For a cursory cricket-watcher, content on engaging the sport from one World Cup to next, the upcoming T20 Worlds is rumbling into view, to a new, strange soundtrack. It is the sound of jarring rancour, barely recognisable for someone not attuned with Indian cricket’s everyday happenings.
Will the Indian pudding set, is a nagging worry. More so, after the IPL has run its annual blender through the mix, and shredded loyalties along franchise-lines. It is said that IPL’s founding fathers dreamt of this very reality: where loyalties to the IPL city / region based teams will become the primary consumption mode of cricket.
A hat-tip to the EPL, with which the Indian sporting behemoth, rhymes. And where year-round deification of the local club, fortified with some bitter, dwarfs the occasional nation games.
But be doubly wary of what you half-wish for. It is unclear quite when the clunky 9-letter f-word, ‘franchise’, silkenly smothered the Indian national team. There have always been rifts in Indian cricket, with two strong distinct personalities divvying adoration. And there’ve always been regional and zonal and state-language solidarities, that cleaved support, rendering it parochial. But it’s never gotten so rancid, that every selection and omission is seen from the prism of its IPL affiliation.
Virat Kohli’s team might well go onto win the Cup making Indian fans delirious. But the antipathies that run deep between followers of one franchise, frothing at the success of an Indian player playing in another team, have crossed the thin line of civility in this bitter season.
Perhaps it is owing to how close the World Cup is scheduled to the comet’s tail of this stretched IPL. Or probably because a domineering figure like Kohli gave up on captaincy, announcing it well before the Indian squad assembled. But the stench of a fragmented limb is in the air. And social media that verbalises these sentiments and amplifies these divisions, is brimming with nasty bubbles that come to the surface and leave a scald before disappearing into this convection of conspiracies and speculation.
It was Virat Kohli in 2013 who had first felt the seismic jitters of these throbbing alignments when he got booed in IPL. He’d come across as a tad petulant then, sulkily telling fans that they’d inevitably return to him and the India fold.
But so deep-seated are the new affinities that every selection is fraught, and every failure will find a whetstone and honing rod ready with sharpened knives in some part of India, taking off from the summer rivalry, with venomous ‘We told you so’s.’
This is also the inevitable evolution of the Indian cricket fan. And success of the Indian team runs no risk of escalation. It is in failure, and the selection origins that waters will get muddied, and minds inadvertently muddled. The franchise push – through PR or geo-tagged journalists or fan-scripted mobituaries of playing careers – has infiltrated the erstwhile BCCI HQ-limited selection day chatter, acquiring an air of machinations at work. Perfectly legitimate cricket calls can now appear sinister, and fan armies can descend in a matter of hashtag-constructing minutes, to pick on someone they believe doesn’t deserve the coveted spot.
But in what is simply sophisticated lobbying carried out by player agents, team ownerships and influencer fans which has replaced the older order, selections continue to raise eyebrows and a taut uneasiness hovers on Team India – which by every measure is at its strongest owing to the league. No nation comes close to the competitive riches of IPL. Yet, the cracks – real or perceived – dominate discussions.
Indian cricket hasn’t been exactly sanitised and creaseless earlier. I mean, stones have been hurled and effigies have burnt. But there’s something about franchise fans arriving at conclusions based on blinkered loyalties, that turns the whole dynamic into an uncontrollable cacophonous whirl.
Sweating over Hardik Pandya’s fitness concerns in the lead-up, or commiserating Harshal Patel’s exclusion, used to be pan-India obsessions, as frivolous as these things sound in a changed, reeling-from-a-pandemic world.
Just like this is crystallising of the bonafide fan, supporting his local team, the idea of finding a ‘community feeling’ with those around, on the pretext of cricket, should induce some warm fuzz. On a meta level, India itself, discovering its federal roots, its constituent verve, isn’t such bad news. Centralisation and homogenising can be cloying and suffocating.
Yet, this is the Indian cricket team.
And when the fork tines cut through the set pudding in a new-blue, you want to be biting into all the layers at once – the jelly and the crumble crust, all the fruits and many berries, and some of the nuts.