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By Sunil Gavaskar
At the inaugural match of the Champions League between the Mumbai Indians and the local team, Highveld Lions, the cheers for the Mumbai Indians was louder than that for the local team. The Lions went on to win the match and thus cause an upset, but that was nothing compared to the way some of the local media felt about the support for the Mumbai Indians than their own local team. The local team did not have the star quality that the Mumbai Indians had, though, they had some players who had played for South Africa and the Mumbai Indians of course, had many who had played for different countries including one player from South Africa. Some in the media were critical of the fact that, South African Indians who live in South Africa were still supporting the visiting team. They argued that being South Africans, albeit of Indian origin, they should be supporting the South African team and not a visiting team. It is a similar situation wherever the Indian team travels in the world be it England, Australia, New Zealand and some islands in the West Indies. It creates a fair bit of anger among locals there too and there is bad feeling simmering for some time.
There was a time, when a rather volatile West Indies skipper was so incensed by the support for the Indian team, that after they beat the Indians comfortably, he not only gave the two finger salute to that section of the crowd that was cheering for the Indians, but also wanted to take it up at the media conference he was going to attend after the match. Luckily, he bumped into an Indian media guy who he was quite friendly with and told him that he was going to the media conference and lambast the local Indian population for not supporting the West Indies but the visiting team. The Indian media guy asked him to cool it and think again about going and having a go at the local Indians for two reasons. One he was from another island and there is fierce rivalry between the various islands of the West Indies and saying anything nasty would stir it up even more and he may not get the support of that island when he is playing another country say, England in another series. The skipper who was seething shrugged his shoulders and still wanted to go ahead and say his piece about the local Indians when his Indian pal asked him what happens when the West Indies tour England? Who do the West Indians now living in England support when the West Indies tour England? Do they support England where they live now and have English passports or do they cheer for the touring West Indies team? The skipper quickly realized, that it was but natural for the people to cheer for the region they came from and for him to object to the West Indians of Indian origin cheering for the visiting Indian team could backfire on him, so he laughed and thanked his Indian friend and at the media conference just talked about the cricket played and not about any support for the visiting team.
The South Africans don’t have so many South Africans coming to overseas grounds to cheer their team, so maybe, they are feeling a bit peeved about the support that an Indian franchise got, but they too need to understand that Indians are cricket mad and since the economic liberalization of the 1990s are in a position to travel to watch and support their team to any part of the cricketing globe. So, those who may be loud and vociferous in their support may not be South Africans of Indian origin but could well be Indians who had travelled to South Africa and even those, who may be currently working in South Africa but hold Indian passports. They could have been Sri Lankans who had come to cheer for their favourite Lasith Malinga.
There is nothing really to distinguish the men from the subcontinent and so Indians can be mistaken for Bangladeshis, Pakistanis for Sri Lankans and so on. It is thus easier for the ignorant to generalize and call people from the subcontinent as Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis or Sri Lankans whenever they wish to make a critical observation. That is lazy journalism and typical stereotyping by those whose horizons and visions are limited. Yes in a country, which has people of various colors and shapes and sizes it is clearly important that there has to be unity, but maybe just maybe, all those loud cheers were actually from people who had travelled for the Champions League and not from South Africans of Indian origin. Why, when ‘the Barmy Army’ from England for England’s tours overseas is around they make their presence felt by their music, singing and general bonhomie which is louder than the local supporters but nobody seems to mind that so why object to it only when India is touring and have their supporters cheering for them.
In India too, whenever India is playing Pakistan there are some who feel that the Pakistanis get more support in some pockets of some cities in India and that does create tension between communities but luckily it has not got out of hand. There are many Pakistanis who may be in India for holiday, work or visiting relatives and who will naturally support their team and that has to be understood. So also we must understand, why some of the South African media felt the way they did about the support for the Mumbai Indians in Johannesburg.
We just have to be thankful that there is a following for the game and it is thus, better to have it irrespective of who they support than to comment on whether it is right or wrong. After all, it is a sport we are following and we have to be sporting about who follows which team and who supports which side.