The joys & sorrows of seeing cricketing careers unfold

Nothing captures the essence of what it means to be a fan like seeing exceptional careers take shape right in front of one’s eyes

Cricketer Sachin Tendulkar in younger days. Credit: DH Archives

After his first Test in Brisbane a few days ago, Pakistan fast bowler Naseem Shah has one wicket to show. The pre-match buzz around him had promised more. Team selection can be an unpredictable exercise, but one suspects young Shah will get further opportunities to impress. There have been moments on the Australian tour to suggest that the likes of Andy Roberts and Waqar Younis haven’t exaggerated Shah’s potential, that it may not be long before he brings to the big stage the sizzle evident in viral bowling videos from the domestic circuit.
That said, what Shah will actually go on to achieve is difficult to foresee. He could end up a footnote, for reasons both within and beyond his control. The cricketing world has a long list of pacemen who flattered to deceive. Or he could soar like his legendary compatriots Imran Khan and Wasim Akram, both of who had forgettable Test debuts. Even if some of the taller peaks scaled by Imran and Akram remain elusive by the time he hangs his boots, Shah would have few regrets. Neither would those who chose to follow his career.
There is something special about tracking a cricketer’s career, from their wide-eyed entry into the international arena to their misty-eyed exit from it. The journey, marked by heady highs and spirit-breaking lows in myriad battles – against form, fitness, opponents, colleagues, age, conditions, luck, and distractions – has enough drama to captivate, but fan passions are not stoked by dramatic vicissitude alone.
Immediacy matters. For the fan, it is the contemporary cricketers’ journey that is the most inviting, allowing for achievements to be celebrated and struggles to be absorbed as they unfold. Past cricketers may have equally compelling stories, but those are dusted out on commemorative occasions and often presented in soft focus, a treatment that saps them of their charm and vitality. Next-gen cricketers draw attention, but the eye weighing them, its cynosure already occupied by another who came before, is either indulgent or skeptic.
It is with a contemporary of their own then that the most intense fan affairs occur. So individuals of a certain vintage may revere Sunil Gavaskar and adore Virat Kohli, but their heart will leap and bleed only for Sachin Tendulkar. For another generation, Gavaskar may be difficult to look beyond, with perhaps a Vijay Hazare taking the venerable icon’s spot and Tendulkar the able successor’s.

With the real-time opportunity to plunge into the star’s life, the fan gets a ticket to participate in collective expressions of jubilation, frustration, and solidarity, join fellow enthusiasts known and unknown, far and near as they clap, groan, and cry at their idol’s fortunes. Such affinities offer their own joys and comforts, as anyone who has raised a toast to a timely wicket in a pub, vented over a dropped catch by the office cooler, or caught a tight chase on a paan shop radio can vouch.
No less engaging for fans is the chance to compare their own hero with other contemporaries, debate who is better. Much breath has been expended on analysing Kapil Dev’s all-round abilities vis-a-vis those of Ian Botham, Imran, and Richard Hadlee, the relative strengths of Brian Lara, Tendulkar, and Ricky Ponting, or where Kohli stands in relation to Joe Root, Kane Williamson, and Steve Smith. Those conversations can lift the dullest evenings.
Perks of tribalism aside, there is also the matter of an individual, a personal bond that the young fan, the most passionate kind of fan there is, establishes – and goes on to sustain – with the rising star. Here, the long-serving cricketers’ path – typically marked by early struggle for recognition, encounter with celebrity and wealth, phases of triumph and trial, and finally worrying intimations of advancing years – resonates with the fan’s own experiences of finding a place in the sun, achieving financial independence, handling recognition and slight in the workplace, and the gradual tempering of ambition and confidence.
A whole generation of Indian fans warmed up to Tendulkar not only for affirmations of national greatness and the cheer he brought in despondent times but also because Tendulkar’s path mirrored their own personal one. Both left home looking for glory, found their feet in a testing world, soared and suffered, and reconciled to professional plateaus, roughly at the same time. Essentially, like couples romanticised by greeting card companies, they grew and ‘middle-aged’ together. Stars often speak of giving their prime years to the sport and its fans. The fan, it is often forgotten, does the same.
It remains to be seen whether Shah will connect with the new crop of cricket watchers and find among them the heart-space professional cricketers aspire to. If he does, there’s already a small body of factoids that could season fireside chats of the future. Of how Shah stayed back on that debut tour despite a personal tragedy, of how centurion David Warner spotted a future star in Shah after the very first time facing him, of how Mohammad Kaif joked about Shah aging backwards amidst talk that the bowler might have concealed his real age. It all sounds trivial now. Like Tendulkar’s bloody nosed debut, it could weave into legend later.
(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and writer)
The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.


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