Cricket conversations at immigration counters are the norm while you tail the Indian team overseas. “What do you think? Will we win the Test series in Australia?” asks the official at Chennai airport. The formal tone is shed and it is more akin to a quick chat with an old college buddy. December 3 is largely spent inside two successive Malaysian Airlines aircraft. It isn’t exactly about being on a wing and a prayer, but the awkward memory of the missing MH370 inexplicably churns up and it doesn’t help that during the first leg, the seat is right next to the emergency exit. The nerves settle and Bill Bryson’s lovely book on Australia, Down Under , proves to be a terrific companion. The pages fly, the lines linger, the laughs are suppressed. Hey, there is something called plane etiquette.
Kuala Lumpur emerges from under fluffy clouds while the sinking golden orb paints the skies in a palette of varying red and orange shades. It is silhouette hour, and touchdown is smooth. A friend and fellow cricket-writer from Bangalore arrives. Hugs are swapped, some Kannada banter ensues and then with time to kill, it is time to sit on bar stools and nurse the frothy sunshine liquid in a tall glass. There is consensus over Australia having an excellent pace attack in Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins. Once the yakada-yaka is done, it is time to head to Adelaide. A night ebbs away, and as bleary eyes peer outside, South Australia’s capital is sighted on a summer day. At the customs counter, tax has to be paid as two tired sports writers cough up some money after admitting to carrying a few cartons of tiny paper wraps with their intrinsic nicotine fix, meant for a common friend. This being a magazine read equally by families and young impressionable minds, it is better to speak in euphemisms while referring to the vices of men!
Old world charm, bonhomie nights
Adelaide is a quaint city. Tree-lined parks, homes with exposed bricks, tiled roofs and wrought iron balconies enhance the charm. Add to these ancient churches, some of which have plaques commemorating the memory of men who lost their lives in World War I between 1914 and 1918. The practicalities of the touring life crop up. SIM cards are procured but the networks are difficult to latch on to, currency is exchanged, and after a quick shower, it is time to head to the Adelaide Oval, a venue that hosts both cricket and Aussie rules football. India and Australia are scheduled to commence their four-match series with the first Test here, which for the Indians gifts a nostalgia overload. Sandeep Patil, Mohammad Azharuddin, Rahul Dravid and Virat Kohli, to name a few, have scored scintillating hundreds here in the past, and there is a wistful longing to witness more three-figure marks from the current Indian squad. Cheteshwar Pujara complies with a knock that is built upon a broad barn-door defence and infinite reserves of patience. At the press conference, he is all shy smiles and half-closed eyes. Guess he finds limelight blinding, but the innate steel is revealed accidentally. Queried about being sledged, he says: “It is good because it motivates me more.” A Nepali restaurant, Yeti, warms taste buds craving for an Indian fix. Turns out the gentleman running the place is from Dehradun. English is discarded, Hindi is dished out and when orders are placed for a drink extracted from fermented molasses, he offers one sourced from back home. Its name has an “old” ring to it and there are whoops of delight. Rice and chicken and paneer curries are consumed with gusto. Another long night of conversations stretches the clock.
Cricket the balm
The slogan “It’s your game” is flashed all over. Through advertisements across various media platforms, Cricket Australia hopes to win back the trust of its biggest stake-holder — the boisterous fan on the street. The ball-tampering crisis that shadowed the Cape Town Test in March and the resultant bans on Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft have forced the Aussies into a severe bout of introspection. A decade ago when this correspondent asked wicketkeeping legend Rodney Marsh about the term “Ugly Aussie,” he quipped: “Sticks and stones hurt, names don’t.” Playing aggressively and at times crossing the line was seen as a badge of sporting valour. But the events of the recent past have held an unflattering mirror and questions are being raised about the flawed concept around results justifying the means. Australian captain Tim Paine said: “We have to keep winning and most importantly we need to win the respect of our fans.” A fresh summer of cricket is expected to offer a salve for the ruptured Australian sporting soul. Surely, the willow game’s effect goes way beyond the acoustic ripple of a red cherry thudding into a piece of wood!
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