The tri-series of one-day matches between India, Australia and the West Indies has just begun in Kuala Lumpur. The newspapers reported that the stadium that hosted the first match between Australia and the West Indies had a capacity of just four thousand and even this was nine-tenths empty. The BCCI, the prime mover behind this cash-cow tournament, had tried to get schoolchildren in with free entry but managed to attract less than two hundred children. This tells us something important about the nature of modern spectatorship in cricket.
The modern spectator at the cricket ground is non-paying. You might argue that the schoolchildren in that Malaysian cricket ground were a special case because Malaysia isnít a cricket playing nation. Youíd be wrong. While it isnít hard to fill a stadium in India for a one-day match, 90 per cent of those seats arenít sold; theyíre given away. Since the advent of the sponsored cricket telecast, stadium audiences, in the eyes of Indian cricket administrators, are an irrelevant variable in the staging of a game. The local cricket board in Delhi or Cuttack or Jaipur makes so much money through its share of the television revenues that it isnít interested in the gate money. Selling tickets is too much trouble; itís easier to let them in for nothing.
The result is that the stadium spectator is no longer central to the economy of cricket; he lives off the fat of its television earnings. He is, in the strict sense of that word, a parasite. This suits him (or her) down to the ground. In the digital world he lives in, he has got into the habit of not paying for things. His operating system is a pirate copy, his musicís downloaded free, and he has come to believe that sending and receiving emails free is a constitutional right .
Stephen J. Gould ó neo-Darwinian, palaeontologist and baseball fan ó spent his life rooting for the New York Yankees. Every time he went to a baseball match, even after he became a very grand professor, he bought a ticket, packed a pencil and a scorecard and took the subway to the stadium because the trains were full of baseball nuts like him and he wanted to feel the adrenalin rush that only communal fan-dom can bring.
That scorecard is important. Gould was going to the stadium to watch the ball-game. Watching meant immersion: keeping score was a way of sustaining that trance of absolute attention. He forced Alan Dershowitz, the celebrated lawyer, to switch off his cellphone when he tried to take a call while an inning was in progress. A ball-game was sacred; would you take a call in the middle of a service in a synagogue'
But to the non-paying desi spectator, the stadium is a Roman circus. In place of a scorecard, she carries a large placard with a large 4 or 6 printed on it. Instead of using the scorecard as a way of attending to the game, she waves that boundary placard to draw attention to herself. When you can watch the same game on television in the comfort of your home, the only reason to travel to the stadium is to be seen on camera.
It wasnít always like this. The Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi is, and has forever been, a dreadful cricket stadium, poorly managed with miserable facilities. But forty years ago (I was nine), you had to queue from early in the morning to have a chance of buying the five-rupee daily tickets before they ran out. Even in the early Seventies, the ticket-buying spectator was enthusiastic enough for there to be lots of policemen to keep the queues in order. I was a law-abiding part of a very long queue when some lumpen muscled in. In the angry confusion that followed, Delhi Police constables restored order in the way they knew best, by swinging metal tipped lathis. One such swing had its arc interrupted by my bottom. Speechless with pain, I learnt that day, was not a metaphor, it was realist description.
The point of the story is not police brutality but the fact that after being brutalized (you should have seen the weal) I queued up again and bought my ticket. I wasnít (yet) your free-loading desi fan; I was a paying customer and I paid my dues. This meant getting to the cricket ground at five in the morning, hours before the match began, to get the good seats next to the sight screen. Early winter morning starts, blankets, packed tiffin, cold concrete terraces to sit on and transistor radios murmuring in my ear, that was our version of Gouldís rituals of spectatorship. I swear Iíd do it all over again...but they donít sell tickets any more.
To return to the modern Indian spectator, we have to leave the stadium because he generally watches cricket on television. Itís important to remember that not only is he non-paying, heís also non-playing in the sense that very few adult Indians play cricket or anything else. Indians leave sport behind on the road to grown-up-ness. Itís the first of the Men Commandments: They shalt not Play. As a result, their devotion to cricket is a form of pure vicariousness. This is true to some degree of all forms of spectatorship, but in countries where sport is participatory, this vicariousness is moderated by a practical understanding of the game and its challenges, by the empathy created by experience, even if that experience was gained at a much lower level of skill. The Indian spectator is only a fan. This has consequences for the way in which he watches cricket, the expectations he brings to the television set.
Not having played in years (or ever), he has no understanding of the contingencies that can turn a match, no first-hand experience of defeat. Cricket on television isnít, for him, that different from a movie or a cartoon: it unfolds on the same slick surface. He has a happy ending in mind and when that end doesnít come to pass it has to be on account of cheating opponents, conspiring umpires, malevolent match referees or slack, spoilt, dishonest, traitorous players unworthy of India. Seduced by the painless beauty of television coverage, failure, in his book, is inexcusable.
This bullet-proof sense of entitlement is nursed and fed and watered by television re-runs which either show matches that India won, or excerpt great Indian innings from matches that India unaccountably lost. The big difference between this generation of spectators and mine is that when I was young, India lost at cricket all the time. Now, apart from contemporary defeats watched live (and itís to the credit of the Indian team these are fewer than before), nearly every match shown on television is won by India. Thereís a cricket programme called India Glorious on television that specializes in re-runs. No prizes for guessing how often India has lost on that show.
The most satisfactory cricket match ever played from the point of view of the contemporary fan is unaccountably not listed by Wisden because it was played in a country that the ICC doesnít recognize: the colonial India confected by Aamir Khan in Lagaan.