Five years after the Indian Premier League T20 cricket tournament captured the imagination of Indians everywhere, I watched a match live at the Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore early this week. The Royal Challengers Bangalore played against the Mumbai Indians. A heavy afternoon shower did not deter the spectators who poured in, dripping wet, into the stadium.
The stadium experience was very different than I had expected. It was louder, grander, blingy-er and more vulgar than I had ever imagined. People walked in, mostly in large groups, their focus being on each other, on the free flags distributed at the stadium, on checking their phones to track where their other friends were seated, the popcorn that somehow always got sold out before the vendor made it to where one was seated, and on the hooting, whistling and cheering when the ‘MC’ (yes, MC) asked them to.
The MC asked the crowd to do the wave. They did the wave. The MC asked them to wave their flags. They waved their flags. The MC asked them to stand up. They stood up. The MC asked them to chant the RCB slogan. They chanted the RCB slogan.
They were there to be entertained; to forget (if only for a few hours) the worries that otherwise keep them occupied; and most of all, to be part of the maha IPL tamasha. A senior columnist recently wrote that the IPL is a vulgar display of our decadence. The way IPL followers were waving the flags, drumming up support and cheering on, it seems as though they enjoy this display — or rather didn’t care about the money power as long as they got their money’s worth.
But why is this happening?
Urban Indians love a good IPL match because it entertains. It helps spectators get away from the fragmentation they feel in other areas of their social and work lives. This is a tight-knit community where people are assured that their interests are similar and their experiences, problems and worries, perhaps, are similar, too.
IPL is grassroots and bubbles up all the way to the topmost rung of Indian society. Ticket prices even tell you that — it starts from a few hundreds and goes all the way up to a few thousands. It binds together people with similar interests fuelling this concern and passion for cricket and bringing the game right at the heart of this gathering. In a deeper sense, IPL is fulfilling this enduring human urge to be part of something huge — something larger than ourselves.
What works with cricket and especially with the IPL is that it brings out our social need to belong to a group or association without doing much more than watch a sport. You can be a passionate follower, keenly watching the test matches that go on for five days, or even log in to the game only when India is playing against Pakistan or when an important and exciting game is taking place. The nature of this ‘association’ is fluid, making it easy for a ‘fan’ to sign in and out as per his/ her convenience. The best part is that the access to the game is always there. It’s on TV when one is out at a pub with friends, or at a friend’s place.
Cricket makes us feel like there’s a common purpose and goal that a very large group is heading towards. It makes us ‘belong’ and even feel wanted. And we’d like to join this group. To belong.
The writer is a Bangalore-based commentator.