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All in the service of the game
by Suresh Menon
Aug 09, 2009

The Fanatics – Australian supporters who follow their team around the world rather like England’s Barmy Army – have confessed with some pride that they set off the fire alarm in England’s hotel on the morning of the opening day of the Headingley Test. This unscheduled 4 a.m. wake-up call dragged the players out in their pyjamas and left them waiting in the streets for twenty minutes. A few hours later, England were dismissed for 102.

The one did not necessarily lead to the other, even if Matt Prior thought so, blaming the alarm and the wait (in the rain, as it turned out) for England’s poor show. But what’s interesting is a comment by the leader of the Fanatics: “We’re just doing our bit for Australia.”

Is that the new role that fans have appropriated for themselves? Is everything fair game – from fraudulent messages that cause players mental agony to blackmail to threat of physical violence? All in the name of “doing their bit” for the team? Just ahead of a Ranji Trophy match years ago, some “fans” attempted to beat up Tamil Nadu’s star all rounder Robin Singh to prevent him from playing. But he escaped, and although shaken played the match. Is that the direction in which fandom is heading?

Not allowing the opposition a proper night’s rest before a game is an old ploy borrowed from soccer. As Desmond Morris says in his The Soccer Tribe, “A favorite device is to rob visiting players of their sleep before a big match … excited supporters of the local team pass the night away by moving up and down the visitors’ hotel, singing, banging drums, tooting their car horns and exploding fireworks…”

Much more sophisticated, of course, to go for the fire alarm. Except that here it is the fans of the visiting team who are harassing the home team.

The English cricket board, which was upset that the Barmy Army should consistently boo Ricky Ponting, might be grateful that home fans at least know where to draw the line.

“We weren't responsible for the booing of Ponting,” the Barmy Army has said. “He is one of the best, if not the best, batsman in the world and if we can do a bit to get under his skin and stop him concentrating 100% on his batting then we are doing a service to the England team.”

There it is again – all in the service of the team.

Fans (at the ground) feel a responsibility to get under the skin of the opposition, often picking on a particular individual for special attention. This is part of the give-and-take of international cricket. When Douglas Jardine was seen waving away flies during the bodyline tour, he was told by Yabba, the legendary heckler, “Leave our flies alone, they’re the only friends you’ve got in Australia.” Last year a bronze statue of Yabba was unveiled at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Players accept that even when the barracking crosses the line – as when Muthiah Muralitharan was greeted with cries of ‘No ball’ every time he came on to bowl in Australia – the spoken word can be ignored.

But actions speak louder than words, and if that action causes a team to start a match bleary-eyed and in bad spirits, then that is not cricket. Worse is the conviction that all is fair in love and sport. Cricket has enough problems to handle without having to focus on fan behavior outside the stadium. Teams accept some things on trust – and that they will be allowed a full night’s sleep before a big match is one of them.

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