Who doesn't love conspiracy theories, especially since they make for great dinner table conversations or boozy exchanges at the bar? Sports, where fans' zealotry, commercial riches and national pride intersect is inevitably a ripe ground of many impassioned stories that hint at some hanky-panky.
At the height of his prowess, India's hockey wizard Dhyan Chand had his sports stick broken by authorities in The Netherlands to check whether it had a magnet inside. How a magnet could get a ball, with no iron particles in it, to stick is a question that apparently did not occur to the Dutch guys.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, US men's swimmer Michael Phelps staked claim to the notional title of 'the greatest Olympic swimmer' ever when he won eight gold medals, breaking the previous record of seven held by former American swimmer Mark Spitz.
However, Phelps' record-breaking performance was mired in controversy as the 100-metre butterfly race ended in a photo-finish with Serbian swimmer Milorad Cavic. Phelps was later declared winner by just one 10-thousandth of a second. Watchmaker Omega provided official timing for the race, which included touchpads on the pool wall which record the swimmer's time. The fact that Omega also happened to be one of Phelps' sponsors gave rise to a dubious story. The thing to note is neither Cavic nor his coach did not think there was anything fishy in the result. But doubting Thomases kept alive the innuendoes and insinuations.
In 1995, at the World Cup rugby in South Africa, there was a wild theory that New Zealand, which lost the finals to the hosts, were a victim of deliberate mass food poisoning on the eve of the finals. It was true that many members of the All Blacks suffered sickness. But the belief that it was all masterminded by the South Africans was far-fetched. But it did emerge much later that the betting syndicates, operating across nations, may have been responsible for the poisoning.
In a fight 1965, the controversial and enigmatic Sonny Liston is said to have tanked against Muhammad Ali as a direct result of his links with the underworld. Though the people that Liston kept company with were dubious, Ali, in the 60s, was unbeatable, and would have knocked out his opponent without fixing from outside.
Cricket and conspiracy theories
In cricket itself, apart from the ludicrous school-students rumours about Sanath Jayasurya's bat being fortified with iron, there was this unseemly controversy over Australian wicket-keeper batsman Adam Gilchrist having a squash ball squelched inside his left batting glove as he pummelled the Sri Lankan attack to a blistering 149 in the finals of 2007 World Cup.
Though Gilchrist himself admitted about the presence of the foreign ball inside his glove, it was nothing more than an extra padding and all other speculation was typically misplaced.
As you can see, there is no dearth of ridiculous stories in sports. But even taking into account this penchant for sensationalism, the ongoing cricket World Cup seems to have set a record in the sheer number of conspiracy theories. The spiel started doing their rounds even before the tournament got going.
They first claimed that the tournament was scheduled in the rainy season to suit the Indian bowlers and also allow a good gap from the IPL window in the summer. The fact that the international cricket calendar has been majorly hit due to the pause during the pandemic was totally lost on those flying the fanciful kites.
Then came the outrageous claims, mostly floated by some former Pakistan players, that the Indian bowlers were being surreptitiously provided cricket balls that were capable of swinging more prodigiously.
There is a set procedure for picking balls for play. And that does not allow room for secrecy and underhand practices. But that did not stop the Pakistan cricketers from running riot with their imagination.
And ahead of yesterday's semi-final match against New Zealand a major kerfuffle was created over the change of pitch seemingly at the 11th hour.
The implicit suggestion was that the wicket for the semi-finals was chosen based on the fact that it would help the Indian bowlers. It all proved to be fever-minded falsity as the pitch stayed true and firm right through with both teams scoring over 325. It remained a great wicket for ODI entertainment. But see how a smidgeon of doubt was planted almost deliberately beforehand.
And it did not end there. Ex-Pakistan cricketers and the media hands there were still at it. They claim that the toss itself was rigged with the connivance of the match referee. That Kane Willamson did not bother to check which side of the coin fell and merely went by the words of the match referee Andy Pycroft is trotted out as the evidence. The DRS system is also alleged to have been tampered with to suit the Indians. Sigh! These are not conspiracy theories but just silly jokes. Really!
But now that India has made it to the finals of the World Cup, things are going to get murky and worse. More mud will be slung. They may even say that bails were stuck with glue on the stumps when Indians bat. Or they may make bold to claim that the pitch was shifted mid-way to help the Indians. You never know, they may even say that extra breeze was allowed to billow around when the Indian bowlers were operating. If the idea is to plumb the depths, you can keep going on.
Conspiracy Theorists have made the World Cup fun though
In a sense, conspiracy theories are inevitable in the high-noon of the social media era that were located in now. You don't need to be an expert to understand that on social media platforms fake news thrive. All popular sports stars and events become inevitable victims. There are still vociferous sections that feel that the football World Cup matches in Qatar last year were tweaked to help Lionel Messi hold the coveted trophy. Even his record-setting win of the 8th Ballon d'Or has been nudged under the cloud by the Fancy Theory Inc.
Another champion of our times, Novac Djokovic is constantly under scrutiny and many stories of dubious veracity are floated to make his victories less than flattering. The liquids that he ingests during matches are suggested to be illicitly performance-enhancing. The umpires are alleged to not come down on his time wasting tactics. There are no proofs to most of these claims.
But what is happening around the cricket World Cup is a fake news circus with a section, which wants India to fail as a host and as a team on the field, operating with a clear and calculated agenda. To be sure, the organisation of the World Cup by the BCCI has been less than kosher. But it is sheer inefficiency. To attribute it to malice is, well, malicious.
It should also be said that the conspiracy theorists have made the World Cup more fun than it would otherwise be. And here is looking forward to more such stuff from the factory of the absurd.
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