Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
SIGNS : January 14, 2001
The spectator as spectacle
The author is a sports writer based in New Delhi.
In April last year, a banner appeared on the terraces of the Newlands cricket ground in Cape Town, South Africa, during a one-day international. It was a blow-up of a dollar bill bearing a picture of the disgraced South African captain Hansie Cronje's face. The legend above the photo read: Rally Round the Green Machine.
The banner appeared a few days after Cronje had been sacked for lying about his involvement with an illegal Indian bookmaking ring, and it raised a few wry laughs. It reflected fairly accurately the public cynicism over the entire affair, soon nicknamed Hansiegate. But the banner had also hijacked one of cricket's most triumphal chants "Rally Round the West Indies" and turned it into a cruel dig at the state of the game itself.
Back in the 1970s, the West Indies cricket team was close to unbeatable, playing cricket with a flair and a freedom that disguised its tactical heart and discipline. Everywhere they played, whenever a handful of their supporters turned up at grounds, the cry would go out, "Rally Round the West Indies!"
In the year 2000, as West Indies cricket struggles for survival and the credibility of cricket and some of its most celebrated names has been called to question, the banner at Newlands speaks of many truths. Not just about the current crisis, but about the distance that the sport has travelled from the era of "Rally Round The West Indies" to the present day, when cricket has turned into an entertainment industry. Particularly in South Asia, where its liaison with satellite television and big business has led to a financial boom, prompting an image make-over and now, in the light of the match-fixing scandal, something approaching overkill.
Banners like the one at Newlands may seem like the graffiti of the sport, a medium for off-the-cuff and irreverent comment. The individuals who think up and display such banners may even be considered a late 20th century version of the legendary barrackers who flocked to the cheap stands at grounds in England and Australia before the advent of television and passed deafening comment on the state of the game. Caribbean grounds still feature characters who try to puncture superstar egos and lighten the atmosphere, but these men have now shrunk to a handful; in the popular culture of modern cricket, it is the banner that rules over the banter.
The world has absorbed this change over 25 years. In India, it has taken place in less than ten and the stresses are still with us. Until the late 1980s, the slow pace of Test cricket was believed to be ideally suited to the Indian temperament (it was open-ended, and had a casual disregard for time), one scholar stating that it was an Indian game invented by the British. Yet today, that theory stands on shaky ground as the Indian temperament has become an addict to the culture of the insta-thrill one-day game, which is both a product of television and now a force driven by it. This spatial and territorial shift has not only changed the way Indians watch cricket, but also the way they see themselves as its spectators.
The country has staged two World Cups of Cricket, almost ten years apart: the first in 1987, organised with Pakistan, was hugely popular, a subcontinental financial success story. In 1987, spectators would pack into grounds, carrying food and drink and do as they always did: behave with sobriety and restraint in Bangalore and Madras, risk being lathi-charged in Delhi and take up chanting in Bombay. What astonished overseas visitors most was the fact that Australia played England in the final in front of a vociferous capacity crowd. In no other country in the world, it was said, would such an enthusiastic non-partisan reception have been possible. (Indeed, when India played Pakistan in the 1985 World Championship of Cricket final in Australia, the stadium was far from full, and a banner described the final thus: "Bus Drivers vs. Tram Conductors," a snide reference to the most common image of the Indian and Pakistani presence in Australia.)
Nine years later, the second World Cup, organised by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 1996, marked the zenith of the sport's popularity and marketability. But for the Indian team, it ended in a crowd riot at the Eden Gardens, caused by the knowledge that the national heroes were going to lose.
The period between these two World Cups is virtually a case study of the effect of television on a sport and on its fans. The end result? The growth of a very large, easily-manipulated spectator mass with a low tolerance for failure and a large appetite for jingoism. The elevation of cricket to a vehicle of National self-esteem, the sensitive index of urban morale.
The chief catalyst in this process was the advent, in 1993, of satellite television: for the first time in a long and colourful history, there were banners, and the Indian flag made its appearance at cricket grounds.
At the same time, cricket on television began to resemble the slick, much-envied coverage on Australia's Channel 9 in the days when Doordarshan's best efforts were black and white blurs. The banners and face-painting were imported adaptations of what Indians saw Australians doing in Melbourne or Sydney (minus, of course, two cultural no-nos: streakers and sunbathers in bikinis). Shrewd Australian marketing men now pay $500 prizes for the wittiest banners picked out by the TV cameras at a match provided they include the logo of the company sponsoring the prize; it is a practice which will no doubt soon be latched on to by Indian sponsors.
The Indian flags, again imitative of fan behaviour overseas, have come to represent an angry and aggressive nationalism; the old, somewhat harmless practice of a century-maker being garlanded by someone jumping the fence at grounds is now abandoned for orgies of bottle-throwing. Indian cricket is no stranger to crowd disturbances, but the frequency and the venom have increased manifold.
Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the pot of public sentiment is kept boiling by promotional ad campaigns in which Indian cricketers no longer bat or bowl in advertisements: they leap over burning tyres to make stops in the field, hurl balls of fire at opposition batsmen and bat against bowlers shooting machine guns. Westernised accents promote cricket series nicknamed Badla, Qayamat, and Sarfarosh. The imagery and vocabulary smoothly subvert Orwell's analogy of sport as war minus the shooting and justify themselves by the ominous reminder that only two things bring India together: cricket and war. Defeat, therefore, is not an option.
This may sound like the hackneyed MTV Theory of Social Change: how traditional Indian values (here, institutions like cricket) are being corrupted by the impact of television. In most cases, blaming the media may be the easiest option, but in the case of sport it is perhaps the most valid one.
Live sport cricket in India, football in Europe or basketball in the U.S. is the highest-revenue earner on television. The sale and purchase of TV "rights" is a multi-million dollar business, and sporting events are turned into "properties" sold for terrestrial and satellite television, radio and now the Internet.
Such an exhaustive dissemination of sport spawns imitative but largely homogeneous behaviour over large swathes of the globe. It could spark off a trend in street fashion (e.g. the baggy shorts of NBA basketball superstars), teach Indian cricket spectators to do the Mexican wave and pass on to the athletes themselves, who turn any key moment on the field - a goal, a catch, a three-pointer - into an elaborate celebratory ritual.
The high-five, the chest-butt, the mass pile-up of bodies near the football goal-mouth . . . no matter what their tribalistic origins, where or why they were actually "invented" or first used, this elaborate sign language of sport is always "discovered" by the media, mostly television, and returned to the public as a legitimised, desirable code of behaviour.
This phenomenon of crowd participation, largely for the benefit of the all-seeing eyes of television in the form of celebrations, chanting, banners, has turned the spectator from a witness into an element of the spectacle itself. It is a self-perpetuating cycle, a mass of flag-waving, banners, Mexican waves, each gesture magnified time after time to catch the attention of the camera.
The Indian Board's drive to take cricket and its revenue-earning television cameras to all corners of the country, including smaller metros, has created and perpetuated the image (more like an orientalist caricature) of the Indian cricket crowd: large, "colourful" "passionate" "volatile" - words sprinkled all over television commentary from a group of distinguished English or Australian experts, who have turned into the eyes and mind of the crowd. It sees what they want it to see, it believes what they tell it. With little work for the powers of imagination or interpretation, it acts the way they would like it to act.
Television companies know that the tempo of a match, no matter how humdrum, can now be cranked up merely by turning a television camera on a section of the crowd. The temperature of a crowd can be raised by replaying a controversial umpiring decision over and over again on a giant screen. The whole production, its mechanics and its "look" is under control.
Mark Mascarenhas, chief of World Tel, which brought the 1996 World Cup live to television, told Sportstar that his company's television coverage changes from nation to nation, the Indian formula being ridiculously simple: "In India spend much more time on the crowd because they are so animated, so colourful. We spend more time on the VIPs because in India people like to be seen on television... If you try to do this Indian type of coverage in England it won't go over very well."
Such commodification and codification of public space has left little room for spontaneity or candour, which is really the heart of a spectator's response. During the Australian Open tennis tournament a few years ago, "fans" of French tennis player Mary Pierce showed up in the stands wearing all her trademark tennis dresses and naturally caught the cameras. They turned out to be employees of Nike, whose tennis clothing is endorsed by the statuesque Frenchwoman, planted in the stands to do precisely that.
Hansie Cronje's disgrace was made complete, again by "fans" who blackened his face on an advertising hoarding a few days after his admission of dishonesty. But the fans (in reality, members of the "youth" wing of a political party) made sure that they did so in the presence of television cameras. Cronje's descent from role model to persona non grata was formalised in footage. Other hoardings featuring Cronje and the South African team were pulled down; in the age of the media, removal from the public gaze is akin to punishment, humiliation and exile.
In India, cricket's sign language may appear to become more varied, more elaborate, richer in colour and bolder in gesture. But its words today, as part of a pre-determined script written by someone else, come up empty.
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