Are we really obsessed with cricket or are we obsessed with being obsessed and is cricket merely a useful outlet for this deeper need? The current hysteria, the outpouring of vituperation that we see all around us when it comes to the performance of the team is by itself not unusual. Fans who give freely take away at will, and if this were merely reflective of our passion for the game, then it would be quite natural. And certainly, the performance of the team has been abject enough to merit the ire that is coming its way. It is not just the losing, some would argue, but the craven manner of the surrender and the absence of even a hope of winning that most fans are responding to. This seems to be a team convinced of its own deep vincibility and works hard to be proved right.
However, the dimensions of our anger and the way we express it are illuminating. Every time the team fares poorly, we start questioning the amount we pay our cricketers. We point fingers at the ads that the cricketers seem more involved in. We start demanding that performance drive payment. Why is money at all important? When we start using money as a measure, we are revealing the implicit deal that we have with our cricketers. In this transaction, we lionise them in return for their making us feel good about ourselves. The game is of little real consequence; victory and defeat have become detached from the game itself and have assumed a distinct life of their own. The money they are paid does not deliver value unless it is deployed in the production of victory. As spectators, we are giving them an advance payment in anticipation of their pleasing us. When they fail, they become contractual defaulters and attract an emotional penalty clause from us.
Everyone then conspires to create a wailing wall of recrimination. The great are dragged through mud; statues in India are nothing but effigies-in-waiting. We revel in this bloodletting; far from ignoring this or underplaying it as we did in earlier times, today defeat is a spectator sport too. Television channels have understood the power of defeat; for it is here that we indulge in some primitive passions as we defile the sacred with barely concealed glee.
That politicians join in is hardly surprising; they have been our patented archetype for a lynch mob. They are the most vocal, most uninhibited and the screechiest when it comes to rabble rousing. They denounce, declaim, filibuster, thunder, boycott and walk out when they are feeling civilised; otherwise they throw chappals and chairs. So for them to lead this hysterical chorus is entirely to be expected.
The only thing to remember is that in this case we too are the parliamentarians we usually laugh at and cringe from.
What is truly revealing is our reaction to our victories (yes, those too have known to happen not too long ago). If defeat makes us a lynch mob, victory makes us surgeons who skillfully dissect its viscera with forensic precision to isolate the pathogens. Even here we seek out the defaulters, the match ke mujrim as one TV channel calls them. We are never completely happy; someone has always failed to deliver to the implicit contract we have with them. Performers are separated from the failures and are then excessively feted till they fail.
The implicit worldview demands an absolute atomisation of happiness; we must be gratified not merely by the outcome but by every element in it every single time. We are throwing a perpetual tantrum in which every desire of ours must continue to keep coming true. Not only must we win every time, Sachin must score a century and that too in the dominating style that we expect from him, without slowing down as he nears the magic mark.
It is as if we cannot believe that at a time when everything must turn our way, here we have something in which we have invested so much of our identity turning upon us. We see the cricketers as ingrates, not merely as poor performers. Our reaction to our cricket team is perhaps a harbinger of the anger to come; it is the flip side of the wave of optimism that is sweeping urban middle-class India. It tells us of our coming inability to handle any reversal. Along with a sunny view of the future is a foreboding about the present. Cricket was a vehicle of hope which – when it sometimes delivered – gave us untold joy. Today it is a carrier of panicked expectation and gives us only varying degrees of sorrow.