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An Indian making the most of life in sports-crazed Melbourne

Far Pavilions

The F1 experience

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

If the sporting scene in India was made into a Bollywood movie, cricket would be the hero and every other sport would be reduced to bit roles. If Sania Mirza’s gutsy exploits on court are making a case for tennis to get its share of glory, Narain Karthikeyan’s debut at the Melbourne Grand Prix and his improved performance at Sepang has shifted the spotlight to the F1 circuit. F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone must be mighty pleased with Karthikeyan for almost single-handedly propelling F1 racing into becoming a more well-known sport in India.

Getting excited about the Melbourne Grand Prix is de rigueur for a Melburnian...as is getting excited about the Melbourne cup horse racing, Boxing day test match, the Australian Open, and most inexcusable of all events to not be excited about - the Footy Grand Final. Not having followed motor sports before, I was merely looking at another opportunity to wear my patriotism on my sleeve and cheer an Indian. I had after all gained some experience in doing this duty diligently for Sania Mirza in her encounter with Serena Williams - but we'll leave that for another post.

With a pass to the pit exit suites, theoretically among the better seats in the arena, I made my way to the Albert Park for the first qualifying race. All around the seating areas, giant TV screens project the race with an accompaniment of excitable commentators. In terms of sound clarity, the commentary was a few shades better than the Indian railway station announcements (I am certain there is a circular somewhere in the Indian Railways asking announcers to confound listeners by muffling the microphones with grimy hankies).

The races began shortly. Each car would leave the pits, make appropriate gear changes and leave behind noises of ear shattering mini explosions. I kept an eye out for the yellow and black Jordan cars and also for those who were rumoured to be the best-in-the-business: occupants of the two red Ferraris. Unfortunately, the best view that I could get of any car was a streak of colours as they screamed by doing their laps. Even getting a glimpse of their numbers to distinguish Shcumacher from Barichello or Karthikeyan from his team-mate Tiago Monteiro proved impossible. The only recourse to make sense of the race was to view the TV screens. In all the noise, following the commentary posed additional challenges. In about 15 minutes, every effort to follow the blur of colours as they passed from one side to another was met with a protest of pain developing in the neck. Cheering for anyone in this circus was as effective as a melting an iceberg with a matchstick.

That experience decided it for me. F1 is a sport better followed from the comfort of TV at home. You get to see the driver's relative position on the grid, details of the gear he is in, when he is accelerating and innumerable other statistics. And the commentary is audible. I could almost understand the excitement that the race generates. But, it is clearly not a spectator sport.

Unless your idea of F1 sport spectating is to ogle at the grid girls.

The Great Indian colonial hangover

"When do you think an Indian boy will represent Australia in cricket?" asked a person from a gathering of Indian cricket fans to the amiable Peter Roebuck. This was at an informal gathering after the boxing day test match last December. The venue was a North Indian restaurant in Melbourne. Roebuck had agreed to come over and chat up with the cricket enthusiasts from the local Indian diaspora that evening. The AU$10 buffet for a moderately lavish spread was good enough an inducement to get away from the chore of churning up dinner for the evening. Add to that, a couple of hours of blissful cricket chat with one of the hottest contemporary cricket writers, and it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Roebuck answered the Indian-boy-in-Australian-team question with aplomb and rightly suggested that the Indian diaspora needed to answer that question themselves. To me, this question and a quite a few of the others that followed, seemed to carry a recurring underlying theme. The theme was one of seeking recognition for the Great Indians and Indianness from a foreigner of standing.

In 8 months of moving to Melbourne and reading their local newspapers, I got an orthogonal sense of recognition-seeking behaviour by the Australians. Australia is a country that derives large amounts of self-esteem from its sporting achievements. The 8 page sports section in the weekend edition of the local broadsheets is a good indicator of that. What you notice as you read through this section is how inward-looking the Australians can be. The local newspapers carry reports on cricket matches not involving Australia, with about the same frequency that George Bush has words of praise for Saddam Hussein. When Australia is not involved, only a landmark event like Lara regaining the highest test score record with a 400, or Tendulkar scoring his 10,000th run in test cricket can merit a few inches of column space.

This led me to ask Roebuck a question related to this phenomenon –Indian newspapers have a trend of seeking foreign columnists and members of the opposing team to write pieces during an ongoing series –a trend that you never see in the Australian newspapers (time for them to take a cue from the Guardian in UK, which features excellent reports from Amit Varma on the India-Pakistan series). So the question –Is the Indian trend to be construed as an increasing broad-mindedness for a foreign view? Or, is it the remnants of a colonial hangover that we haven’t been able to shake off?

Roebuck had a view on this which probably covers an arena larger than sports. He observed that he too had witnessed this phenomenon. When in India, he recounted instances where his views were sought on every little thing –to the point of being intrigued on why he would be considered an expert on every topic. In that, he felt that Australia had had a similar pattern of kow-towing to the English for many years. He suggested that prolonged success breeds a self-esteem that makes you less dependant on approbation from outsiders. Roebuck was of the view that Australia has long gained that confidence over the last decade and if anything, India was well on its way there. Economic success has made India a place for professionals from all industries -including that of sports, to make a mark. In a reversal of trend, he thought it was the foreign experts –in their quest to make a name for themselves, that were beating a path to India for assignments.

That may not have been an observation of the greatest profundity, but if any such session in future has an audience less insecure of their origins, India is certainly making progress.

Australia & Cricket –An Indian view

Monday, March 21, 2005

With a population of 20 million -about the same as that of Mumbai and Chennai together, Australia claimed 49 medals in the 2004 Olympics -the 4th highest tally behind USA, China and Russia. The medals came in a wide array of events including swimming, cycling, hockey, basketball, softball, tennis, rowing and athletics. If kabaddi were to get enlisted in the next Olympics, you can be certain that the antipodes would set up an academy and the professional support structure to notch up a medal in that event.

And yet, the sport that evokes passions and following like no other in Melbourne is a very local sport that goes by the name 'footy' – short for Australian Rules Football. A stunned outsider watching a game of footy described the mayhem in the name of sport as a “mixture of rugby, soccer and a bar room brawl”. Only a handful of teams play this game outside of Melbourne. Nevertheless, footy matches regularly fill up the capacious Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) with ease and undoubtedly plays a big hand in the financial viability of cricket in that hallowed ground.

Given the wide range of sports being followed, and the unending stream of success they produce, it is a wonder that cricket continues to prosper in Australia. If anything cricket clearly continues to be Australia's sole claimant for the status of a national sport. There is a set cricket structure for children right from the age of 5 which is accessible to every child. The innumerable cricket clubs across the country welcome new members and play local league matches over Saturdays. Support infrastructure is boosted by state associations which facilitate umpiring classes and multiple coaching classes across the suburbs.

Unlike in India, the first class cricket league is well followed by the locals. The one day league of ING cup is telecast over a free to air channel and has a following that makes you fondly wish for Ranji trophy to showcase its importance as smartly. Consider this -a
frustrated Brett Lee after months of carrying the drinks in test cricket was so keen to join his state team –New South Wales (NSW) for the 4 day Pura cup final, that he considered chartering a flight from Christchurch to Brisbane through friends. The dominance of the national team in world cricket evokes debates in Australia on how the sport is becoming boring. The hubris of some of the current Australian cricket heroes irks many a local. The Australian cricket team can never garner as ardent a local following as the Indian cricket team. Yet, cricket evokes the collective pride of Australia. Don Bradman continues to be the most revered entity among their legion of sporting legends.

Bill Bryson in his entertaining travel book on Australia –“Down Under” concludes his typically American views of Australians playing cricket thus: “…the mystery of cricket is not that Australians play it well, but that they play it at all. It has always seemed to me a game much too restrained for the rough-and-tumble Australian temperament. Australians prefer games in which brawny men in scanty clothing bloody each other’s noses. I am quite certain that if the rest of the world vanished overnight and the development of cricket was left in Australian hands, within a generation the players would be wearing shorts and using the bats to hit each other…And the thing is, it would be a much better game for it.”

Maybe so, but right now, nothing will stop Australia from doing what they do well -enjoy and play good cricket at all levels.