There’s not a single moment of Indian cricket that Saravanan Hari misses. The 36-year-old from the southern Indian city of Chennai lives, breathes and vicariously documents Indian cricketing moments on his Instagram page, followed closely by 446,000 people. Though he is already a digital influencer of sorts, it’s in the real world where Hari’s presence is more conspicuous.
Hari is a huge fan of Chennai Super Kings (CSK), an Indian Premier League (IPL) franchise cricket team from his hometown. Every time CSK hits the ground, Hari turns up in the audience, swathed in bright yellow paint offset against a wig of curly hair. The cameras love a spectacle, and Hari makes sure he gives them one.
“I’ve been watching cricket since I was a child, but over the last few years, I’ve developed a greater love for it,” the superfan told VICE. “Cricket is not just a sport for me. It’s an emotion. It’s more than a game.”
Superfans are unlike ordinary fans. They might love and support their teams just as much, but they make themselves a part of the fandom by building their entire lives around their favourite team or player, turning up at every match possible even in extreme conditions, and often choosing an avatar to distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowd.
Hari, a marketing executive who works with a cement company, said that cricket saved him at a time when he was bedridden for more than a year after a road accident. “My parents, wife and daughter support me,” he said. “But I also feel like life is very good when I’m one with cricket.”
“Cricket is not just a sport for me. It’s an emotion. It’s more than a game.”
Sports fandom is widely considered to be a psychologically healthy activity that creates communities and gives a sense of belonging. In India, superfandom is highly visible, be it building temples for superstars or going on a hunger strike in order to meet them.
Cricket has 2.5 billion followers across the world, according to one sports ranking – second only to soccer/football. For India, a country of 1.3 billion people, cricket is almost a religion, one introduced to the country by its British colonisers. Cricketers receive most of the country’s prestigious civilian honours as well. In fact, one ranking puts India right on top for having the most dedicated cricket fans in the world.
But while fandom catapulted the sport to the highest pedestal possible, it also consistently tips over to the dark side. Across the world, violence and hooliganism among superfans have been documented. In India, though, the stakes are especially high.
For India, a country of 1.3 billion people, cricket is almost a religion. One ranking puts India right on top for having the most dedicated cricket fans in the world.
A recent face-off between India and Pakistan – a cricket rivalry that often feeds off the tumultuous diplomatic and border relations between the two countries – saw India losing to Pakistan by ten wickets. It was a crushing defeat made even more significant because this was the first time ever that India lost to its neighbour in a World Cup match. Hours after, as fans’ mood soured, the toxicity extended far beyond the stadium in Dubai.
Tension filled the streets in India as unsuspecting students from Kashmir, a region under Indian control but also claimed by Pakistan, became targets of violence from their fellow Indians.
In the city of Sangrur, several college students were physically assaulted and their dorm rooms were ransacked after the match. It is unclear if the students had cheered for Pakistan or if the assailants only assumed they had, but soon after, cops arrested the students. A senior member of the ruling BJP party said in a tweet that they may be charged with sedition, on top of the charges of cyberterrorism and “promoting enmity among groups” that police accused them of after the arrests on Wednesday.
The Indian team’s only Muslim player, Mohammed Shami, also faced massive online trolling, was called a “traitor,” and accused of throwing the game. Unlike Hindu-majority India, Pakistan is a predominantly Muslim country.
So vicious was the post-match hate that even prominent political leaders came on Twitter to condemn it. “These people are filled with hate because nobody gives them love. Forgive them,” Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi implored Shami in a tweet.
This isn’t new, of course. In the past, too, disappointed fans have run amok, trolled cricketers, pelted them with fruits, hurled bottles at the field, and even attacked their homes. Even cricketers’ wives and children as young as 5 years old have been trolled and met with rape and death threats. In 1987, disappointed Indian fans rioted, rival groups clashed, set things on fire, and even stabbed each other to death.
“A typical Indian cricket fan is largely male, between 14 and 45 years old,” Sharda Ugra, a sports journalist who has been writing about cricket for over 30 years, told VICE. “This is the rough demographic for all sports fans, everywhere.”
But there’s been a shift in the nature of this fandom over the last few years, as evidenced by the events from last week. “The word ‘fan’ itself comes from the word ‘fanatic.’ Today, fandom has reached a level where fans on the ground and social media believe they have to perform a particular role and act a particular way. Right now, it’s way more jingoistic, with an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative,” Ugra said.
This has not always been the case, though. Ugra recalled a time back until the mid-1990s when Indian fans would cheer for the opposing team, too.
“Now, when the opposition scores, there’s silence. This never used to happen before,” she said. “Times may have changed, but social media has definitely exacerbated this toxicity. The medium has been a boon in a way that there is more information and analysis on cricket. There’s a certain quality to the discourse now. But at the same time, the dark side of it is just vicious and wild.”
It needs to be noted that a cricket match between India and Pakistan is not a simple affair.
“Today, fandom has reached a level where fans believe they have to perform a particular role and act a particular way. Right now, it’s way more jingoistic, with an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative,” said sports journalist Sharda Ugra.
It’s never just a game between the two nuclear-armed countries, which was once a single team of pre-partition India that used to travel abroad for test matches. In post-colonial India and Pakistan, cricket fans dip into the deep waters of performative patriotism, and hypernationalism comes into play.
This week, Nafeesa Attari, a private school teacher in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, was fired from her job – and later arrested – after she posted “We won” on her WhatsApp status after Pakistan beat India last Sunday. Attari later apologised, saying her family divided themselves into two teams during the match for fun, and that her WhatsApp status was taken out of context. The teacher, a Muslim, emphasised in her video message, “I am an Indian, and I love India as much as everybody else.”
Pradeep Magazine, a sports journalist who has been writing on cricket for over three decades, told VICE that no other match with India has more political overtones than one with Pakistan. “A kind of toxic atmosphere prevails when it comes to India-Pakistan matches,” said Magazine. “In the media, you’re told it’s a war, and there’s a language of humiliation associated with losing. Of course, not everyone plays into it, but those who do are more vocal and hence get more attention.”
The reactions in India after its team lost to Pakistan also mirror the communal tensions that have been flaring up in many states. In Hindu-majority India, human rights watchdogs have constantly flagged an alarming rise in discrimination, violence and targeted attacks against Muslim minorities, often sanctioned by government policies and coupled with the use of police force.
Magazine, who navigates hypernationalistic fandom in his upcoming book, Not Just Cricket: A Reporter's Journey Through Modern India, said that while there was always jingoism around India-Pakistan matches, this is the first time that people in India were told, by authorities no less, that they have no right to choose a team. “This is where it becomes problematic,” he said.
In the meantime, India-Pakistan matches continue to be a big money-making business. One OTT platform, Disney+ Hotstar, which has the streaming rights for the T20 World Cup this year, clocked in over 10 million record viewers on its platform.
The noise from the problematic fans often takes the focus away from those in the background, who’s there out of genuine love for the game, added Magazine.
“There’s a lot of fun and skill in the game if you’re a genuine sports lover,” he said. “It’s a distraction from your day-to-day life, too. But if it becomes a cause of destroying your peace of mind and [it] affects your life, what’s the point?”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.