It was difficult not to sympathize with Mahendra Singh Dhoni when he spoke at the end of the South Africa match. The world champions had been well and truly thrashed, losing three matches in a row. Reports of effigy-burning in India and stepped up security at the homes of the leading players had taken the focus away from sport and into the realm of psychology.
This was not the first time, of course. In fact, when India lost to Bangladesh and were knocked out of the 50-over World Cup in South Africa two years ago, Dhoni’s house was just beyond the foundation stage. Yet, miscreants destroyed the sapling of a house, knocked the bricks over and flattened it.
Such things do something to your system. Sportsmen are human beings; the swagger and the cockiness that come with victory convert just as easily to darting eyes and insecurity at defeat. Indian fans delight in crushing the egos of their heroes, and in searching for ever more esoteric reasons for defeat.
Asked what he thought of the crowd’s reaction (they booed the Indian team at the end of the match), Dhoni was both crushed and pragmatic. “Our fans expect us to win all the time, you know,” he explained, “and when we lose such things happen. Expectations were high. But we are used to this.”
If he is, then he must be a saint. For you can never get used to this roller-coaster ride from love to hate to love and back to hate again. One moment you are an icon who can do no wrong, and the next you are a pariah people wouldn’t cross the road to meet.
It is a chicken-and-egg situation. Do the players become a bunch of money-hungry mercenaries, grabbing what they can and hoping that in the long run things will finish on the credit side because of the way they are treated when things go wrong, or do things fall apart illogically because of the above?
Did Virender Sehwag hide his injury hoping that things would work out, India would win and he would add a few more crores to his bank account because of the way he has been treated in the past – dropped from the side, made to believe his career was over before he came back to score his second triple century in Tests?
Insecurity levels are high among all sportsmen, but especially among Indian cricketers because the reactions are so extreme. Yuvraj Singh was given rupees one crore for hitting six sixes in an over at the last world cup, by the same man whose responsibility it was to see that starving farmers were given a meager seven hundred and fifty rupees to maintain their family and sanity (the money did not reach many). Such insanity does something to you. It tells you that wisdom lies in grabbing when the going is good because when the going turns sour, thoughts of suicide enter the mind.
It is rather like the advice old pros give youngsters: bat on and make a big score when the form is good and luck is on your side, for there will be days when you are batting well but get a bad decision or get run out – things beyond your control.
Dhoni has spoken about defeat revealing character more readily than victory does. But it cannot be easy. Somehow when you are in the dumps, the good times seem illusory. They also harden the resolve to make the most of the good times. The passion of the fans has made millionaires of our cricketers. It has also made philosophers of them.