The Agony of Obsession

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It’s not easy being a sports fan

Hong Kong International Airport. 12 November 2011. Around 10.15 pm. Alaham Anil Kumar has just boarded a Dragonair flight for Bangalore. He gets a call from his wife, Sridevi. The news leaves Anil shaken. He finds it hard to eat or sleep on the flight. He spends a good part of the journey pacing up and down the plane’s aisle.

What happened? Had all Davangere benne masale places in Bangalore shut down? Had Deepika Padukone decided to get a size zero body? What tragic fate had befallen mankind?

Nothing of the sort. But Peter Roebuck had died. In the big picture this wasn’t a major development. And Roebuck, with due respect, was mixed up in some unlawful business, the kind that made the mint-tea-and-tweed-jacket set employ euphemisms like ‘flawed’ or ‘troubled’ in their descriptions of Roebuck.

For Anil, though, Roebuck’s death was nothing less than a Kennedy moment. Kumar is a rabid sports fan, and Roebuck’s writing on cricket was nearly as essential a requirement for him as a Rahul Dravid straight drive.

Anil says, “There was a time when I didn’t read his column for a couple of weeks. I got his email address and wrote to him. He wrote back, saying, ‘Relax Anil, I’m on holiday’.”

Welcome to the world of obsessive sports fans. These are people who go to extreme lengths to follow their sport, and who experience soaring highs and deep lows depending on the performance of their favourite team or player. Sport extracts a price from you. Often that price is your sanity. And this is a breed that does not mind paying. Even when it does, it can do little about it.

Anil, a book trader with a base in Hong Kong and another in Bangalore, is one such fan. In Hong Kong, a couple of years ago, he went one early morning to a restaurant just to watch cricket between Pakistan and New Zealand. The place was not open yet, but he convinced them to let him sit there and watch the cricket. He is a man who is such a Roger Federer fan that he and wife Sridevi, a Rafael Nadal fan, watch matches on separate televisions when the two play.

The acclaimed American writer Gay Talese is famous for writing about losers. He found them rich material. Similarly, while fans no doubt enjoy the wins of their favourite team or player, the pain they experience when they lose is enriching in its own way.

It leads to acceptance and a more mature relationship with the game. The conversations with sports fans in this article are about such moments of agony and introspection in the aftermath of the failures of their team or favourite athlete.

Subash Jayaraman, director, technical training, TechKnowServe Corporation, Pennsylvania, US, and a cricket blogger and podcaster, names two events when asked about his darkest moments as an Indian fan. One was a defeat (the World Cup 1996 semifinal against Sri Lanka), while the other was a wicket (VVS Laxman bowled by Jimmy Andersen at Trent Bridge, 2011).

“I was there at the ground,” he says of the Laxman dismissal during India’s chase of a near impossible target of 478. “We were just returning to our seats after lunch. Then I heard the roar of the crowd and I knew what had happened. This was one of the last times that Laxman and Dravid would be batting together. There were memories of Kolkata 2001 (when Laxman’s 281 and his 376 run partnership with Dravid brought India a mythical win against Australia at the Eden Gardens). As a fan, there is hope and there is expectation… you want a miracle. It happened once, and you think it can happen again. It was like someone ripping your heart out of your chest.”

But as someone in his late 30s, he takes setbacks in his stride. “When you are a young fan, it is all about the bottomline, the wins and the losses. As you get older, you understand the game and life better.”

The notorious 1996 World Cup semifinal turns up again when one speaks to Gaurav Sethi, head of advertising agency Naked and a cricket nut who blends sport and humour in the portal BCCI (Bored Cricket Crazy Indians), of which he is founder. That World Cup should have been ours, just as the 1987 World Cup should have been ours. World Cups like 1991-92, 1999 and 2007, we agree, we didn’t have a chance. Even in the 2003 World Cup, we came close—Australia outplayed us in the final. But 1996 should have been ours. When that didn’t happen, it hurt. Especially if, like Sethi, it was your wedding sangeet that day.

‘Even before the first guests arrived, I knew Aravinda de Silva would spoil my party,’ Sethi writes in an email message. ‘By the time the people-trickle started, I decided to distance myself from India’s chase.’

Sethi says the crumbling of India’s dream resulted in even non-drinkers hitting the bottle that day. ‘My father-in-law for the first time complained of a hangover the next day,’ he says. ‘As for me, I drank some, enough to distance myself from the TV. I just wish [Vinod] Kambli had been allowed to bat that day (the Bengalis predictably went bonkers and the match was called off due to crowd trouble). He had [Anil] Kumble, a future Test centurion, for company. Damn you Calcutta. And I haven’t even got started on Azhar and Jadeja and Mongia, who scored one run between the three of them. I survived the day, and was married on the Ides of March. The daggers, though, were out a lot earlier.’

For Chennai software engineer Murali Mohan, an obsessive fan of Sachin Tendulkar and India (and the Mumbai Indians), 2007 was torture. This was the time when Tendulkar was frequently getting out in the 90s, and also the year India were bundled “I remember Sachin getting out for 99 in an ODI against Pakistan in Mohali,” Murali recalls. “I hurled my mobile phone and the television remote.” Both objects broke on impact, earning him a dressing down from his father. He was 21 then, no longer a boy, which was the only reason he escaped a beating.

It took him about a month to recover from the World Cup reversal. “I become hard to handle for others,” he says of his mood when India lose or when Tendulkar did not perform. “I go on long walks, lose my appetite and watch old videos where India or Sachin have played well.” Murali got married in 2012, which changed things somewhat.

But not enough to stop him watching IPL matches till midnight. “For both me and my wife it was a huge learning curve,” he says. Now in his late 20s, he realises investing so much of himself in what after all is just a game is not healthy. Yet, he cannot help it. “At times I wonder whether it is worth it. But then the next match comes along and I can’t stop watching it.”

Ashutosh Soman is a software engineer in Pune. In August 2012, he spent Rs 30,000-40,000 and two or three months on developing an app about a man with no connection to him, nor to Indian sport. “People tried to advise me against it,” says Soman. “They said, ‘Laskarchya bhaakrya bhaajto aahes.’ (You are baking rotis for others/ you are barking up the wrong tree).” He did not care. Soman has been watching sports for decades. But only this man made him buy equipment and sign up for lessons. Only this man made him spend almost Rs 40,000 and go to Dubai to watch him play. That man is… (drumroll) Rogerrrr Federerrrr.

Hiren Sanghvi, 35, is a financial trader in Mumbai. He was a major cricket fan till “certain realities” about the game caused him disillusionment. Sanghvi turned his attention to his other favourite sport—tennis, where every time one man won, he threw a party for friends. In all his life, this man has lost only one match at the French Open, an event he has won eight times. Sanghvi gave a party that day too, at the Thunderbird bar on Mumbai’s Ghodbunder Road, just because he wanted the tradition to continue. The man in question is… (trumpets) RRRafaelll Nadallll.

While tennis has traditionally been a white collar sport, the epic contests between Federer and Nadal over the past decade captured the imagination of the world. Moreover, the two superstars polarised fans. Each side hates the other. Victory and defeat, therefore, trigger very intense reactions. Recovery from a defeat takes days. Work and mental equilibrium suffer. And since Nadal has beaten Federer 22 times and lost just ten times, Federer fans have suffered more.

Gautam Puhan, a New Jersey-based psychometrician (applying statistics to the field of educational testing) and Federer admirer, says, “I used to get so upset [when he lost] that my wife’s cousin, who visited us often, joked that the day of a Federer final, he’d better eat a heavy breakfast because he was not sure if there would be lunch or dinner if Federer lost.”

Following a defeat for his idol, Puhan becomes a recluse for the next few days. “The good thing is that since these finals are always on Sundays, the upcoming work week helps me forget about these losses quickly.”

Like almost all Federer fans, Soman too liked him for not so much the results but the way he played. Therefore, what troubles Soman more is that he is not hitting the shots he used to.

“I don’t care about the results. I just want to see those 10 or 20 great shots per match,” says Soman, who in the Doordarshan era would travel from Pune to his uncle’s house in Mumbai so that he could watch tennis telecasts uninterrupted (Pune did not get DD Metro, the ‘second’ channel). Nadal’s rise also does not give him sleepless nights. “It depends on how you define greatness,” he says. “By numbers, there is a question mark over Roger, because he has lost so many times against Nadal, and Nadal might end up with more Slams. But for me it’s about the way someone plays. I also believe Federer and Nadal are much closer as players than 22-10 suggests.”

Which brings us to the peculiar situation at the home of Alaham Anil Kumar and wife Sridevi. As mentioned earlier, Anil roots for Federer, while Sridevi is in Nadal’s corner. “I realised it was better we watched their matches separately,” says Anil. For some time now, husband and wife have been watching the matches on separate television sets in the same house.

“Nothing against Nadal—he is the most competitive player ever,” says Anil. “I even ordered an autographed photo of his from Barcelona as a surprise for Sridevi, even though I have to see his face on the wall every day. But I like purists. With players like Nadal or Djokovic, the beauty is lost.”

Arsenal are the Roger Federer of football. The club rarely dominated the game like Federer did in his prime. But the same aesthetic beauty and an element of tragedy Federer has about his career also defines Arsenal. And their fans go through the same ordeal, though this year is going better, with the Gunners currently on top of the Premier League table. “Federer fans can blame his decline on age. A team does not have that excuse,” says Kunal Maajgaonkar, media manager of the Bangalore FC team and Arsenal devotee. “They have won nothing for eight years. It is disappointing and depressing. Most hardcore fans put up a brave front and maybe blame the referee sometimes, but inside, you are breaking into a thousand pieces.”

When Arsenal lose, Majgaonkar has a few ground rules in place. He avoids taking calls from friends who want to rub it in. He doesn’t single out players for criticism on public forums, because it is unfair and consequences can be serious for players. He also likes to be left alone. “I’m an easygoing guy otherwise, but for a couple of days I’m irritable or not in a mood to talk,” he says.

After a long time, this season, things are looking up for Arsenal. But their lead is slender and there is still about half the season to go. But the Gunners will always have the style points. As Pele once said, “If you want to see trophies, go to Manchester United. If you want to see 90 minutes of beautiful football, go to Arsenal.”

Says Majgaonkar, “It’s a bit diminished now, but [Pele’s statement] is still valid. Even fans of other teams see it. They don’t admit it, but their silence says it. That’s enough for me.”