BBC News: LONDON, England, By Saurabh Somani – For the past two weeks, an Indian cricket star has been booed heavily by fans in packed stadiums across the country.

Hardik Pandya, captain of the Mumbai Indians team in Indian Premier League (IPL), the world’s richest cricket tournament, has faced booing crowds during the team’s games in Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and even in home ground, Mumbai.

Traded from his earlier side Gujarat Titans, Pandya has replaced India’s all format skipper Rohit Sharma at the Mumbai Indians for the 2024 IPL, which began on March 23. The 30-year-old seam-bowling all-rounder had previously been part of four title-winning campaigns under Sharma’s leadership at Mumbai Indians, spending his first seven IPL seasons there until 2021.

For many, the move from Mumbai came as a surprise. The franchise has a history of storied captains. Pandya’s appointment marks Mumbai’s fifth captain since its inception in 2008, succeeding the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, and Rohit Sharma.

However, Mumbai fans have not taken to it lightly. They believe Sharma – the competition’s joint-most successful captain, alongside MS Dhoni – didn’t give up the captaincy and was displaced. And they are letting Pandya know how they feel.

The Mumbai captain encountered a hostile reception from fans last week in Ahmedabad when facing his former team, Gujarat Titans, whom he lead to successive IPL finals, including the 2022 title. The booing continued as Mumbai faced Sunrisers Hyderabad in the southern city of Hyderabad.

AFP A fan cheers for Gujarat Titans' team while watching the Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 cricket match between Gujarat Titans and Sunrisers Hyderabad at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on March 31, 2024.AFP A fan cheers for Gujarat Titans’ team in an IPL game last month

At Mumbai’s home game against Rajasthan Royals (RR) at Wankhede Stadium on Monday night, Pandya faced jeers from fans during the toss, prompting commentator Sanjay Manjrekar to ask the crowds to “behave”.

That didn’t quite placate the crowd though. The boos returned when Pandya couldn’t latch on to a difficult catch and the only time the jeering turned to applause was when Pandya hit a few boundaries. It didn’t help that Royals won the game, handing down Mumbai’s third back-to-back defeat.

Ravichandran Ashwin, the spin maestro who plays for Rajasthan Royals, has chastised crowds for their behaviour and blamed India’s “fan wars” for the booing that Pandya has been subjected to.

“People should remember which country these players represent. It’s our country. Fan wars should never take such an ugly route,” he said on his YouTube channel.

Ashwin cited instances from the past where Indian cricket legends such as Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, and Rahul Dravid played under each other’s captaincies without any significant fan backlash.

“Sourav Ganguly played under Sachin Tendulkar and vice versa. These two have both played under Rahul Dravid. These three have played under Anil Kumble and all of them have played under MS Dhoni. When they were under Dhoni, these players were cricket jambhavans (giants). Dhoni too played under Virat Kohli.”

AFP Mumbai Indians' captain Hardik Pandya walks back to the pavilion after his dismissal during the Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 cricket match between Sunrisers Hyderabad and Mumbai Indians at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad on March 27, 2024. (AFP Mumbai has suffered three back-to-back defeats at the IPL this year under Pandya

Ashwin also asked whether such “fan wars” happen in any other cricket playing nation.

“Have you seen, for instance, Joe Root and Zak Crawley fans have a fight? Or Joe Root and Jos Buttler fans fight? It’s crazy. Do you see Steven Smith fans fighting with Pat Cummins fans in Australia?”.

Rajasthan Royals’ pace bowler Trent Boult has also backed Pandya, a former teammate, and asked him to “block out white noise”.

“It is something you cannot control, as professional sportspeople it is what you are exposed to in a way. You have to block out the white noise and focus on the job, (but) it is easier said than done,” the New Zealand pace bowler told the media.

On social media platforms such as Reddit and X, fans are asserting their freedom of expression, saying that cricketers are overly sensitive. They argue that if players embrace adoration, they must also endure criticism, including boos.

Sports writer Sharda Ugra said the booing of Pandya was quite unprecedented.

AFP Rohit Sharma of Mumbai Indians bats during the IPL Eliminator match between Lucknow Super Giants and Mumbai Indians at MA Chidambaram Stadium on May 24, 2023 in Chennai, India. (AFP Rohit Sharma is IPL’s joint-most successful captain, alongside MS Dhoni

“You’ve had players booed by the crowds at various stands, but in this sustained manner… from one ground to another ground and to a third ground which is his home ground… It’s quite unusual,” says Ugra, who has been writing on cricket since 1989.

“I think it’s a lot generated by social media. It’s almost like a trend that carries on at every Mumbai Indians game,” she adds.

Many believe Mumbai and Pandya exacerbated the situation by offering no clarity when questioned about the change in captaincy.

During a pre-season press conference broadcast live on YouTube, Pandya was queried about a potential “captaincy clause” in his contract following his move from Gujarat to Mumbai. He maintained a stoic silence, leaving the moderator no option but to swiftly move to the next question.

Similarly, when reporters pressed head coach Mark Boucher to reason behind the franchise’s decision to appoint Pandya as captain over Sharma this season, Boucher opted for silence as well.

Only time will tell whether the fans warm up to Pandya and accept him fully. Undoubtedly, if he begins to perform well and guides his team to wins, the jeers are likely to make way for applause.

Top Feature Photo: AFP Pandya (right) has replaced Indian Test skipper Rohit Sharma at the Mumbai Indians for the 2024 IPL