A Sri Lankan fan bites his nails
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Wordplay

Dreadheads

Cricket fans live with the feeling because they know fandom is diluted without it

Soumya Bhattacharya

Dread is one of the cornerstones of the cricket fan's lexicon. The fan has learned the many dark shades of dread, incorporated the word into his core emotional vocabulary, has taught himself to live with it, why, even to embrace it. What is he or she to do? Without dread, there is no fandom. No bona fide fandom, that is: none of that logic-defying, unreasonable, obsessive emotion that lies at the heart of the fan's life.

Dread is a first cousin of anxiety, the fretful, gnawing, never-go-away feeling that, from the moment we know that we are in this fandom business for the long haul, takes up residence in our lives. VS Naipaul pinned down this sense of anxiety most memorably - although in a completely different context - in his novel The Enigma of Arrival. He called it "a dream of glory together with a general pessimism, a wishing to hope and nervousness about hoping".

First cousin it may be to anxiety, but dread is an altogether more potent and powerful character, a really bulked-up, muscle-rippling guy, with a ratcheted-up threat perception. If anxiety is a two-ton truck, dread is a battle tank. And it is always battle-ready, up for a fight with the fan and his fragile mental state.

Cricket is a game of plots. There is the main, overarching narrative of the match itself (which, if it is part of a Test series, is part of the super-narrative of the series). Into that are stitched so many other subplots: individual contests; the backstory of the rivalry between the two teams; hunt for individual glories and milestones; the state of a certain player's career and, therefore, the importance of that particular game to him; the backstory of the rivalry between two players from the two teams; and on and on. Sometimes, cricket seems as multi-layered as a Roberto Bolaño novel.

What can dread do but intimately insinuate itself into our midst when we give it so many opportunities, so many narratives and plots? Given the nature of our game, we are simply asking for it.

Here is a fan writing in. It tells you about the fear: "I want Sachin to stay away from strike as much as possible so he stays as long as possible"

Unlike other forms of popular culture, unlike, say, literature or films or music, the narrative of sport cannot be scripted. The person who scripts the plot in real time, live, is the very person who enacts it: the player. From this, sport derives a great deal of drama, which is unique to it. This uncertainty, the lack of knowledge about what could happen in the next moment as well as the foreseeable future, is also one of the routes through which dread comes flooding in.

Every time India take the field, you feel it. How will they play? How will it all go? What if it all goes wrong? Every time your favourite player comes in to bowl or bat, you feel it. Will he do what I would love him to do? What if he is complete rubbish today? You feel his shame on being rubbish as your own; you want to save him from the sniggers of those who do not admire him in quite the way that you do.

Dread does not lay off if things are going well. If your team or your player is doing well, it just moves in and colonises your insides. Once it has started, this dread business, it just goes on heightening its presence, imperceptibly at first, and then in palpable quantum. As every landmark approaches, a fifty, a hundred, a fan feels the clammy clasp of dread. Will what I want so badly come to pass?

After a point, the batsman you admire being out there on the field, simply taking strike, is reason enough for fear. I remember an instance from ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball commentary for Sachin Tendulkar's farewell Test. Here is a fan writing in. It tells you precisely what this fear is all about: "I want Sachin to stay away from strike as much as possible so he stays as long as possible."

On numerous occasions I have felt the clammy clasp of dread's hand. I remember Tendulkar at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2003-04, coming off a terrible year in international cricket, nearing his hundred, and then his double-hundred, and the petrified state in which I watched, unable to turn away, barely able to keep watching. I remember Vivian Richards coming in to bat in the last three years of his career, and the fear that the great man, far diminished, would remind us again that he would not capture any more the heights he had soared to. I remember Gundappa Viswanath approaching the sole double-century of his Test career, and the dread that having got this far, he would not finally get across the line.

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You know the feeling. What were your instances like?

It is masochistic to let dread torment us so, but cricket fans are suckers for masochism. Why else would we get up and turn on the TV at unearthly hours, knowing, with grim certainty, that our team will get a hiding? India fans of a certain generation will know this feeling well. They have been practising this, become adept over several decades.

We live with dread because we know that without it fandom is diluted. Its absence is testimony to the fact that we probably don't care enough about the game, our team, our players. So we live with it, like two people who have stayed married out of spite.

I have found that one thing helps me cohabit with dread. It is the knowledge that the game I so adore, at the altar of which I place flowers, has no direct bearing on my job, my family, my daily life in all its pragmatic details. The thrills cricket offers the fan in me is in a sense otherworldly. In that respect, dread can't win. For a fan, especially for a middle-aged fan who has to make time for his passion of following cricket by making space amid the clutter of his life, sport is sport. It is not a metaphor for anything else. More importantly, therefore, equating it with life is a specious exercise.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of Hindustan Times, Mumbai. He is the author of two volumes of cricketing memoirs - You Must Like Cricket? and All That You Can't Leave Behind - and a novel, If I Could Tell You. @soumya1910

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