You always feel a slight frisson of excitement when, during an exciting match, the camera pans over the crowd and you see a great athlete from another sport in the audience. I’m not sure why, but it goes beyond the dubious pleasure that is regular celebrity-spotting. David Beckham focusing on the Ashes with an expression familiar from the seconds before a free kick, for example; or perhaps the sight of Boris Becker cheering for his beloved Bayern Munich with a similarly memorable joyous abandon. Perhaps part of why it matters is because we feel oddly privileged at the reminder that great athletes can be sports fans, too. Even a Becker can be lost in admiration at the athleticism of a Robben; even a Beckham can be spellbound by the way a Flintoff hits a ball.
The Championships have always provided more than their fair share of such moments. Last year, Wayne Rooney watched Andy Murray become the first Briton in decades to win a singles title at Wimbledon; everyone who saw Rooney knew he couldn’t but have been thinking that England’s World Cup drought was getting to be almost as long. The matches at Centre Court last Saturday were brightened by the presence of Beckham- who does seem to turn up everywhere – as well as golfer Ian Poulter, former England captain Andrew Strauss, and the lynchpin of the last English team to lift the World Cup, Bobby Charlton.
Oh, and Sachin Tendulkar, MP.
All this looked lovely. Tendulkar is noticeably at home among the greats of the games. He’s dignified and charming, a terrific ambassador for the game of cricket, and for India.
Naturally, however, it all went downhill from there, demonstrating once again why India simply Can’t Have Nice Things.
It so happened that Maria Sharapova, one of the players on Centre Court that day, was asked at a press conference later that evening how she felt about being watched by Beckham. She gracefully told the questioner that she’d met Beckham, he’s a pretty cool guy, glad he turned up, etc. Somebody – I don’t know who, but I’m betting it was either an Indian, or possibly the Devil meddling in human affairs – then asked a fateful follow-up question: and what about Sachin Tendulkar? Did she know who he was?
“I don’t,” said Sharapova, thereby sealing her fate.
You see, you might be one of the world’s most recognisable athletes; you might have won Wimbledon at 17, won every Grand Slam title and an Olympic silver, been forced out of the game twice because of a dodgy shoulder and returned each time to win more Slams; but if you don’t know who Tendulkar is, India will view itself insulted, and attack you relentlessly. (Sharapova should take comfort in the fact that she didn’t, at least, reveal that she has no idea who Salman Khan is. That would really have been disastrous.)
On Twitter, “Who is Maria Sharapova?” has been trending for three days. As with every time the unruly and generally uncivilised Indian internet notices the outside world, it has stunned pretty much everyone by how vituperative it can be. The Australian journalist Sam Clench reported: “India’s most passionate cricket fans, who outnumber the populations of most countries, responded to Sharapova’s blasphemous admission by spamming every post on her Facebook page with thousands of comments. At least, that was stage one of their gargantuan trolling campaign. Some of Tendulkar’s supporters insulted the Russian tennis star. Others listed his stupendous career statistics. And while a few brave people admonished their compatriots for acting so childishly, more still simply repeated Tendulkar’s name, as though Sharapova would learn who he was through repetition.” Naturally, a good proportion of the abuse was blatantly sexist. And all of it was depressingly ignorant.
I mean, is it really the case that the average English-speaking Indian internet user is so completely out of touch with the world that he or she genuinely thinks that the average Russian is likely to have heard of cricket, let alone of Tendulkar? Amitabh Bachchan, yes. Tendulkar, no.
This is more evidence of how insular and uninformed are even many relatively educated Indians – at least, many of the noisiest ones. Not to mention deficient in logic: every one of those hundreds of thousands of disgraceful Indian citizens knew that at most a dozen countries care about cricket enough to play it half-decently; it appears not one of them was capable of the logical leap to the conclusion that Tendulkar could hardly be one of the world’s most recognisable men.
It is possible that just leading you through this reasoning means that I have insulted India – or at least a national symbol. This is the new India, people. Insult it at your peril. And we will decide what’s an insult and what isn’t. (Insult logic all you like, just not us.) This is the India that burns cricketers’ homes, trolls those who don’t love Narendra Modi sufficiently, believes foreign policy can be framed around the Indian English phrase “befitting reply”.
But, you know, it would be nice if we had something to be proud of before we found things to be prickly about. Instead of winning at just cricket, could we possibly win at something other people play, before demanding the world’s obeisance? Otherwise they will just laugh at us. I’m sure Sharapova, the world’s highest-paid female athlete, is doing just that.