Do great players attract a fan following or does a large enough fan following makes a player great?
Sachin Tendulkar has a huge following in India. Shahid Afridi has many admirers in Pakistan. But can we compare the two, or even mention them in the same breath without sounding cricket-foolish? Yes we can. They are both icons of cricket for two sets of cricket fans, and if there is a wide gap in their cricketing status, and indeed in their on-field performance over a couple of decades, it is all the more reason to believe fans don’t always prefer class over exuberance.
The dashing men we see sporting Pakistan colours today are the little boys who begged older bhaijans to have a chance with the bat and ball while playing street cricket. They borrowed money and gear to play at the club level, and they stole Sunday mornings and week day afternoons throughout their youth to practice and be good at the only thing they wanted to do in life: play cricket. Unlike other boys their age, they missed out on unhealthy food, alcohol and drugs, hanging with friends and doing motorcycle stunts all night, being lazy, and being a good student, because they were consumed by sport.
But we — the passive sports watchers, the active critics, and the extremist fans — tend not to see the little boy in them when they put on the green jerseys and jog into the field to compete with another team. Instead, we turn them into mascots of our collective ego and demand the impossible of them — to play well every time and to win every game, particularly against India. There are things like playing conditions, form of a player, morale of a team, administrative support or lack of it, psychological strengths and weaknesses, personal circumstances, coaching issues … that we do not want to concern ourselves with.
Sachin is perhaps the greatest cricketer of our time, accorded the status of a deity in India. But he made fans when he was an ordinary, young upstart. Incidentally, he debuted his cricket — Test and ODI — against Pakistan, in Pakistan. In that 1989 series the young lad from Bombay didn’t impress spectators with his bat much — which is not a put-down really as he had to bear the brunt of the fiercest pace attack Pakistan has ever unleashed, in the persons of Imran, Wasim, Waqar and Aqib — but he won his admirers alright. I am one of them.
A single tear drop rolling down his cheek is all I remember of Sachin in that series. He was hit on the helmet by a vicious bouncer that left him shaken. The paramedics came on the field and the camera zoomed in to show his face. The pain from that hit did not reflect in his demeanour but it did spill out of his eyes as a tear drop. He wiped the tear, put on his helmet, came back to the wicket and dispatched the next ball to the boundary. Sachin was a long way from becoming a god, but the hero was born at that moment.
The more runs and records he amassed in his 24-year career, the humbler he became. And when he bid farewell to all forms of cricket, at the Test against West Indies in November last year, he faced his Mumbai home ground crowd graciously, and yes, with a single tear drop on his cheek.
I am not sure if Shahid Afridi, or any of his millions of fans, will shed tears at his farewell. He will be known as an entertaining cricketer who couldn’t entertain ever since he was ‘worked out’ by the smart bowlers in the world. Same with Misbah, and Hafeez et al. No individual brilliance in this Pakistani team and yet the outfit is among the most exciting to watch and, with a little infusion of fresh blood, one of the hardest to beat, as the boys demonstrated in the UAE.
Maybe the biggest problem facing Pakistan cricket is not the cricket establishment and players but Pakistani cricket fans and their expectations. They have consistently preferred flair over competence, style over content, grandstanding over humility, and ghairat over strategy. And they always tend to see their team as outside and above our society and its peculiarities. Maybe not having a hero is better than having one for the wrong reasons. Perhaps taking pride in the team when it plays well and supporting it when it doesn’t, is the way heroes are produced and groomed.
Let’s be those fans and let the Pakistan cricket team know we are proud of the fact they turned the tables on Sri Lanka in the last Test to level the series. We are thankful for the pleasure of watching good cricket provided by them. We are mindful of the strains of always playing outside of Pakistan, away from their families, for the past five years or so and appreciate the spirit in which they’ve handled the pressure and still managed to thrive on several occasions.
Let’s be fans of cricket, or sports.