The dichotomy of fandom in the IPL era: understanding the Hardik Pandya situation

The curse of the modern age is the tendency to juxtapose love for one sportsperson with hatred for another. This dynamic unleashes fan-wars, ranging from football hooliganism in England to the drama surrounding Mumbai Indians’ captaincy change

Updated - April 06, 2024 03:23 pm IST

Published - April 05, 2024 11:55 pm IST

Not a happy homecoming: Since returning to the Mumbai Indians dugout, Hardik Pandya has faced resentment and toxicity from the fans. Reportedly his demand for being appointed captain of the Mumbai franchise has not gone down well with Mumbaikars. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Not a happy homecoming: Since returning to the Mumbai Indians dugout, Hardik Pandya has faced resentment and toxicity from the fans. Reportedly his demand for being appointed captain of the Mumbai franchise has not gone down well with Mumbaikars. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Sport without fans is like watching a tap-dancing session in a heavily carpeted hall without any background score and that too in a soundproofed room. The acoustic joy goes missing, and the same applies when fans don’t turn up while venues lapse into melancholic whispers.

Be it the ancient Roman Colosseum where mobs made raucous noise while watching blood sport, or the more sanitised venues of the modern globe in which athletes compete hard for titles, it is the avid follower who adds value. The decibel levels rise, expectation quadruples, tongue-in-cheek placards are held and even marriage proposals are aired towards superstar players.

The limelight moth truism

Can you imagine Wimbledon without the head twitches of those sitting in the stands? As heads turn left and right following the ball, it adds another layer of visual symmetry. The collective memories of watching sport add a warm glow of nostalgia and the resultant applause enhances a sportsperson’s desire to excel. Actor and politician Kamal Haasan often says that he is a limelight moth; it is a truism that applies to practitioners of sport too as they love the attention.

Complexities often sneak into this symbiotic world of the achiever and the devotee. Fandom gets intertwined with nationalism at a larger plane and individual or club loyalty at the hyper-local zone. It all remains smooth as long as the team or player you root for does well, but once form deserts them and triumphs turn coy, the loyalists’ collective self-esteem gets shredded and that breeds toxicity.

Hardik Pandya is learning this the hard way ever since he winged his way back to the Mumbai Indians dugout after a stint as the Gujarat Titans skipper in the Indian Premier League (IPL). Reportedly his demand for being appointed captain of the Mumbai franchise and the haphazard manner in which incumbent Rohit Sharma was nudged out did not sit well with Mumbaikars.

Hitman Rohit is an icon not just in the highrises and slums of Mumbai, but across India and the cricketing world. Plus he was seen as the quintessential city-dweller with his Mumbaiya slang. He was the insider within the humid sea-lapped metropolis or ‘Maximum City’ as writer Suketu Mehta rightly called it. Hardik was noted as the outsider walking straight in and clamouring for attention.

It was like those lateral entries seen in the corporate world where the new-hire strides in with a fancy designation and a hefty pay-cheque. Resentment is bound to occur. Right from the moment the latest IPL commenced on March 22, Hardik has got the rough end of the stick, be it at Ahmedabad, his former home ground, or in Mumbai, his current base. The former treated him as a deserter and the latter drew in the curtains and sulked.

Hardik has been booed and it looks ugly. Yet, it was a bit extreme on the part of cricketer-turned-commentator Sanjay Manjrekar to tell the Wankhede crowd to ‘behave’. He isn’t a grouchy hostel warden and nor are the fans errant teenagers itching for a long night. Crowds applaud, at times lapse into tears, and can also unleash a few inner demons as anger escapes the veneer of civility. There is commotion and catharsis, and players sign up for this stage.

Pivots of resentment

The groundswell of resentment against Hardik rests on two pivots: the love that Rohit commands and the sense of ownership that fans exude vis-a-vis sport. Those who swear by the Mumbai Indians feel that their affection for Rohit has not been respected and they also sense a violation of trust in the manner in which Hardik was placed on the hot seat.

However, the Reliance-backed Mumbai Indians management did not do anything radical that other franchises have not done. ‘Prince of Calcutta’ Sourav Ganguly had to make way for Delhi-hero Gautam Gambhir within the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) set-up. Even at Chennai Super Kings (CSK), a unit known for a set pattern in team compositions and a forever-bond with a loyal fanbase, M.S. Dhoni made way for Ruturaj Gaikwad. And more such transitions are bound to happen.

Sense of disquiet: The manner in which change was ushered in has become a sore point. Those who swear by the Mumbai Indians feel that their affection for former captain Rohit Sharma has not been respected. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Sense of disquiet: The manner in which change was ushered in has become a sore point. Those who swear by the Mumbai Indians feel that their affection for former captain Rohit Sharma has not been respected. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Yet, Mumbai Indians is boxed into a corner, with defeats on the one hand and disenchantment from the fans on the other. Perhaps the manner in which change was ushered in has become a sore point. A cold press release was seen as the first stab. It also came at a time when Rohit was riding a sympathy wave. The Indian skipper played selfless cricket in the ICC World Cup, launching blistering starts and inspiring his teammates all the way to the final.

He finally left as his lacrimal glands went into overdrive following the loss to Australia in the summit clash at Ahmedabad on November 19. While Rohit, Virat Kohli and the rest wept in the dressing room, it was a visibly distraught coach Rahul Dravid who turned up at the post-match press-conference. Even as the fans felt for the cricketers, there was an added layer of respect for Rohit. And by the reverse of the same coin, Hardik had hobbled out of the tournament with an ankle injury. The optics got complicated.

In the case of KKR, owner Shah Rukh Khan’s dimpled charm and star-wattage served as the bridge. For CSK, be it when Ravindra Jadeja stepped up or Gaikwad was made captain, the franchise made it obvious that it was a move which had the blessings of Dhoni. Somewhere the Mumbai Indians think-tank slumped in the communication game and it came across as a palace coup with Macbeth written all over it.

In the 2023 IPL season, Rohit had a middling run with a yield of 332, averaging 20.75 across 16 games. Even if in the India shade he scored well, at 36, he is seen as being closer to the exit-gate. The logic in implementing a leadership change cannot be faulted. Still, goodwill can trip cold logic. That Rohit’s spouse Ritika Sajdeh and his Mumbai Indians colleagues like Jasprit Bumrah and Suryakumar Yadav posted cryptic emojis on their social media handles, added to the sense of disquiet.

The best way forward: If Mumbai Indians starts winning and Hardik performs well as captain, the drama may finally begin to fade away. | Photo credit: Getty Images

The best way forward: If Mumbai Indians starts winning and Hardik performs well as captain, the drama may finally begin to fade away. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Smoke and mirrors

This was smoke and mirrors, and in this age when fandom can get too narrow, emotions were bound to stir. The curse of the modern age is the tendency to juxtapose love for an athlete or an actor with hatred for another sportsperson or artiste. This weird duopoly unleashes fan-wars, ranging from football hooliganism in England to the odd thrashing in heaving Indian grounds.

Sachin Tendulkar was booed at the Wankhede once, Sunil Gavaskar felt insulted at Eden Gardens, and Ravi Shastri went through phases when he could be both the heartthrob and the villain from the crowd’s perspective. Hardik isn’t alone but will there be a turnaround? Yes, if Mumbai Indians starts winning and he as the captain performs well. Earlier, Hardik, like all other Indian all-rounders, had to deal with the looming shadow of Kapil Dev. But winning the love of Mumbai Indians’ fans may be a sterner test.

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