Cricket up in the air, Down Under

The series balances at 1-1 but what lingers are the lousy words caught on the stump microphones, the television cameras that beam unflattering visuals of Kohli’s volcanic anger and even that needless focus on Ishant Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja getting embroiled in an argument.

Australia's pace spearhead Mitchell Starc obliges fans with autographs during day five of the second Test between Australia and India in Perth. The inclusive nature of Australian cricket was visible in the pre-match flight to Perth, when Tim Paine and other members of the home team signed miniature bats for two youngsters. No fuss, just a pure acknowledgment of a fan’s worth in sport’s value-chain.   -  AFP

India triumphs at Adelaide and leads the Test series 1-0. But the morning after on December 11 isn’t about goofy grins and the lazy yawn, it is about tailing Virat Kohli’s men all the way to Perth, where the second Test will be held. As the taxi glides towards the airport, the Uber driver asks: “Where to?” On hearing that Perth is the destination, he laughs and says: “Oh! It is almost outside Australia. Not sure if you know, many years back Western Australia wanted to be a separate country but it didn’t work out.” And he adds: “You know it is cheaper to fly to Bali from Perth, than to, say, Sydney.”

Transit through the airport is quick but work does intervene as the home team’s coach Justin Langer speaks to the media. He talks about Test cricket’s time span and how modern cricketers should first factor that. He quotes another rugged southpaw, Allan Border, to drive home that point. In the Qantas flight to Perth, Yours Truly delves into Bill Bryson’s ‘Down Under’. A lady from the next seat, quips: “Lovely book but be careful, no chuckles.” There is laughter and then the inclusive nature of Australian cricket comes into view. Two lads, clutching miniature bats, are keen to get autographs from their national cricketers but they are hesitant. The steward guides them to Tim Paine and company. Introductions are made; their bats are soon coated with blue squiggles as the players etch their signatures. No fuss, just a pure acknowledgment of a fan’s worth in sport’s value-chain. Pasta and a potent liquid brewed from grapes are consumed, the plane lands early at Perth and the jaunty pilot says: “We are quick eh, caught them by surprise, I guess. Let’s wait for the airport guys to get our parking bay sorted. Meanwhile, here is wishing our awesome Australian team all the very best for the game starting on Friday.” The squad responds with: ‘Hear, hear, thanks.’

The old order changeth

Perth’s Optus Stadium is a massive edifice. It’s sighted from afar, as India and Australia slot their maiden practice stints at the nearby WACA, the city’s previous venue for big-time cricket, an oasis for fast bowlers, and a nightmare for quivering batsmen. There is an old-world charm to the WACA, its largely open stands helping the breeze titled Freemantle Doctor to sashay across from the nearby Swan River. This is the terrain of the great Dennis Lillee but one name catches the eye from the Western Australian all-time squad — Kim Hughes, fine batsman, but also a skipper who quit in tears after constant defeats at the hands of the then mighty West Indians.

Former Karnataka batsman Arjun Raja drops into the apartment where tired hacks are belting away their stories. Conversation oscillates from the broad-based references to the current series and soon finds its anchor in what’s happening back home, especially in the cricketing zones of Bengaluru. He insists on taking the sports writers out for a spin in his SUV and then another glimpse of the Optus Stadium is caught — a looming silhouette with blue lines slicing across at intervals. Dinner is at a restaurant named Bollywood and once inside, it is time to look at the kitschy walls that pay homage to celluloid superstars but the caption – ‘Do you want me with that?’ – just below a painting of Aishwarya Rai, is cheesy and objectionable.

Beverages, ranging from the ones that tax your liver to those that merely tickle your intestines, are consumed. An Indian meal is savoured, nothing like dipping a roti into dal tadka with some mutton on the side, and the salivary glands feel at home. Arjun drops the cricket writers back home, who in turn cajole an interview out of him. He is sheepish, refuses, budges a little, nostalgia’s buttons are pressed and then he recalls his early days, playing under legend G.R. Viswanath and then mentoring future-great Rahul Dravid.

War of words that drown a batting master-class

Kohli isn’t exactly a monk who sold his Ferrari but the Indian skipper does dish out his version of self-denial with a century largely coated in obduracy and sprinkled with the odd four. His masterly 123 and Mohammed Shami’s six-for fail to prevent India’s eventual surrender to Australia at the Optus Stadium. The series balances at 1-1 but what lingers are the lousy words caught on the stump microphones, the television cameras that beam unflattering visuals of Kohli’s volcanic anger and even that needless focus on Ishant Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja getting embroiled in an argument peppered with expletives.

The days blur and it is time to return home. Flights are caught and at Kuala Lumpur, a Tamil lady from Penang, Malaysian passport holder, skypes on her phone. She speaks to relatives in Chennai. A common language and a shared culture leap across the seas. The joy and the anticipation of soon reaching her ancestral homeland, is obvious.

The Indian squad, meanwhile heads to Melbourne and rests. There is time still for the Boxing Day Test. The cricket caravan rolls on.