Are Visiting Teams Facing Crowd Hostility at the Cricket World Cup in India?
Crowd behavior in some of the matches during the ongoing men’s Cricket World Cup tournament in India has revived the debate about whether the rise of jingoism during the rule of India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has vitiated the atmosphere of sports in the country.
Unruly crowd behavior was expected when India and Pakistan faced off in a match on October 14 at Ahmedabad, the capital city of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Former India cricketer and BJP parliamentarian Gautam Gambhir had urged the crowd in advance not to “misbehave” with “guests.”
Yet, a section of the audience chanted “Jai Shree Ram” (Victory to Lord Ram) – a controversial, politico-religious slogan of India’s Hindu nationalists – when Pakistani wicketkeeper and star batter Mohammad Rizwan made his way back to the pavilion after being dismissed. The “Jai Shree Ram” slogan has long been associated with riots and events targeting India’s minority communities, especially Muslims.
During the Australia-Pakistan match in Karnataka state, which is incidentally ruled by India’s main opposition party, the Congress, a police officer was seen preventing a Pakistani fan from chanting “Pakistan Zindabad” (Long Live Pakistan). The shocked fan, clad in a Pakistan jersey, was heard asking the officer what other slogan was he supposed to chant, as he was from Pakistan.
After the India-Bangladesh match, some Indian fans were seen tearing apart a plush tiger carried by a Bangladeshi fan – the tiger being one of Bangladesh’s most popular mascots.
The series of incidents prompted a Wisden report to note that many in the cricketing community were “condemning the general fan behavior that has been on display at the World Cup, which has made the environment uncomfortable for the few overseas fans who have traveled to watch their teams.”
While such fan behavior is uncalled for, comments on “general fan behavior” may well be an overstatement.
The incidents earned condemnation from India’s sports lovers as well as politicians. Udhayanidhi Stalin, an opposition party leader and sports minister of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, called the chanting of the “Jai Shree Ram” slogan “a new low” and “unacceptable.”
Saket Gokhale, a parliamentarian from the opposition Trinamool Congress, warned that such incidents would hurt India’s chances of hosting the 2036 Olympics. “If this is what BJP has reduced our audiences to,” Gokhale said, “massive doubts remain over whether we’re qualified & sporting enough to host ANY international sporting event.”
Former India leg spinner Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, however, had a very different take. “What abuses I have got as a 16-year-old in Pakistan, only I know. From my colour to my religion to my country and culture. For Heaven’s sake if you have not experienced it, please don’t talk about it,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
Cricket in this subcontinent has historically produced both regrettable and cherishable moments. Taunting and booing opposition teams or particular players are not uncommon in the stadiums in this cricket-crazy region, be it India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh, just as applauding opposing teams and players is not rare either. Love and hatred have traditionally coexisted. Sometimes, even home teams find themselves at the receiving end.
Jingoism may well have some influence in the chanting of “Jai Shree Ram” targeting Rizwan but it would be unjust to call entire crowds Islamophobic. In this part of the world, often cricket is the biggest religion.
If Pakistan players faced stone pelting from the crowd in Ahmedabad in the 1987 Test match – the longest format of the game played over five days – multiple Indian players were pelted with stones in Karachi stadium during India’s 1989-90 tour of Pakistan, once during a Test match and later during a One Day International (ODI). Stone pelting targeting Indian players in a 1997 match in Karachi eventually led to the reduction of the match’s length.
In the Indian subcontinent, the fans can be extremely partisan. Who can forget the pin-drop silence at Karachi stadium when India’s Rajesh Chauhan hit a sixer off star Pakistan bowler Saqlain Mushtaq, nearly sealing India’s victory?
Who can forget the similarly deafening silence in India’s Eden Gardens, Kolkata, when Pakistan pacer Shoaib Akhtar hit the stumps of India batting greats Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar in two back-to-back deliveries in a 1999 Test match?
The same match was repeatedly interrupted due to crowd behavior after Tendulkar’s controversial run out in the second innings of India’s batting. Despite Tendulkar’s repeated pleas to the crowd to calm down, the match had to be finished in an empty stadium.
But during the same tour, the Chennai crowd created the unforgettable memory of giving the Pakistan team a standing ovation after India suffered one of the most heartbreaking and narrow defeats. In fact, a mural depicting Pakistan’s famous victory lap in 1999 has found a place in the same stadium during this World Cup, and the crowd gave a standing ovation to Afghanistan after their surprise victory over Pakistan.
During the current tournament, the Pakistan team enjoyed a favorable crowd in Hyderabad.
Sweet memories are not few. Pakistan superfan Chaudhry Abdul Jalil, known around the world as Chacha or Chacha Cricket, received a warm welcome in India many a time. His photos with Indian cricket greats are not uncommon. While he is not in India this time, another superfan – known to cricket fans as Bashir Chacha and Chicago Chacha – has not faced any unwelcoming behavior.
In fact, in 2018, Bashir Chacha sponsored India superfan Sudhir Gautam’s trip to UAE for the Asia Cup as the latter’s journey became uncertain due to a funding crunch. Bashir has often been seen cheering for India when Pakistan was not playing.
Hostile crowd behavior is not peculiar to the Indian subcontinent either. Many touring players — from India’s Virat Kohli to Australia’s Steve Smith and Travis Head — have faced hostile crowds in English stadiums in recent years. The English fan group that goes by the name “Barmy Army” is notorious for creating a hostile atmosphere in the stands for the visiting teams.
Similarly, Australian stadiums are also known for crowds hostile toward visiting teams, especially England, and teams usually prepare in advance to ignore barracking and booing from the stands. In 1999, the late Australia legend Shane Warne had to pacify a hostile crowd during an Australia-England match on his home turf of Melbourne. A section of the crowd was throwing bottles and golf balls at the English fielders.
New Zealand and Australia have an old rivalry and the Kiwis, otherwise known for being genteel sportspersons, have the tradition of offering hostile crowds to the Aussies.
Given this history of the sport and its partisan fans, accusing the crowd in general of being hostile because of the behavior of a few overzealous fans during this World Cup might be unjust.