trolls: View: The real opponents to beat in sports

In 1986, it was Chetan Sharma. In 2022, it is Arshdeep Singh. In 38 years, things haven’t changed as far as bigotry and jingoism go. If anything, things have become more pronounced and direct with the social media revolution amplifying easy hate.

In the Chetan Sharma case, Javed Miandad’s last-ball six at Sharjah had left a deep scar not just on India, but also on the man’s mind. When Sharma went to the airport to check in a few days after the Sharjah match, he was asked to step aside for profiling in his own country and forced to pay for extra luggage. It was the price he was made to pay for letting India down. These things stick.

Arshdeep’s case is vile. After dropping Asif Ali’s catch off a Ravi Bishnoi delivery in the India-Pakistan Asia Cup match last Sunday, he was called a ‘Khalistani’ and a traitor and heaped relentless abuse on social media. This was triggered by his Wikipedia entry being vandalised, and for some 15 minutes, it carried the noxious and false ‘information’ that he was named in a ‘Khalistani squad for the 2018 Under-19 Cricket World Cup.

In between Chetan Sharma and Arshdeep, there are many more instances of hate, bigotry and poor sportsmanship in the cricketing space. When Virat Kohli got out for 1 in the 2015 World Cup semifinal against Australia, Anushka Sharma was the target of repulsive trolls. When Arjun Tendulkar was first picked to play for Mumbai, he was viciously trolled for being a ‘Tendulkar’. No one really cared if he was deserving or not. The fact that he was Sachin’s son automatically made him a target. Young Arjun was left scarred in the process. More recently, Mohammed Shami was in the line of fire when trolls called him all sorts of names, and questioned his allegiance to the country after he conceded 43 runs in his 3.5 overs in the T20 World Cup match against Pakistan in Dubai last year.

What these faceless abusers end up doing is batter a player’s belief in his own talents for a long time, if not forever. A youngster like Arshdeep will probably end up hating the media and, in time, turn cynical. For the troll army, like termites they will just move on to their next target. While social media is a necessity in today’s digital age, it is also necessary to ensure that things don’t get ugly and out of control as often as they have.

At a time when talk about mental health in sports is finally being taken seriously, with the likes of Virat Kohli opening up on mental health challenges, it is key that the Arshdeep issue isn’t forgotten. It is time to pause and think of what he must have gone through after India lost the close match to Pakistan last Sunday. While it’s easy to say Arshdeep will learn and become stronger, there is no good reason why this should be taken for granted.

This is where one comes back to the trolls. If Chetan Sharma has been unable to forget what happened to him 36 years ago, it’s tough to expect Arshdeep Singh to do so soon after he was falsely vilified, and when social media nasties will remind him time and again of what happened.

In the past, it was impossible for fans to ‘reach out’ to players. Physical proximity was hard to establish and that’s what helped to control the narrative. With social media, trolls can instantly start a media trial and label someone guilty and heap abuse that can destroy one’s reputation and career. It is a peculiar kind of empowerment whereby they can directly communicate with a player and vent their frustrations and anxieties without having to budge an inch from their sofas.

Unless this ‘necessary evil’ is controlled, it has the ability to damage people and leave deep scars. Effectively, it only harms Team India. Yesterday it was Chetan Sharma, Virat Kohli, Mohammed Shami. Today it’s Arshdeep Singh. Who will the trolls attempt to search and destroy tomorrow?