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Either you trust your cricketers or you don’t

Aditya Tare's first-ball six sealed the match for Mumbai Indians © PTI
Aditya Tare’s first-ball six sealed the match for Mumbai Indians © PTI

The Mumbai Indians (MI)-Rajasthan Royals (RR) thriller at the seventh edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) has evoked extreme reactions from the followers of the game. These reactions could have been dismissed as passing ones, but as the ensemble tournament comes to an end and cricket returns to the international format, Bejoy Balagopal questions the average Indian fan’s attitude towards the cricketers.

April 18, 1986. Most Indian cricket fans above a certain age carry memories of the era.  Our newly acquired Weston TV had been switched on early in the morning even before the folks in Doordarshan had commenced their telecast for the day. I stared at the multi-coloured screen saver that Doordarshan beamed, barely able to conceal my excitement and anxiety as the start of match was just hours away. An India-Pakistan title clash for the Austral-Asia cup at Sharjah! It did not get bigger than that, definitely not for a ten-year old whose love affair with cricket was well and truly on by then. Live telecasts of matches were rare in those days and this was a blockbuster of a match.

Fast-forward to the last over of that match, one that dented the psyche of a generation of Indian cricket fans. One ball to go, four runs to get and Chetan Sharma bowls a waist high full toss at the master craftsman Javed Miandad. It duly gets dispatched over midwicket for a six and an entire nation goes into mourning. I remember the debates and discussions that ensued in the following days, and continue to this day!

Several points were heatedly debated; Kapil Dev‘s miscalculated move of giving the last over to the youngster and not saving himself for it, the run out opportunity missed by Mohammad Azharuddin, the brilliance of Javed and the inability of Sharma to handle the pressure. Inability — yes, that was the keyword and poor Sharma was never forgiven for this perceived lack of ability despite some other notable feats in his career.

Nearly 30 years later, I was reminded of this match as I followed the discussions after the RR-MI match in the current edition of the IPL. MI launched an amazing assault, as they need to win with a good run rate to take them through to the qualifiers.

James Faulkner, an impressive young cricketer, bowls the crucial over; MI need a four or a six off the last ball; Up against Faulkner is a rookie, Aditya Tare. Faulkner sends down a waist high full toss (his second of the over) and MI get a new hero as Tare sends it sailing over the ropes. One team celebrates while the other is devastated.

Over the next few days comments and opinions flowed on the social media forums. This columnist could not help but notice a different tint to these discussions from the ones that I was part of in 1986. Now the talks veer towards finding a possible ulterior motive to the whole event, of a ‘manufactured’ result.  [The reasoning being that this would let the organizers squeeze the maximum out of the knock-out match as it would have Mumbai play at home]. So it is no longer about Faulkner’s ability (or lack of it) but his intent. Chetan Sharma was ridiculed while James Faulkner is (almost) being accused!

Watching a sport is mostly about the moments of pure thrill that it provides with close games and tight finishes being the icing on the cake of sporting unpredictability. Now we look at these occurrences with suspicion and try to see beyond the obvious, to arrive at theories that don’t merely subscribe to the unpredictable nature of sport. Does this reduce the whole experience of watching a sport to a mere appreciation of a spectacle unfolding in front of our eyes?

We have lived and re-lived Sachin Tendulkar‘s last over in the Hero Cup semifinal, Maninder Singh’s dismissal leading to a tied test match, Kapil Dev’s incredible assault to avoid a follow on and several other such moments. Never once were we tempted to go down the path of suspicion. Maybe things have changed. Is then the innocence that marveled at the twists and turns, dead for good?

While I lament this possible death of innocence another question begs to be asked — if the cricket follower is now a sceptic, then why the massive viewership still? What does that say about the viewers then, are they genuine sports lovers or an audience ready to accept any potentially ‘choreographed’ event as long as it entertains?

As the IPL comes to an end, we, as lovers of the sport, must ask ourselves a simple question. The evil menace of match-fixing had marred the tournament way before this edition had started. We were left with two options — to trust the on-field stars or not trust them.

If we did not trust them, we should not have followed the tournament at all, or even if we did, we should not have taken it seriously. However, given the fact that we are having that familiar rush of adrenaline during every close finish, is it justified that we classify these matches as rigged and suspect our heroes?

Are we getting it right?

(Bejoy Balagopal is an engineer working with a leading technology firm, with a passion for cricket and writing. He brings a layman’s view on the proceedings combined with the ability to look at the larger picture of how sport plays a crucial role in society)

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