For a people used to no more than polite smatterings of applause even upon the scaling of the highest of sporting pinnacles, the metamorphosis of Asian nations as cricketing forces has come with a cacophony of noise and colour that has jolted their senses. And sensitivity.
England’s proclivity for the stiff upper lip has been the subject of much mirth over the years. Their legendary conservatism in praise has been jolted out of its reverie by the unbridled shows of appreciation of the Asian diaspora that, despite having chosen to make England a temporary or permanent home, hardly attempts to conceal its admiration for the team representing the country of their ancestors.
Even third and fourth-generation English youth unabashedly plump for, say, India when they take on England in England. For a long time, because their heroes could not compete with the English on an equal footing on the cricket fields of London and Leeds, Birmingham and Bristol, they had little to cheer about. But once India and Pakistan first, and then Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even Afghanistan, have started to make their presence felt, the weight of support of the Asian residents in this nation for the countries of their origin has started to rankle.
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As has been the norm at global cricketing events here, such as the World T20 in 2010, and the Champions Trophy in both 2013 and 2017, the electric atmosphere at grounds has been reserved for matches involving the sub-continental sides. When India are taking on England, the Indian blue comprehensively overshadows the English hue of the same colour; the fans are louder and more passionate, creating an atmosphere of such crackling electricity that you sometimes wonder whether you are in Manchester or Mumbai.
Privately, several locals and even a few members of the English side have expressed their annoyance, if not anger, at being made to feel like the away side in their own backyard, but few have chosen to air their grievances publicly for fear of being pulled up for politically incorrect.
Nasser Hussain, the Madras-born former captain of the England side, however, had no such compunctions when, in 2001, he made a fervent appeal to people of Indian and Pakistani origin who are British citizens to throw their lot behind the home team.
“I cannot really understand why those born here, or who came here at a very young age like me, cannot support or follow England. Following England has got to be the way ahead," Hussain had said when Pakistan were touring England for a Test series. “It was disappointing to see a sea of green shirts with the names of Pakistani players instead of ours (at the Lord’s Test). It reminded me of when we played India at Edgbaston in the World Cup in 1999. It was like an away game because so many people supported their side."
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Hussain was almost echoing the sentiment of Norman Tebbit, the British Conservative Party politician who, in 1990, famously thundered, “A large proportion of Britain's Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It's an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?” The Tebbit test never came to be, but if it were to be enforced today, there is no doubting what the results will be.
Tebbit’s demand, and Hussain’s call, to British Asians to re-evaluate their loyalties has clearly fallen on deaf ears. At the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup currently underway, at a conservative estimate, some 40 percent of the tickets sold for the tournament have been purchased by spectators of Asian origin supporting other countries than England. Unsurprisingly, the biggest draw of the competition is the India-Pakistan face-off in Manchester on June 16; Old Trafford can seat only 25,000 spectators but upwards of 600,000 fans are reported to have applied for tickets. Not one of England’s matches, not even their showdown against arch-rivals Australia, has attracted such serious interest, even though all their games are said to be sell-outs.
The other day, as Pakistan were staying true to the reputation as unpredictable mavericks and pulling the rug from under overwhelming favourites England’s feet in Nottingham, it was clear who was winning the battle in the stands as well. Pakistani fans made up only 24 percent of the Trent Bridge crowd, yet they clearly unleashed the greater noise and effortlessly managed to get under the skin of the England players, who were quick to react.
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After completing a spectacular catch to get rid of Imam-ul-Haq, Chris Woakes turned towards the crowd and gestured that they should ‘zip it’. Ben Stokes wasn’t spared either, as he was constantly reminded of the four successive sixes Carlos Brathwaite smashed at the Eden Gardens to help the West Indies snatch the World T20 title in April 2016. Woakes and Stokes might have expected such off-field sledging in the UAE, currently Pakistan’s adopted home, but clearly not in their den.
At The Oval, during their side’s narrow loss at the hands of New Zealand earlier this week, Bangladesh’s fans were a riot of passion and emotion, the decibel levels on par with anything emanating at a ground in Bangladesh.
At least a thousand Indian supporters will be at all of England’s matches at the World Cup
England will have majority support in terms of numbers at all their matches except against India, but when they play the Asian teams, that will not manifest itself in terms of energy and noise
The increasing affluence of British Asians has translated into visible presence at high-profile cricket events, with Bangladesh supporters expected to form a sixth of the crowd when their team takes on England in Cardiff
“There were times when I thought I was in Chittagong or Dhaka, it was amazing,” said senior New Zealand batsman and former captain Ross Taylor. Unlike the irked English players, Taylor was in awe, and perhaps a touch envious, of the support in England for the Bangladeshis. It’s another indication of the growing clout of Bangladesh as a cricketing entity that their supporters have brought close to eight percent of all World Cup tickets, making them the fourth hottest among teams followed behind only England, India and Pakistan.
It has emerged that Indian supporters have bought a staggering 55 percent of the tickets for their contest against England in Birmingham on June 30. The bugles and the drums, the giant flags and the unchecked flow of tumult, will all be magnified by the stage, the occasion, the magnitude of the match. India will have their unofficial 12th man in place, against England in England. Now, who would have thunk this 20 years back?
(Kaushik is a veteran cricket writer who has reported on over 100 Tests. He co-authored VVS Laxman's autobiography '281 and Beyond')
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