Posts Tagged ‘Fandom’

Cricket: India versus Pakistan: The aftermath of winning and losing

June 26, 2011

Continued… From 30 March, 2011

“India versus Pakistan. The greatest rivalry in the world of sports.”

I thought it rather haughty and cricket-centric of the local papers to proclaim this. After all, we have rivalries in America. The NBA has Lakers-Celtics. College basketball has Duke-North Carolina. Baseball has Yankees-Red Sox. I spent my childhood immersed in the rivalries of every sport, every season. These were prestigious rivalries, deep-rooted in their fans. I knew the fervor with which fans cheered their teams against the archenemy. I knew how much it meant for your favorite team to win those games. And I knew how much it hurt to lose.

Then I watched India and Pakistan play for a spot in the final of the Cricket World Cup.

I now firmly believe there is no rivalry in any sport, anywhere in the world, that means more than India-Pakistan cricket.

India was batting first. Sachin Tendulkar, perhaps the greatest cricketer of this generation, was on strike. Our living room TV had my host family in hypnosis. Every eyeball in the subcontinent was watching every minute of the matchup – at least if not, that’s the impression I got from the silence outside. After ten overs or so, I left home and went to watch the match with some friends in a public location. The streets were devoid of activity. No rickshaw bells or vegetable vendors. No mopeds or cars. No cows – even they seemed preoccupied with the match.

Nothing but coolers and the faint sounds of the match they were obscuring.

Everyone in India was watching. And there are 1.2 billion people in India.

It takes a lot to get India to shut up and shut itself in like this.

It’s not so much what the teams were playing for as the fact that they were playing at all. So the stakes only increased with a matchup against Sri Lanka (who had defeated New Zealand in the other semifinal) in the World Cup final on the line. In a matter of days, the loser might see their most hated rival spraying champagne, at the top of the cricket world. The fans of whichever South Asian team didn’t make the final would certainly become Sri Lanka fans, if only for the day.

It’s precisely this situation – how you feel after the rivalry game – that tells you what a rivalry really means.

Case in point: American football’s 2011 NFC Championship Game.

I am a fan of the Chicago Bears. Not quite a diehard fan – that’s a title I’d reserve for only the Chicago Cubs baseball team – but still a fan enough to follow the team from India. When it comes to American football, I’m a Bears fan, and I was satisfied to learn they’d made it to the final four of the sport’s annual tournament. A berth in the Super Bowl – the sport’s annual championship – was just a win away.

The Bears’ opponent? The Green Bay Packers.

What a win that would have to be.

Bears-Packers is another one of those rivalries that you grow up with as a kid in America. The teams share at least two of their sixteen contests every year, and each matchup means a little more than the other ones. Players give it a little extra when they see the other team’s jerseys across from them. And the fans, I think, root a little harder too.

India doesn’t care much for American football, so of course I had no chance of catching the game live. I logged into ESPN the day after the game with my heart pounding, and found the Super Bowl matchup set.

The Bears weren’t in it.

My heart sank. The Packers had won. America’s biggest sporting event would be played between my favorite team’s rival and a team to which I carried no allegiance – the Steelers. Green Bay had celebrated on our turf, in Chicago. And they would be playing for the biggest championship in the sport, not us.

So who did I root for in the Super Bowl?

The Packers.

Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’m just not a big enough fan of the Bears. But there’s something about the Bears-Packers rivalry that goes beyond blind hatred. Fans root against the other team not because they want the other to do poorly, but because they want their own team to do well. When the two clash, the desire to win is intensified. The stakes increase because you want to say your team is better, not that the other team is worse. The rivalry has a subtle, unspoken, mutual respect. For the most part, it has peace.

Giving the Packers my fandom on loan was actually a way of validating the Bears’ loss, as if a Packers championship would make the Bears’ season worth a little more. The Bears’ season was unsalvageable at this point, and the Packers had ended it. That’s exactly why I rooted for the Packers. Why root against them? If you’re going to lose to anybody, you might as well lose to the best team in the sport. And when the Packers won the Super Bowl two weeks later, I felt a measure of redemption from the Bears’ loss. It provided closure.

Would I rather the Bears have been in their place? Of course. But I’m glad the Packers won the Super Bowl.

As India played Pakistan, I wondered which team I’d root for in the final if Pakistan were to win. By the same logic I’d applied to the Packers two months before, it would have to be Pakistan. But I can’t see anyone in India ever rooting for Pakistan, no matter the reason or the circumstances. In India, a Sri Lanka-Pakistan final would be overwhelmingly partisan towards Sri Lanka, geographical proximity of the island irrelevant. A Pakistan win in the final would be just as bad as its preceding loss.

I spent eight hours with my butt on the edge of my seat that day watching India and Pakistan play, wondering if I’d face that dilemma, and hoping I never would. I came home after India’s innings and watched them bowl, hoping the target they’d set would be enough for an India win.

It was.

India beat Pakistan.

Had you not known there was a cricket match going on that day, you might have thought one of India’s many festivals had been deemed to start three hours after sunset. Families, friends and strangers that had been cooped up watching the match all day came outside simultaneously. Firecrackers exploded. Car horns blared. Music and patriotic chants were sung in the streets. Vans became portable discotheques, and the streets became too crowded to navigate except by foot.

Pure, unadulterated jubilation.

I asked my host family what it’s like when India loses to Pakistan.

I’ll guess it’s good that I’ll never have to know.

🙂

To be continued…

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Cricket: A new kind of fandom

February 23, 2011

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…