As Mahendra Singh Dhoni was taking Chennai Super Kings within a whisker of beating Royal Challengers Bangalore, making light of the 26 needed in the last over, many RCB supporters too cheered him on. Perhaps the group I was watching the game with was not representative, being closer to 50 than 20 (the latter in IPL terms might already be too old), yet there was a desire to watch an impossible dream being realised. It was like something out of Don Quixote, except the windmills were real, the opposition were better-placed, and chivalry was not the key.
This was the same group that had divided itself at the start of the game not so much as CSK supporters versus RCB, but Dhonians versus Kohliites. I am not sure if Indian fans find it easier to support individuals rather than teams, the concrete above the abstract. But it has often seemed that way in the past.
During the World Cup in India in 1996, the American cricket lover and social activist Mike Marqusee explained how among his hosts in north India, the family was divided into Navjot Siddhu supporters and Sachin Tendulkar ones. This seemed an artificial divide to me till he explained that the Siddhu group felt Tendulkar had been getting the bulk of the publicity and it was a reaction to that.
Sportsmen gain support for the strangest of reasons often having nothing to do with their skill. In his early days it was enough for Dhoni to wear his hair long, rather like Bjorn Borg, to attract fans. Skill was important but secondary. Sometimes skill was all that mattered, and other elements were added on later. Hence the ‘rustic charm’ of a Kapil Dev or the essential spirit of Gundappa Viswanath.
Most youngsters growing into fandom had to choose early; there is peer pressure above all. Thus, as a schoolboy, I had to choose between Sunil Gavaskar and Viswanath; between Venkatraghavan and Erapalli Prasanna; between Farokh Engineer and Alan Knott.
The choices in the first two cases were easy. Viswanath and Prasanna were both from Bangalore where I grew up, and my earliest memories of the game were tied up with them. There was too the influence of my cricket-loving parents who were fans of these two. A family friend who had a house for rent but couldn’t work out a deal with Prasanna in the 70s was nearly shunned for this. No one was allowed to reject a hero like that.
The choice on the national scale was between Prasanna and Tamil Nadu’s Venkatraghavan, and you couldn’t find two contrasting off spinners. Venkat was tall and lean and had a big set of hands. He bowled flatter, hit the turf and had a deadly leg cutter. He was a brilliant catcher at gully, besides, and although a gritty batsman with a first class century, that aspect of his game was exaggerated by his supporters.
Fitting the plan
Prasanna, tubbier, shorter, floated the ball and fielders close to the wicket often described how they heard the ball whirring in the air. There were better fielders than him in the team. Skipper Pataudi preferred Prasanna while Venkatraghavan fit Ajit Wadekar’s plans better.
It upset the Prasanna fans when he didn’t play a single Test in England on India’s triumphant tour of 1971, and had to constantly fight with Venkat for a place.
It was some time before I realised that you didn’t necessarily pick the better player in a team, but one who provided the better balance. In the years when the spin quartet ruled, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar was the automatic strike bowler, and Venkatraghavan should have been the one to keep things tight; the third slot would then go to one of Bishan Bedi or Prasanna. Or it could be argued that Prasanna and Chandrasekhar made it as the attacking bowler with the other two in support. But it never worked that way.
The other choice that fans had to make was between Sunil Gavaskar and Viswanath. Gavaskar was the technical master, Vishy the artist; it was intellect versus emotion, near-perfection versus the uncertainty of genius.
Recently Gavaskar himself explained the atmosphere. “It wasn’t enough if you were a Vishy supporter that Vishy had to succeed, Gavaskar had to fail too.” This was true. Fans can be cruel. And rarely did the two greats bat together for any substantial length of time. When both made centuries against the West Indies at Port of Spain, India chased over 400 and won.
Funnily enough, a later generation didn’t have to choose between Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, or any set of bowlers. I am not sure if it added to obsessive fandom or took away something from it.
Perhaps the IPL has made fandom simpler. You back the players from the club you support. It is the team, not the individual. Except when someone attempts something incredible, like Dhoni did.