cup that saw India emerge as surprise winners. Clive Lloyd, the captain of the West Indies side that toured India during the winter of 1983, said at the beginning of the series that he wanted to exact revenge for their shock defeat in the final of the World Cup. There was no doubt that the visitors were the stronger side and India lost the Test series 0-3, with one of the losses taking place at Kolkata. The crowd that had come to watch the match were so incensed by the performance of the home side that they pelted the coach ferrying the Indian players with stones. Sunil Gavaskar had written that all the players, except Kapil, ducked for cover or wore helmets to protect themselves. Kapil neither ducked nor flinched and it was the good fortune of Indian cricket that he was not hit by the missiles hurled by the mob.
Gavaskar himself became the target of angry Kolkata crowds a year later when, during the Test match against David Gower-led England side, he did not declare the Indian first innings even after the match entered the post lunch phase on fourth day. This time, the spectators did the unpardonable act of throwing missiles at his wife who was also watching the match. This so angered Gavaskar that he announced that he would not play a Test match again at Kolkata. When Pakistan toured India in 1987, Gavaskar made himself unavailable for the Test at Kolkata and Arun Lal took his place in the playing eleven.
Chaos at Eden Gardens
India were the front runner to win the 1996 World Cup, which they jointly hosted along with Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The huge Eden Gardens stadium at Kolkata, with a capacity of nearly 80,000 people, was packed when the met Sri Lanka in the semifinals. The mood of the crowd turned ugly when India suddenly started losing wickets, while chasing a total which was considered to be achievable. The crowd got so worked up that they started hurling missiles on to the ground, bringing play to a halt and finally Sri Lanka were declared winners by default.
All these instances would make one realise that an Indian cricket fan wears his heart on his sleeve. He is prone to extremes of emotions and actions, which accounts for the fickle nature of his affection. All the players who have made it to the top would have experienced both sides of the coin - the highs as well as the lows- and learnt to take it in there stride. They place their entire focus on the job at hand and do not allow themselves to be buoyed up or bogged down by the of words or actions of the crowds. Since they too are human beings, one is certain that bad behaviour would rankle them, but they are the ultimate professionals who would not let such occurrences to have a bearing on their performance.
The last question that remains to be answered is whether the spectators need to be more restrained in venting their emotions. It is true that it is the high emotional quotient of the followers of the game that makes superstars out of players. At the same time there is a crying need for injecting some degree of moderation when it comes to criticising players who have contributed so much to the game and provided immense joy to the those who follow it. The act of booing Dhoni was an eminently uncharitable gesture. The World Cup-winning skipper deserves better treatment from the lovers of the game.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)