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HomeCricketOff-side: Hardik Pandya, a victim of misplaced vitriol

Off-side: Hardik Pandya, a victim of misplaced vitriol

The titans of wealth and influence find themselves in quite the pickle. The wealthiest family in the country, the owners of Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League (IPL), has been suddenly caught off guard by a wave of public discontent. The Mumbai team management’s decision to swap the wily local lad, Rohit Sharma, for Hardik Pandya as captain has backfired like an old Premier Padmini on a Mumbai street.

Pandya, who had left the frenetic shores of Mumbai for the quieter, less intoxicating roads of Ahmedabad and the captaincy of its new franchise two years prior, made a return to the Mumbai dugout after some miraculous post-retention financial jugglery ahead of the 2024 IPL mini-auction. Pandya’s homecoming, however, has been far from happy, as the five-time champion is languishing at the bottom half of the IPL table after one win in four matches. Skipper Pandya has found no support or solace as the Mumbai fans have turned against him for his perceived disloyalty towards Rohit, who had captained him to stardom in his initial years with the Mumbai blues. A rumoured captaincy clause in his return negotiations has further fuelled the fans’ ire, even as the decision to replace Rohit — also the Indian captain — came as a bolt from the blue.

The affection of sports fans flows freely, yet wrath lurks just beneath the surface, ready to pounce at the faintest whiff of injustice. We elevate our heroes to towering pedestals, judging them by a yardstick loftier than the unreachable top shelf at the kitchen counter, conveniently overlooking our own foibles in the process. We strive for prominence in our mundane daily grind yet baulk at the audacity of a player to surpass their mentor.

Pandya’s first match as Mumbai’s leader took him back to his old stomping ground, and the Ahmedabad locals were quick to voice their displeasure, though, mercifully, no animal carcasses came flying his way. Luis Figo was greeted at Camp Nou in November 2002 by the Barcelona faithful with a pig’s head for his betrayal in crossing the El Classico divide and moving to Real Madrid. “I must be one of the very few sportsmen to have had to perform with 120,000 people against me and focused on me, not the team,” Figo would later tell the Guardian.

Pandya’s hecklers, fewer in number — the official attendance figure at the Narendra Modi Stadium was 80,081 for that night, and Wankhede Stadium has a capacity of 33,006 — have been no less loud, prompting Sanjay Manjrekar to urge the Mumbai crowd to “behave” at the toss for the match between the Mumbai Indians and the Rajasthan Royals.

Fans turning on their own is a tale as old as time. Ask the poor Mohammed Shami, who faced a barrage of online trolling after India’s 10-wicket loss to Pakistan at the 2021 T20 World Cup, while it is our national pastime to set fire to effigies of cricketers after every lacklustre showing or defeat. Superstar David Beckham and his family were subjected to years of abuse by the English fans who held him responsible for the nation’s ouster from the 1998 FIFA World Cup.

Fury against clubs and club ownership — for poor results or mismanagement — has been equally commonplace, like the longstanding “Glazer Out” campaign by Manchester United’s supporters against their absentee American owners.

The Mumbai fans, and those devoted to Rohit, are yet to unleash their anger upon the Mumbai Indians’ top brass — the decision-makers behind the captaincy call. But with every dismal display and every questionable decision, the rumblings will grow louder. After 17 years of entwining themselves with the fabric of the ‘Maximum City’, one misstep, one miscommunication, should not undo it all.

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