The price of a free flag

In the frenzy of the IPL,the neutral fan is drowned out

Written by Karthikkrishnaswamy | Published: April 13, 2012 3:44:59 am

In the frenzy of the IPL,the neutral fan is drowned out

They were everywhere — most of them this season’s turquoise,some last season’s black,all swirling in the night sky. Looking at the proliferation of Pune Warriors flags,it seemed that everyone at the Subrata Roy Sahara Stadium was a fan of the home team. And each of them was fan enough to invest in a flag.

Except this wasn’t quite the case. The flags had arrived at the ground in advance of the spectators,one for every seat. Someone in the Pune Warriors marketing department probably came up with the idea,reckoning that a sizeable number of fans at the stadium would,when confronted with a free flag,pick it up,start waving it about and contribute unwittingly to a manufactured spectacle of heaving,pulsing home support. Other franchises are possibly doing the same thing,and it looks even better on TV.

At international matches across India,the neutral fan — that hypothetical figure who will cheer good cricket from either side — has either dwindled to insignificance or been drowned out by the segment of the cricket-watching population that wears its nationalism on its cheeks in dermatologically tested saffron,white and green. In the Indian Premier League,there is no space for the neutral. Whenever the action pauses at the Sahara stadium,someone reminds you of your presumed allegiance. A pair of emcees exhort you to yell “Warriors” each time they say “Pune.” Or suggest that you “make some noise for the Pune Warriors!”

At some level,during the stadium’s IPL debut,this seemed to have an effect on the spectators. When Kings XI Punjab’s Mandeep Singh stayed deep in his crease to cut a Rahul Sharma delivery of blameless length to the point boundary,barely anyone moved a muscle. This was a bright young prospect from Punjab playing a splendid shot off another bright young prospect from Punjab. They could both be India teammates one day. And yet,no one cheered the shot or applauded. But then,when one of your hands is permanently wrapped around a flag,how do you applaud? At the Sahara stadium,the sound that everyone takes for granted at a sporting venue was conspicuous by its absence.

For people who love sport,this is catastrophic. Applause is the sweetest barometer of the quality of play,swelling and subsiding with the ebbs and flows of a sporting contest. The next time you watch Manchester United play at home,observe how the crowd reacts when Paul Scholes lasers a 45-yard diagonal pass on to the preferred foot of a teammate running into space on the wing.

“Like rattle of dry seeds in pods the warm crowd faintly clapped.” This is 2012,and Old Trafford is the heart of the hyper-commercialised,almost McDonaldised world of the English Premier League,but John Arlott’s 1938 description of cricket at New Road,Worcester,somehow isn’t out of place. But in the IPL,the rattle of dry seeds would be impossible to discern amidst the incessant cacophony of high-strung emcees,team anthems,Bollywood numbers and that all-pervasive bugle noise. Of all the signs of how standardised the IPL fan experience has become,the most disturbing is the crowd’s Pavlovian response to the bugle noise. Whenever the DJ plays it,they cheer. Unfailingly.

And what the IPL does,the IPL-wannabes copy. The 3,000-capacity Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation hockey stadium is far removed from the glittering megalith that the Sahara stadium is,but it is as much of a no-entry zone for fans who don’t want to cheer for Pune. Here,it is the Pune Strykers that the emcee exhorts you to support rather than the Warriors,but his vocabulary is entirely borrowed from the IPL.

Even at World Series Hockey matches,they give you no space to do your own thing. At every break in play,the voice that booms out of the speakers pummels to submission the voice in your head. You literally can’t hear yourself think. You become an automaton,cheering when you’re asked to,moving as you’re told to — even Mexican waves at the PCMC stadium aren’t spontaneous. “Pune,can you hear me?” the voice asks you,rhetorically. “I want you to raise your arms,okay? Now,after me; one,two…”

Not too long ago,you could gather your thoughts when the action paused. You could reflect on a passage of play,talk to your friends about it,and — that idyllic fantasy of every sports fan — explain to your kid things like the cover drive or the deuce court or the holding midfielder. In the carefully choreographed atmosphere of the IPL or the WSH,you can’t do any of that. You have gained a new flag,but it hasn’t come free of cost.

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