Cricket: A new kind of fandom

Ask anyone who’s known me since the age of eight to associate one word with me, and there’s a good change “baseball” would be the first in their mind.

It’s understandable. There’s no denying my obsession with baseball and the Chicago Cubs, which began in 2001 when Sammy Sosa‘s home run hops convinced me to board the bandwagon for both. Ten years later, I have no plans to leave either one. I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit playing fantasy baseball in recent years, and it’s possible I’ve used Bleed Cubbie Blue as a timepass more than any other website. I’ve bored a number of friends with my baseball lectures on Gmail Chat (intentionally, I have to admit). That said, without my knowledge of the sport, I probably wouldn’t have won the 2010 Illinois state sports writing championship.

Then I came to India, and fell in love with a different bat and ball sport.

For seven months I’ve lived in the land where balls are bowled, not pitched. Where a ball hit over the boundary is a “6” not a home run. Where games have just one or two innings, but take between three hours and five days to play.

Cricket is king in India, and no other sport even comes close. There’s not a country in the world with more cricket fans than India. Field hockey is actually the country’s national sport, but cricket’s popularity transcends any other. Badminton, basketball and soccer have sizable followings in India, but none is even a tenth that of cricket.

Admittedly, people here pay baseball its due when I tell them what country I’m from. Pride glimmers in me every time people are quick to acknowledge the sport – usually before basketball and (American) football. At least to the outside world, baseball is still America’s national pastime, and when discussing America’s landmarks, I always put Wrigley Field up there with The Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and The Golden Gate Bridge.

But cricket isn’t baseball.

I found myself on the learning curve for a sport for the first time in about a decade upon my arrival in India. This time, Sports Illustrated for Kids didn’t offer me much help. In the primal stages of my sports fandom I’d been eased into several games simultaneously. I acquired at least a baseline knowledge for baseball, basketball, football, hockey, golf, tennis, NASCAR and soccer, choosing to further pursue the sports in which I gained the most interest. In time, I became reasonably literate in other sports – swimming, volleyball, softball, lacrosse, track and field, cross country, field hockey. In July, I could probably have even gone on a tangent about billiards if you asked me.

But not cricket.

Before I got the news I was coming to India, I knew precisely three things about cricket: that it was played with a bat and a ball, that they used these things called wickets, and that it had something to do with tea.

I expected to learn about cricket while in India, but that didn’t keep what I learned from surprising me. The learning curve wasn’t so much steep as it was congested and full of detours. In America, baseball is packaged nicely into 30 teams belonging to 28 cities, thanks to the omnipotence of its preeminent league – MLB. You root for the team with familial ties in a familiar location, so the Chicago Cubs were a natural fit. Same for the NFL, the NBA and the NHL. You root for one club, and root against its opponent from some other North American city. It’s just how America does sports.

I ran into trouble when I applied that Western thinking to cricket. So Nagpur doesn’t have a franchise in the Indian Premier League (IPL)? Fine. I’ll just root for whatever team my host family roots for. So which one is it? The Mumbai Indians? The Deccan Chargers? The Bangalore Royal Challengers?

Eventually, I learned I’d been focusing my fandom onto a fledgling two-year-old league that used the newest, shortest and most controversial of cricket’s three main formats – T20. None of its teams had regional fanbases akin to those of American teams, and most here have chosen to root for teams with the most Indian players rather than those with geographical proximity.

The IPL is young, and has tremendous potential for growth. But real cricket fans root for their country’s team, not their city’s.

Team India is one of, if not the best cricket teams in the world. In any format, really, but Test Matches and One Day Internationals (ODIs) will get the most people to watch. There might not be anything that unites the 1.1 billion people in India better than its cricket team. For 12 months a year, up to 12 hours a day, you’ll find TVs across India tuned to cricket. Trying to find an Indian who’s not a cricket fan is like trying to find an American rooting against their country in the Olympics: they exist, but very few are willing to openly admit it.

Now the Olympics of cricket have come to South Asia. To Nagpur itself.

The Cricket World Cup is underway. And I’m going.

🙂

To be continued…

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3 Responses to “Cricket: A new kind of fandom”

  1. Gibson Says:

    I actually learned about cricket when I was young, thanks to a great little pocket book explaining the rules about every sport imaginable (bandy and shinty were right next to cricket in the book), but I only really caught on when I was on the University of Illinois quad during the India vs. Pakistan match. Thanks to that and my continued interest in the sport I’ve learned more about the world than I could’ve ever imagined to care about. It’s been a blessing for me, and I consider myself proud to own a bat.

    Kashmiri willow, of course.

  2. Katherine Allen Says:

    Go Proteas!

    • cyoder Says:

      Not when they’re playing against India! In Nagpur!

      Sadly, I will be somewhere in North India while the India-South Africa match is going on…

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