A reflection of the times

The crowds in Australia have certainly changed. They are much more personal in their barracking.

The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia's leading broadsheet newspaper, carried a huge photo of Brett Lee posing inside a very long and high tunnel on its sports pages. It wasn't until I read the caption that I realised it was a tunnel constructed to take players from the dressing rooms to the playing arena and back at the Wanderers ground in Johannesburg. What struck me immediately was the adage that people living in glasshouses shouldn't throw stones.

I was, of course, thinking of South African wicketkeeper Mark Boucher's strong criticism of the Australian crowds during the team's recent tour of the country. I then had kinder thoughts, for so often the unruly behaviour of the crowds is the result of the disappointment of their team's performance. It is also a sign of the changing times in a society.

I have been touring South Africa since 1977-78 and have noticed changes in crowd behaviour. The very fact that protection for the players at the "Bull Ring", as the ground in Johannesburg is popularly known, has been in place in different forms for many years is an indication of the changing crowd behaviour. In 1957-58 Australia went to South Africa as the underdogs. England had beaten us in 1956 (Laker's year) and South Africa had tied the series 2-2 against England at home in 1956-57. The South Africans were expecting a victory against us, but Australia, brilliantly led by Ian Craig, won the series 3-0. Throughout this series the crowd behaviour was exemplary.

My next tour to South Africa was in 1966-67 and things had changed dramatically. They were under great pressure due to their apartheid policy. The talk of sanctions against the nation and its expulsion from all sports was in the wind. Their pride and joy, the South African Rugby Team, had suffered its first series loss in about 80 years and in their disappointment the supporters turned to cricket to redeem the dented sporting reputation of their nation. They knew virtually nothing about cricket and were very loud and personal in their barracking. And they had plenty to cheer about, for South Africa at the time were the best team in the world and they easily beat us.

When South Africa returned to the fold I was the coach of Australia when we toured the country. They welcomed us sincerely, but the Bull Ring was no place for the faint hearted. The walk from the dressing room to the field, probably the longest on any ground in the world, was threatening. We had a daunting prospect with taunts from the sections of the crowd getting very personal. That was life however, and apart from one incident when Merve Hughes showed his anger, the Australian players handled the situation well.

The crowds in Australia have certainly changed. They are much more personal in their barracking. Some sections of the crowd have even singled out star players from the visiting side for special attention.

New Zealand's Richard Hadlee came in for special treatment from Bay 13 in Melbourne and the Hill at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Not surprisingly, he didn't take the personal barracking well. Even some of our players have been chosen for personal barracking in certain parts of New Zealand. The lovely, peaceful city of Christchurch and the university city of Dunedin have some of the rudest crowds that I have encountered.

The West Indies used to be one of the most peaceful places in the world to play cricket. The crowds there loved and respected their cricket and cricketers. They would happily, but good-naturedly give both teams a good-humoured send up.

During my comeback year in 1978, I went with the Australian team to the West Indies. It wasn't an easy tour.

For the first two Tests, the West Indies had their full team, while I led a second XI and they thrashed us. When the WSC players (those contracted to play in the Packer series) pulled out of the West Indies team the competition became even and we won the third Test. After the West Indies won the fourth Test, we had the fifth Test all sewn up when a riot broke out. Stones were thrown from the second level of the stands.

I never could figure out how a huge pile of stones was stashed in such a place, but they were ideal missiles. Eventually, even after the police fired shots over the heads of the rioters they still didn't disburse. The match was abandoned as draw.

Crowd-wise, the sub-continent has had its ups and downs in recent times and on my first tour as coach of the Australian team in 1986.

But I have always felt, and still do, that the Indian crowds are the most knowledgeable in the world. They love their cricket and while occasionally some hot heads try to stir up trouble, the majority of cricket lovers still prevail.

While Pakistan has the reputation for being a little volatile, I haven't toured there often enough. But when we unexpectedly won the semifinal against Pakistan in Lahore in the 1987 World Cup, we thought we would have trouble but they took the defeat well and gave us a generous reception.

It is wrong to expect crowds, or players for that matter, to behave as others did 30 or 40 years ago. Sad as it is, the standard of crowd behaviour has changed and is now accepted as the norm. Players and crowds of any era will only reflect the attitude of the time.