x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Cricketers in the glare of their fans

Kamran Akmal, the Pakistan wicketkeeper whose errors behind the stumps cost his team the game against New Zealand on Tuesday, is just the latest to burn under the overly passionate gaze of the cricket fans as is evident on the social networking sites.

Pakistan wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal was messy behind the stumps against New Zealand.
Pakistan wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal was messy behind the stumps against New Zealand.

People still remember, and are haunted by, the death of Andres Escobar, the Colombian footballer, on July 2, 1994.

A week earlier, he had won his 50th cap, in the 2-0 victory over Switzerland that was no more than consolation as Colombia, one of the pre-tournament favourites after thumping Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires, failed to make it to the second round of the World Cup in the United States.

Having lost to Romania, the eventual quarter-finalists, in their opening game, the Colombians then succumbed 2-1 to the hosts. The first goal summed up their campaign, with Escobar's attempt to cut out a cross only finding the back of his own net.

A few hours before the Romanians knocked out Argentina, Escobar was dead, shot in a parking area by a group with links to a notorious drugs cartel, who had allegedly lost a lot of money as a result of Colombia's early exit.

A decade later, at the cricket ground in Nagpur, Australia edged closer to ending 35 years of hurt on Indian soil.

Sachin Tendulkar had just come back from injury, but with Sourav Ganguly and Harbhajan Singh missing the game, India were on the verge of surrendering the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

Tendulkar was fielding on the boundary line when the abuse started. At first, no one believed it was happening. But after a while, as it grew in volume, it could not be wished away.

Just over 18 months later, his home crowd at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai booed Tendulkar off as India slid towards defeat in a Test against England. It is something he refuses to discuss, but it cut every bit as deep as defeat in the 2003 World Cup final.

These incidents were brought back to mind while watching Kamran Akmal behind the stumps in the game against New Zealand. It was a shocking performance, from a man whose standards have slipped terribly in the last couple of years.

But even before the match was over, social media networks like Facebook and Twitter had people posting Akmal's address in Lahore. The insinuation was clear - he has messed up, so he must pay. It was frightening to watch and it mocked the notion that such outpourings of insanity come from the uneducated. The moron who made monkey gestures at Andrew Symonds in Mumbai a few years ago was wearing a designer T-shirt and sitting in the posh seats.

The young girl who unleashed a torrent of abuse at Sourav Ganguly when he was dismissed on the final afternoon of a Test against Pakistan at Bangalore (2005) hadn't sold the family silver to be there. She was in the gallery above the dressing rooms and wearing Prada shades.

Many of those hoping that Akmal breaks a leg or meets a worse fate have master's degrees or better. On Twitter, a Bangladesh fan wrote: "They're international sportsmen. They should be able to handle pressure."

Really? Shakib Al Hasan's house was stoned after the defeat to the West Indies.

Tell me how many sportsmen have to deal with that sort of pressure.

Much was made in the United States last summer of the vitriol unleashed after Lebron James opted to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Compared to what cricketers on the subcontinent have to go through, he had it easy.

Ranjan Madugalle, the classy Sri Lankan batsman of the 1980s who is now a match referee, was in Dhaka when the West Indies bus was stoned, allegedly by accident.

"We knew something was going to happen," he said. "The police asked us to take an alternate route. Even decoys were sent ahead of the team buses, but they still knew which ones to target."

He spoke of switching on a television in India, and finding up to 30 channels discussing nothing but cricket, most of them searching for a scapegoat.

"It's as bad elsewhere," he said. "Before the tournament started, I was watching in Bangladesh, and Raqibul Hasan [a former player] was asked how far he saw the team going. 'April 2 [the final], Wankhede Stadium' was his answer.

"I was shocked."

Cricket lovers would like nothing more than an India-Pakistan match at this World Cup.

But with so many "fans" on either side of the border having the perspective of Cyclops, the hope is that it does not happen. The last thing cricket needs is an Escobar.