Leave it to Virat Kohli to be the game’s statesman. The firebrand captain won plaudits for his stirring actions in India’s victory over Australia when he angrily gestured to Indian supporters to stop booing Steve Smith, who of course along with fellow ball-tampering culprit David Warner has been the target of vocal fans since his return.
Testament to his overwhelming influence, Kohli might have single-handedly made spectators re-evaluate their behaviour through his sportsman-ship, which made sheepish Australian fans do a backflip on their sentiments towards the polarising Indian talisman.
Away from the hotbed of the field – and when shackled from the team’s minders – Kohli is pretty engaging and eloquent when dealing with the press. His words – and actions – should matter, and they do here but booing and overall fan behaviour is extremely difficult to police. There is not a whole lot of consensus on how fans should actually behave at a sports event.
Right now, one thing is for certain. Booing – and crowd behaviour broadly – is undergoing a recalibration like everything else during these politically correct times. In Australia, the jeering of AFL Indigenous legend Adam Goodes in 2014 has resurfaced after a controversial documentary was recently released.
Goodes, who was named Australian of the Year in 2014 for his determined efforts as an anti-racism campaigner, endured booing that appeared fuelled by a veneer of racism as the confronting documentary outlines – shocking treatment that was somehow misunderstood at the time.
Unfortunately, racism – and other prejudices – is not immune at sports events, as underscored when a dozen fans were ejected from the MCG for racist taunts at Indian players during the last Boxing Day Test.
Apart from the brainless, any rational fan should know that discrimination is totally out of bounds and it’s up to authorities to ensure severe penalties for those crossing the line. That should all be pretty straightforward, one would hope, but things get murky after that.
For instance, what are the guidelines over injuries? There was a notable example earlier this week during the NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors when the Warriors’ best player Kevin Durant – who was returning from a calf injury – fell to the court in pain and clutched his troublesome leg.
Some of the rowdy Toronto crowd, energised by the team being on the cusp of winning the title, mocked Durant much to the disdain of players from both teams.
Reminiscent of Kohli, several Raptors players implored the crowd to stop and eventually fans chanted Durant’s name as he left the court. It was another example of players taking initiative.
So, a reminder – cheering injuries and bigotry behaviour are totally out of bounds. But how about if your own team and/or players are playing badly? Is it alright to boo them? This has not been immune to cricket. Mitch Marsh, always a source of mockery Down Under, was roundly booed by home fans during the aforementioned Boxing Day Test after an underwhelming performance.
It feels pretty unsavoury, but it’s wise to remember that sports fandom is escapism for many people. It’s the one thing in life where adults are basically allowed to act as juveniles. Regardless of age and status, sport allows fans to act irrationally.
But where is the line drawn? Should booing be entirely stamped out? Do players deserve to be treated more like workers in the real world who would not be getting jeered or insulted sitting at their cubicle? It’s like the protocol of normal behaviour is disregarded for sports.
There is the risk, of course, that sanitising crowd behaviour would lead to games feeling pretty sterile. I’ve covered sports in Eastern Europe and am always struck by the cacophony of booing throughout the entirety of games. It’s incredibly intimidating but entirely memorable and the atmosphere is something you never forget.
Cricket – being the gentleman’s sport after all – is generally pretty staid in comparison but the Smith and Warner saga has added a new wrinkle. Justin Langer, the Australian coach, hoped fans would be sympathetic to the former leaders.
“I mean, they are human beings,” he said ahead of the World Cup. “It is really important that people show respect as well. They are humans, they are really good cricketers. They made a mistake.”
There was somewhat of an eye-roll to Langer’s plea, but again it begs the question of what is acceptable crowd behaviour. During Australia’s opener against Afghanistan, two fans watched on from an apartment balcony overlooking the ground in Bristol dressed as giant sheets of sandpaper, often rubbing a big cardboard cricket ball against themselves.
It’s the type of cheeky humour that Smith and Warner will most probably encounter later in the summer during the Ashes. And is that necessarily a bad thing? Do we really want to stamp out a bit of banter, so intrinsic in cultures such as in the UK and Australia?
Doesn’t a long day of cricket, which can be pretty sedate even in the best of times, need a dash of colour from the crowd? Isn’t that why some people go along in the first place – enjoying some fun with mates in the terraces?
It becomes a minefield to answer all those questions and it is unlikely fans – from such a cross-section of society – will ever reach some type of consensus.
Maybe, like Kohli’s actions, it requires players to step in occasionally and point out crowd behaviour that is tasteless.
TRISTAN LAVALETTE / Photo: Getty Images