“There are no cricketers like those seen through 12-year-old eyes.”
Ramachandra Guha, the Indian historian and author, was quoting Ian Peebles, the former legspinner who played for England between 1927 and 1931, when he said that during a speech at the Bangalore Literature Festival on Saturday (December 17). For readers of Guha’s various books, it was an hour that seemed an extension of his writing, where analysis and anecdotes are married with charm.
Guha’s session tackled the admittedly debatable topic of partisanship in cricket – an age-old question, in sport as a whole. Can anyone really be a neutral? Isn’t there always something in the gut tugging you towards a team or a player? Why, if so? What are the reasons for these innate loyalties?
It’s a tricky time to be raising these thoughts, especially for millennials. Most haven’t known a life without Sachin Tendulkar active as a player until very recently. The 12-year-olds watched him with wide-eyed amazement. They said his feats couldn’t be duplicated any time soon, that his popularity couldn’t be matched, but then here’s Virat Kohli, making increasingly legitimate claims to fill the gap in the universe of fandom. And so soon after Tendulkar’s retirement, at that.
Kohli has put millennials in a quandary. Isn’t there some unwritten rule stating you cannot fill that Tendulkar-shaped gap without an extended period of… adjustment? No, there isn’t. But there still exists a sense of guilt when faced with the prospect of doing so, and that is down to what Guha says is “affiliation by generation”.
“Your first heroes are from your generation,” he said. “They can be from your state, as it was with me with (Erapalli) Prasanna, (BS) Chandrasekhar, GR Viswanath, Syed Kirmani. They can be from outside your state, and it needn’t even be from your country … there was Bishan Bedi for me. Like all of you, I have a mobile phone, with a lot of contacts in it. Among all of them, there are two people who when they call, I stand up immediately, wherever I am. One of them is Bishan Bedi.”
Guha though, believed that one’s first affiliation should always be to one’s club. It was FUCC (Friends Union Cricket Club) in his case, a club he joined when he was merely eight years old. It’s been 50 years since, and he’s still a member. “Some of you may have seen me before, but none of you would have seen me in a jacket and a tie,” smiled Guha. “There’s a reason for that. I virtually never wear a tie. I own only one tie. This belongs to my club. The only club that can have me as a member, cricketing or otherwise. My first form of cricketing loyalty is to my club, FUCC, whose tie I am wearing.”
Not everyone has a club to support, but to those who do, it’s clear that it’s something they hold very close to the heart. A story of Rahul Dravid comes to mind. With Bangalore United Cricket Club vying for promotion from the KSCA Division II he decided to kit up again for his club, over a year after his retirement, and help BUCC in their clash against FUCC.
Guha believed that one’s first affiliation should always be to one’s club. It was FUCC (Friends Union Cricket Club) in his case, a club he joined when he was merely eight years old. It’s been 50 years since, and he’s still a member. “Some of you may have seen me before, but none of you would have seen me in a jacket and a tie,” smiled Guha. “There’s a reason for that. I virtually never wear a tie. I own only one tie. This belongs to my club. The only club that can have me as a member, cricketing or otherwise. My first form of cricketing loyalty is to my club, FUCC, whose tie I am wearing.”
These days, Dravid’s son, Samit, is a budding cricketer with BUCC. The loyalty transcends generations. “Get yourself a club, friends. Get yourself a club to which you are loyal,” Guha urged.
Then there is loyalty to one’s state, which can be a tricky business for many in a diverse, culturally interspersed country like India. Do you support the state of your origins or the one where you reside? What if you’re naturally inclined to neither one of them, but an altogether different state? These are all calls every cricket fan has to make at some point.
Guha himself is a fourth-generation Tamilian living in Bangalore. “Tamils in Bangalore are like Gujaratis in Mumbai – you think you’re from the city, but you are told you are not,” he says in one of many quips that had the audience in splits. He spoke of the choice he had to make, something he remains proud of.
“The third form of cricketing partisanship, which follows from your club, is to your state,” he says. “When I was nine, I made an incredibly shrewd choice. I had to choose a Ranji Trophy team to support. I was living in Dehradun in Uttar Pradesh (Uttarakhand now), which had the worst team in the worst zone. The choice was now between Tamil Nadu – the state of my distant forefathers – and Karnataka, where my family had recently shifted.
“I must have been a very smart and canny young boy – I chose Karnataka, and in the first year I’m supporting them, I was watching the semifinal in 1974. Nobody had beaten Bombay since 1958, the year I was born. Since then, they were continuously Ranji champions for 16 years. I’m a historian, and I’ve written a great deal of history. But only once have I watched history.”
Guha was referring to the semifinal between Karnataka and Bombay at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in 1974. Karnataka won on first-innings lead, and created history by preventing Bombay from winning a 16th consecutive Ranji title. Karnataka then went on to win their first. It was the “decentering of Indian cricket” said Guha, as different teams began claiming the Ranji title thereafter, breaking the Bombay stronghold.
The two forms of partisanship Guha expressed thereafter, both of which he practises, are perhaps less universal than those mentioned so far. He believed bowlers should be celebrated more than batsmen. “They are the under-appreciated, under-paid working-class of cricket,” he said. “They win the matches, but the batsmen get all the glory and the endorsement. I’m glad that (Virat) Kohli signified this after the last Test, where he said (R) Ashwin was 60 percent responsible for the matches we win. Bowlers over batsmen for me, anytime. That’s partly because I was a bowler! But only partly.”
The other form of partisanship that Guha mentioned was that of loyalty to Test cricket. The partisanship conspicuous by its absence was to nation, a conscious choice. “I haven’t mentioned the one that is most obvious, that is most diligently, passionately and obsessively followed by cricket lovers – that of nation,” said Guha. “I am not a cricketing patriot. I love bowlers, I love Karnataka cricketers, I adore cricketers of my generation and I’m utterly loyal to my club. But India winning is not part of my five forms of cricketing partisanship. The older I get, the lesser it becomes.”
So there it was, the partly subjective reasons for the rise of affiliations in cricket – club, generation, state, bowlers and Test cricket. But things are rarely so clear-cut, especially in a matter as nebulous and delicate as fandom. The reasons for it are plentiful and varied. While prejudices and loyalties in sport can largely be classified into the categories mentioned above, it is susceptible to change over the course of one’s association with the sport, a team, or a player. It is, perhaps, the reason why a 12-year-old enjoys sport the way they do – they don’t bother with the details.
In conclusion, Guha admitted as much, leaving the audience to figure out what exactly to make of his whole session. And it was something prompted by Virat Kohli – who else. “I want to end with a story which may convey that while these forms of partisanship are passionate and deeply held, they are also flexible. My love of cricket is so extreme and joyous, it’s not completely bounded by my prejudices. It’s shaped, directed and oriented by them, but it’s not bound by them.
“In the last Twenty20 World Cup, when India played Australia, it was crucial that Virat Kohli stayed till the end. In the penultimate over, Kohli hit James Faulkner for two exquisite square cuts, pure cricketing shots. We won the match, and that night I tweeted: ‘There goes my boyhood hero GR Viswanath from my all-time India XI.’
“Even though Kohli is young enough to be my son, even though he plays for Delhi, even though he is a batsman, even though he plays for Royal Challengers Bangalore, I still could see that he was a greater batsman than my beloved GR Viswanath.”