In Support of the Underdog

Underdogs Bangladesh after their Asia Cup loss

What is your favourite movie based on a sport? Is it Lagaan, Chak De India or Iqbal? Maybe it’s Karate Kid, Rocky or Remember the Titans.  Whatever your pick may be, there’s a good chance that the theme underlying it is a common one – the triumph of the underdog.

Popular culture is full of examples of David overcoming Goliath but the difference between reel and real-life is that support for the underdog isn’t necessarily conditional on victory. Provided they have given their all and haven’t surrendered, the underdogs are considered a success, even when they don’t end up on the podium.

When Bangladesh surpassed heavyweights India and Sri Lanka to make the finals of the Asia Cup last month, the cricket world was full of praise for their coming of age. They lost the final by the narrowest of margins to Pakistan but in the process won most hearts. Many Pakistanis on Twitter were actually rooting for the opposition and like one of them mentioned – “How can you not be cheering for Bangladesh?” And when Bangladesh’s star performer Shakib Al Hasan wept after the loss along with his teammates, how many of you watching can say that you didn’t choke up?

Ireland was another side that generated support and appreciation when they surprised everyone by upsetting England during the 2011 World Cup. Cricket, like any other sport, is full of such rags to riches tales that become stories to inspire for years to come. 

Former India opener Aakash Chopra chronicled one such fairytale story of underdogs defying expectations.  It was a story that he was part of when Rajasthan scripted a famous Ranji Trophy win in 2010-11 after starting the season ranked an unbelievable 27th out of 27 teams.

The win that sowed the seeds of cricket’s current standing in India was their World Cup win back in 1983. The victory came against all odds and went on to enthuse a whole new breed of youngsters to take to and follow the sport. For years on end the triumph was used as a symbol of how anything is possible and no contest too steep to conquer.

So as followers of a sport, what makes us feel for those rated as dark horses?

When I began to take interest in cricket in 1996, the Indian team wasn’t anywhere close to what it’s like today. While words like ‘talent’ and ‘passion’ were often associated with players in those days, they were in no way considered to have the confidence to win. The Indian team was branded as lacking in killer instinct. That was to change in years to come thanks to the efforts of a few inspired individuals but yet even in the late 90s and early 2000s, the joy of being a supporter was unique.  It was almost like nothing could equal the feeling of being a fan even when the chips were down and circumstances were against us. The charm of fervently praying before the start of an innings, desperate for your team to play out of their skin to overcome the more accomplished proven winners was unmatched.

Last year, I had the opportunity to travel to and report on several of India’s games during the World Cup. India were favourites to win the championship from the start and barring a few hiccups, they came good on the promise they showed. Led by a skipper that oozed confidence, the team bore no semblance of being diffident. Yet even as the self-assured bunch went on to lift the trophy, I couldn’t get myself to feel the same enthusiasm I had for the Indian team that came before it. The team that strove hard to defy what destiny had in store for them.

Perhaps, we all support the underdog because we all know what it feels like to be the underdog.  In our lives, our jobs, our own little worlds and daily struggles, every one of us has felt at some point of time or the other that we have to overcome troubles that no one else faces. That we alone have the long shot in the challenge in front of us.

Those seen as being disadvantaged in some way arouse people’s sense of justice. And everyone wants to see justice being served. An example of this is seen in the film ‘Fire in Babylon’ which narrates the story of West Indies’ emergence from also-rans to world-beaters. The film’s appeal lies in how it correlates the team’s success story to inspiring a generation to rise from their background of slavery and oppression. Most people also tend to believe that the underdog puts in more effort into what they do in order to achieve what the favourite easily can.

For the players and team in question, the underdog status often works to their advantage. They have nothing to lose and with no expectations from them they can play without any sort of pressure.  If they come from behind and win, it’s like the icing on a cake that can spur them on in the future.

Like Somerset’s captain Alfonso Thomas once remarked, “It’s good to be underdogs when you’re winning.”

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