Bill Simmons is American sport’s most influential voice today. He is ESPN’s single most indispensable property. He has over a million Twitter followers and is read by more people weekly than any other American sports columnist, reporter or writer. He is so popular that his milquetoast conversations with childhood friends (which sound like they could be from any pub in America) are the most listened-to podcasts on iTunes. Only 13 years ago he was but a fan who wrote about Boston sports for an audience smaller than Fenway Park. Identified and nurtured by ESPN he lapped established media, columnists and reporters. He did this by speaking as a fan to fans. He did this by challenging the status quo of journalism from media boxes. He did this by challenging the benefit of having sports covered only by those who were close to the athletes and interacted with them on a daily basis. He let his biases seep thru his work. He captured the emotional mood swings that fans experience and questioned the old-established model of neutrality from those who cover sports for a living.
Bill Simmons is by no means perfect but he gave a voice to fans across the country. But Indian cricket badly needs its Bill Simmons or at least a Bill Simmons moment. Too many cricket journalists are getting too distant from the fans. Too many mainstream voices are not looking outside the ‘ivory towers’ that house fellow mainstream journalists. The latest case-in-point : Ramachandra Guha.
Mr. Guha is a widely published and renowned historian and writer who holds a tier 1 stature among writers in India. His latest piece in Cricinfo tackles the all-important question that no fan was smart enough to think of – What trophy should India and Pakistan play for? Cricinfo does yeoman work for the sport and fans everywhere but there is a reason we have Cricinfo and no Kabadiinfo or Handballinfo websites yet. The extraordinary passion of the Indian cricket fan and the ensuing demand for scorecards, articles and content keeps the cricket media industrial complex busy and employed. Too many writers forget this and Ram Guha demonstrates his enormous distance from the median fan at several junctures in his piece. Here below are eight instances from his piece that demonstrate the vast gap between his perception of a situation and those of a fan –
1) “Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, Zaka Ashraf, suggested that the two countries play each other regularly, for what might be called the Jinnah-Gandhi Trophy.” – First of all, the nation of Pakistan and its very existence as a place where people can live safely is under worldwide debate. The nation has not proven itself to be capable of hosting a cricket match in nearly four years. The recently completed five match limited overs series was hastily put together by the two boards with no other bilateral competition scheduled in the future. With so much doubt about one of the protagonists, is the name of the trophy really worth spending time on?
2) “Through the 1980s and 1990s, whenever India played Pakistan, the fans of both sides would display their jingoism in abundant measure. I carry a painful memory of standing to applaud Javed Miandad in Bangalore, after he had played his last innings in international cricket. I was the only man to do so in my stand. The feelings of the others summed up by a fellow who said: “Thank God I shall never see the bastard again.” –
I am sorry but hasn’t sport existed for centuries on the pretexts of rivalry and an enemy to root against? Yankees-Red Sox, Australia-England, Barcelona-Real Madrid and USA-USSR. Whether it is between clubs or countries, jingoism and a feeling of us vs. them makes sports the compelling theater it is for millions. Without jingoism and a rival, sports would be just another reality show on TV. For Ram Guha to frown on an Indian fan for calling Javed Miandad (the man who handed Indian cricket its worst moment in 50+ years) a bastard is for Ram Guha to move away from the sports page on to the literary review page of a Sunday newspaper. It takes a special level of fandom, passion and knowledge to recognize and acknowledge Javed Miandad for the bastard he was:). At least if this fan had expressed the same feelings at a Rashid Latif or Ataur Rahman I could see some reason for frustration. But for Miandad :).
3) “In recent years, however, Indians fans have become more mature, focusing on the cricket rather than seeing it as a substitute for politics (or war). When Pakistan won a Test in Bangalore in 2005, those in the Chinnaswamy Stadium were quite happy to cheer Inzamam and his men.” – So he has chosen one anecdote from one day of one test match seven+ years ago to make a generic all-encompassing point about cricket fans from a country of 1 billion+. Well done Sir! Stereotypers worldwide would be proud of you.
After praising Sanjay Manjrekar for thinking like Ramachandra Guha, Guha writes,
4) “That this time, too, Indian fans and crowds took defeat at the hands of Pakistan so calmly spoke of a new, and very welcome, ability to separate sport from national pride.” – I am sorry but I have watched cricket for 28 years and not once has the GDP/rate of inflation popped up in my mind when Sachin scores a 50. Equating success or failure in cricket to national mood is an easy, lazy thing to do that insults the complexity of the world. If I had to guess the Indian fan was a little more mellow in the 2000s because he saw the team win a lot more especially against Pakistan. In the 1990s, the same Indian fan was probably beaten to an angry frustration because of the frequency and margin of defeats at the hands of Waqar, Wasim and Aaqib.
5) “In this changed climate, we may indeed push for regular tours between the two sides.” – Really Mr. Guha? You haven’t read the newspapers recently? There is nothing about the political climate in Pakistan that suggests there can be any determinism in the cricket calendar. And yet there seems to be a consensus in your mind that the time is right for frequent tours?
6) “I think we should follow the latter model and promote a Sachin Tendulkar Trophy. No man has defined India-Pakistan cricket in the way that he has.” – Really? Have you asked Pakistan fans what they think of this? What are their thoughts on Aaqib Javed’s bunny being the person after whom a trophy is named? Until today they thought Wasim Akram was the player who defined the rivalry. Are they wrong?
7) “For 22 years, in all forms of the game and at all venues, how much Sachin scored and when he got out often decided which way the match would go.” – This statement obliterates the last decade of Indian cricket and does gross injustice to the several series that India won against Pakistan courtesy Sehwag, Dravid, Laxman and Kumble. It also completely minimizes the records of Inzamam, Anwar and Pakistan’s pace bowlers who have often made the difference between evenly matched sides.
8) “I think many Pakistanis will be content with a trophy named for Tendulkar alone. For their fans and cricketers venerate the man and his game. I remember the late Raj Singh Dungarpur telling me how, at a reception at Buckingham Palace during the 1999 World Cup, the young Pakistani players merely wanted to be in the presence of Sachin, to touch his blazer and be photographed with him.” – One of the glaring offshoots of when media members only talk among themselves is lines like the ones here. Anecdotes from events media members attend are passed around as evidence and data points for sweeping conclusions.
A passionate and intelligent fan base needs to have its passion and intelligence voiced by representatives of the fourth estate. Picking on Guha gives mo no special pleasure. It is but one of the most glaring examples of where desire to write for the cricket fan diverges far from the fan him/herself. The time is ripe for someone to rise and represent the Indian cricket fan. Someone who writes with the same angst, passion, excitement and intelligence as the median fan. The median fan deserves that.