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Saturday, June 30, 2001

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Cricket in a state of siege

THE RECENT tri-series in England was marred by crowd trouble at several centres. So much so that even a tough cookie like Steve Waugh had to take a firmer stand on a couple of occasions for the safety of his players. Nasser Hussain's much- publicised, even glorified, remark at the start of the English season that the British Asians should support their adopted country and not the teams from the subcontinent was bound to boomerang on the hosts.

It is debatable whether the English captain was making out a genuinely strong case for dedication to the nation one lives in. But Hussain, who times his strokes sweetly, did not time his comment well, especially when Pakistan was due to tour England. As if that were not enough, many Asians were hurt in the riots that broke out in Leeds and Oldham recently. Probably cut to the quick, the cricket-crazy Pakistanis were sharpening their knives and looking for opportunities to prove their loyalties (pun intended).

Not surprisingly, the trouble-makers in the triangular one-day series were Pakistani fans at large. They made themselves conspicuous by their green-coloured costumes and jingoistic banners and slogans.

They were not only vocal but also violent at times. Steve Waugh confirmed: ``The other day I saw a white kid getting beaten up by a bunch of Pakistani supporters. No one bothered to do anything about it. You trust the people to do the right thing.''

Crowds invading the cricket field, even the pitch, in England while the action is on is not a new phenomenon. Being a cosmopolitan country, England is a powder-keg. The Empire may have fallen apart but the scars of colonialism are still there. The victims and their descendants give vent to their long- suppressed anger whenever there is a chance or two. The trouble is often in the offing when England takes on Australia, India, Pakistan or the West Indies.

The usually docile Indian expatriates are in sharp contrast to their volatile Pakistani counterparts who seldom or never show the decencies or restrain themselves from any untoward act. Pakistani supporters have a history of indulging in thuggery on the playing fields of England. Bedazzled by the sweeping success of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis in two successive series, they outnumbered and outmanoeuvred the British fans in the nineties.

They would fanatically goad Akram and Younis on to try and fell the English batsmen in much the same way as the Australian supporters used to encourage Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson down under in the 1970s. Since English batsmen knew not how to face Akram and Younis, the British fans in the stands had a torrid time as Pakistani supporters would go on the rampage, verbally and physically.

British fans are not the only ones who suffer at the hands of Pakistani spectators. Indian fans are not spared either. Remember the rowdy scenes in the stadium during the all-important India- Pakistan match in the 1999 World Cup in England? But it was nothing new. The India-Pakistan rivalry had already reached the Old Country. So much that even lesser matches were disrupted with deadly designs by the Pakistanis. Two examples will suffice.

As the Indian colts neared a famous victory in the ten-nation Lombard World Challenge Trophy final at Lord's - of all cricket grounds - on August 20, 1996, the Pakistani supporters began to invade the pitch with an alarming frequency. Their intention was obvious. Howsoever hard they tried, they just could not stop India from winning. But fighting did break out among 5,000 spectators who streamed on to the outfield for the presentation ceremony.

The invaders forgot in their jingoism that the match was played in the main by lads still at school, learning their way, playing cricket abroad for sheer pleasure of the game. ``It is too much in a modern world - particularly one in which a tiddly-winks game between two such rivals might attract the wrong element - to ask that they be left alone to develop as they can. But it would have been unforgivable if one of these youngsters had been hurt in the chaos that resulted from the near riot,'' said an English critic.

Pakistani fans had used similar tactics in 1993 when their country's national team was losing a charity match to the Indians at Crystal Palace in England. The contest had Imran Khan's blessings since it was played to raise funds for the construction of a cancer hospital in Pakistan in memory of his mother who had died of the dreadful disease. The handsome Pathan was ``dejected'' and ``disillusioned'' at the end of it all.

There are many West Indians living in England and they also indulge in violent swell of aggression which comes from arrogance and disappointment. Having been made to suffer all sorts of abuses because of their colour, they have now learnt how to retaliate in the event of persecution from the whites. They can stand all but racial abuse and at the slightest provocation they give free rein to their animal instincts, being physically stronger, regardless of the consequences.

Of course, they also do not fail to support the West Indies team when it is up against England. They were at their worst in the first three World Cup finals at Lord's (as well as in the two totally one-sided Test series in the mid-1980s). In 1975, when the West Indies defeated Australia, they flooded on to the outfield towards the end, believing the match was over. In 1979, when the same Clive Lloyd and company beat England, they made life miserable for the British fans in the enclosures.

In 1983, when the West Indies juggernaut seemed certain to roll on the underdogs Indians and make a hat-trick of the World Cup triumph, they were in their element for the major part of the match, annoying the Indian fans in all sorts of uncivilised manners. The latter, of course, had the last laugh as Kapil's Devils turned the world upside down. It was now the turn of the Indians to invade the hallowed Lord's turf although they did it only after the last nail was hammered in the Caribbean coffin.

If the Pakistani and the West Indian fans are bad, their British counterparts are no angels either. They have been equally notorious. A vicious, soccer-type hooliganism has already swamped cricket in England. It was the sheer madness of the blood-thirsty soccer followers which led to 38 deaths on a single night in Brussels in the mid eighties. Consequently the English teams were banned from the European competition for the foreseeable future.

That the vandals had transferred their pernicious influence from soccer to cricket was evident within two weeks of the tragedy of Brussels. The frightening, unruly charge on to the playing arena at Headingley, Leeds, deprived Geoff Lawson of any chance of holding a catch that might have put off Australia's defeat. The Aussies would not have won the match anyway but that was not the point. The point is the intrusion was quite unforgivable.

Two years later the clashes between supporters of England and Pakistan teams during the Texaco Trophy one-day series added a new dimension to violence in cricket. At Edgbaston, a Pakistani supporter was struck by a deadly missile in the form of a glass splinter thrown strategically to hurt. But for a woman cop, who saved his life holding a severed artery together until medical help arrived, anything untoward could have happened to him in a melee.

Leeds in particular is infamous for its cricket hooligans who seem to specialise in racially abusing the Asians and the West Indians. They keep creating problems from time to time. In 1996, rowdy scenes were witnessed on the Western Terrace of Headingley on the third day of the second Test between England and Pakistan. Pakistani fans were racially abused and several among them were manhandled.

The thin line which divided the football and cricket enthusiasts of England is no longer there. Whether you are at football or cricket, you are bound to find certain hoodlums disguised as aficionados and armed with studded gloves, knuckle-dusters and steel-capped boots you would not kick a steed with. They are not there to enjoy sports. They terrorise others in the stands with their naked aggression. Their tribe is alarmingly increasing in other parts of the world as well.

Australia has its own yobos and barrackers who can be as nasty as the fans in England. While the Poms have been their perennially favourite targets, in recent years they have not spared the Pakistanis and the Sri Lankans. The cricket grounds of Australia have also witnessed minor to massive crowd troubles. Not only the foreign players but also the home cricketers have had the taste of the fury of the Aussie supporters. The Terry Alderman tackle in the early eighties is a case in point.

Crowds in the Caribbean also have a reputation for loutish behaviour. Although they have mellowed now for obvious reasons, they used to take things for granted when the West Indies dominated world cricket in the 1970s and 1980s. They love dance, music and wine and they enjoy themselves to the full at cricket. They were the most feared lot for umpires as well as visiting players. So much that they would frequently invade the field with malicious motives.

Sunil Gavaskar has vividly described, in his Sunny Days, how they wanted their fast bowlers, especially Michael Holding, to ``kill'' the Indian batsmen when they were touring the West Indies in 1976. The maestro called them ``barbarians'', particularly the Jamaicans. Ian Chappell has written, in his autobiography titled Chappelli, how a West Indian umpire had dared to give Lawrence Rowe not out in a Test match against Australia in the early 1970s.

Rowe was obviously out, according to Chappell, but he was at the height of his prowess and popularity and the umpire feared crowd trouble if he raised his index finger very early in his innings. The former Australian captain defended the umpire's decision, saying it was the right thing to do in the prevailing circumstances. Though the umpire's side of the story is not known, the incident nevertheless throws enough light on the volcanic nature of the West Indian crowds.

In India they throw missiles, insults and jeers at the players who field on the boundary line, whether they are Indians or foreigners. In Pakistan they greet the visiting players with stones and bricks! Many Australian, English, Indian and West Indian players have had firsthand experiences of this. The spectators in India and Pakistan are also known to set chairs, benches and other things on fire when they lose hope, patience and temperament.

Sharjah, an oasis in the desert in terms of active international cricket, is like England in many ways. There are Pakistani and Indian expatriates galore. Each time India and Pakistan clash in Sharjah, the stadium gets jam-packed. But even there the over- enthusiastic and excessively jingoistic Pakistani followers tend to indulge in the soccer- type boorish behaviour and target not only the Indian supporters but also the players on the field.

The fact is cricket played in front of big partisan crowd contains ingredients which are not always obvious to those who follow the game on television. It is not only a battle between two sets of players but also between two sets of supporters. And within the teams are target players. It could be Brett Lee or Shane Warne, Alec Stewart or Darren Gough, Shoaib Akhtar or Saeed Anwar, Sourav Ganguly or Rahul Dravid, Brian Lara or Carl Hooper...

Since time immemorial scores of Tests and first-class fixtures have been disrupted by the crowd invasion and actual riots, especially in India and the West Indies. So much that the Australian cricket writer Ray Robinson penned an entire book on the subject and appropriately titled it The Wildest Tests. Although it is not played in too many countries, cricket's mass appeal cannot be doubted. It commands as much following on the subcontinent as does soccer in Europe.

There could be a variety of reasons why crowds become uncomfortable, lose their cool, go out of control and take recourse to riots. Incompetent umpiring, shocking surrender by their favourite team (remember the 1996 Wills World Cup semifinal between India and Sri Lanka at Kolkata?), overcrowding in the enclosures, fighting between two groups of supporters, unnecessary harassment by police or security personnel, commentators colouring an umpiring error or two, television replays on the giant screen at some centres exposing umpiring decisions, disrespect for certain players following the match- fixing scandal, and so on and so forth.

Today's soccer and cricket followers can be a good case-study for sociologists as well as psychologists. Maybe they are produced by a world society in turmoil. They represent, and reflect, the times we live in. Cricket does need spectators. No sport can be held in camera. The need of the hour is imaginative, unsparing and effective crowd control measures. Cricket appears to be in a state of siege today. It should be a matter of serious concern for all those who genuinely love this beautiful game.


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