The game of cricket in India has not always been settled on the field. But events after the recent India- Pakistan match show how sport itself can be made incidental, a mere excuse.
In 2007 even MS Dhoni was not spared when his house in Ranchi was attacked after India’s loss to Bangladesh in the World Cup. Effigies of players have been burnt with as much ease as Gavaskar’s stingy commentary and the home of Indian cricket, the Eden Gardens in Kolkata witnessed shameful outbursts first- hand in 1996.
After India’s batting collapse in a World Cup semi-final, fans in the stadium set a section of the stands on fire while sending a volley of plastic bottles and burning paper missiles hurling into the field. The match was never completed.
Those volatile days haven’t gone anywhere but now with a clickbait social media as the real remote control, the playground has morphed. So has the cricket fan.
When selective abuse is masked as emotion it begs the question, has the anatomy of an Indian cricket fan changed or were those who tweeted communal slurs endlessly after Arshdeep Singh dropped a sitter in the recent match only masquerading as cricket fans?
In the subcontinent there are more cricket experts than people on the road and from the toss to the weather conditions opinions are animated. The reaction after India’s loss though was not for the love of the game, the frenzy with which trolls emerged out of anonymous handles to take down Arshdeep is a pattern, it’s been seen before and not just on the cricket field.
The match had a string of mediocre performances, where once there would have been collective criticism, now making a player from the minority community the fall guy is a sport that is not being played on the sidelines.
Mohammad Shami faced the brunt of this bigotry after India’s loss to Pakistan in the T20 World Cup last year. Speaking up for Arshdeep, he has dared those spreading fake information and abuse to have the courage to speak from their real accounts.
Time to switch the channel
But anonymity is the hallmark of a coward, once the manufactured outrage gets its result the trolls will hunker down waiting for the next victim, with no eye on the score a reason why the loss to Sri Lanka didn’t catch their attention even though it takes India almost out of the Asia Cup. When majoritarian names fail it is time to switch the channel, quietly.
The abusive handles can be dismissed as non-Indian or even bots, but more than a few Indian accounts amplified these offensive tweets including a news anchor who fuelled even more hatred by speaking of ‘revenge.’
After India’s win against the same team just a week earlier a popular woman radio jockey belonging to the minority community was trash talked by a man who from his couch sells the idea that patriotism lies in questioning that of others. Neither he nor the news anchor are bots.
This outburst of coordinated slurs is not criticism of a player’s poor performance. It is easy to spot the difference. These trolls put cricketers on a pedestal with the caveat there will be no mercy in bringing them down if they run out of form. Under this harsh spotlight, the recollection value for failure is immense.
Remember Chetan Sharma, the player’s legacy remains that of the last ball six hit by Javed Miandad. What happened with Arshdeep Singh was different.
Abhinav Mukund gives a peek into a cricketer’s mind when they fail in a high-performance arena. He says he was inconsolable for hours after dropping Australian Steve Smith in a match.
Virat Kohli, who spoke up against the abuse for Mohammad Shami then (and got rape threats against his daughter for that) and Arshdeep now, remembers watching the ceiling till 5am after playing a bad shot in his first Champions Trophy.
Arshdeep, 23, seems to be taking things in his stride, his family says he laughed off the abuse, a befitting reply to those who probably won’t even make it into the gully cricket team. The player came back to bowl the last over in the match despite dropping the catch and had another stellar outing bowling the death overs against Sri Lanka.
Can cricket, sacred to billions be allowed to be held ransom like this? The onus is also on those who consider themselves to be true fans, they need to read between the lines and make their voice louder in the din so that the game isn’t bowled out again by those whose only interest in a match is vested. It’s the roll of the dice, one day to cancel Bollywood, the next a cricketer, communal overtones is the common link.
Someday soon Arshdeep Singh will get that catch and win a thriller for us but what does it say about those who erupt in hatred over a dropped catch but barely whimpers when gang rape convicts are granted freedom?