Australian Rules Football: Four games in one!

Australian Rules Football is a rage in the nation of its birth. Now, the sport's administrators want to make it a big-time sport in India.

Fans cheeering at an Australian Rules football match between Richmond and Hawthorn at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The famed MCG is used for Australian Rules or Footy in the non-cricket season. In fact, the crowd record at the MCG is for Footy and not cricket.   -  ANJANA SENTHIL

It’s a typical match day at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Two giant banners, befitting the grandeur of the venue that is the MCG, are held erect by the fans and volunteers of the respective teams. The captain or the milestone man leads his team through the banner. Yes, right through the banner made of crepe paper or sticky tape, inscribed with motivational messages from their loyal fans. Even as the dramatic spectacle unfolds on the grassy oval, the cheering squads, given their pride of place in the opposite ends of the oval to prevent any major scuffle, break into their team’s theme song and cheer wildly.

The pompoms, the cloth banners and the flags are all out; there’s a choir-like set-up of fans a few rows behind and they break into a song, a chant, a cheer, or a jeer, depending on the way the match is shaping up. If you happen to find yourself seated amidst the cheering squad, you may just be transported to the world of a musical, except the action on the field screams of adrenalin, sweat and some blood.

Yes, it is all happening at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the Australian equivalent of the Lord’s and home of the traditional boxing day Test for the Aussies. Yes, it is the very same venue which boasts of the highest recorded (official) attendance for a cricket match of 93,013 which came during the 2015 World Cup final with the added intrigue of a trans-Tasman clash between Australia and New Zealand.

Just that we are not talking about cricket at the MCG.

We are in the midst of an Australian Rules Football match between Richmond and Hawthorn.

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Sherin, the official ball of the Australian Football League, is manufactured in Ludhiana.   -  ANJANA SENTHIL

 

What exactly is Australian Rules Football?

Australian Rules Football, or simply called Aussie Rules or Footy, is an indigenous sport in the country in which you hand-ball like in volleyball, kick like in football, bounce the ball like in basketball and score goals between four poles erected on either ends with a ball that is a cross between the rugby ball and American football (gridiron) ball. Imagine, you get to watch four sports at one go!

This heady concoction of a sport came into being predominantly as a winter training to keep the cricketers fit during their off-season. Soon, players from volleyball, basketball, football and other sports joined in. The first glimpse of the sport came in 1858 and it has enjoyed a good 160 years of existence. The Australian Football League (earlier known as the Victorian Football League), the premier tournament akin to the English Premier League, began in 1897!

The game is split into four quarters of 20 minutes each. With the clock stopped for injury, goals and substitution, every quarter runs to an average of 30 minutes. The players get a six-minute break between the first and the third quarter and a 20-minute break at half-time. In all, a game of Footy lasts a good two and a half hours.

Played in large Oval grounds, it engages 44 players — 18 from each side — with four rotating substitutes on the bench.

From the month of March to September, the MCG transforms into a Footy stadium; even the memorabilia shop relegates Ashes and other cricket collectibles to a discreet corner, almost as an afterthought. With the state of Victoria being the base for 9 of the 18 clubs, the ‘G’ gets to host 45 matches of league round matches in just six months.

Such is the popularity that an average of 53,608 fans have attended every single match at the MCG this year with a total of 6.89 million recorded for just the 23-round league matches. In fact, the AFL and not cricket holds the record of highest attendance at the MCG (121,696). It is community football at its flourishing best.

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Ricky Ponting, then with Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) in the Indian Premier League, playing Footy during a practice session in Chennai on April 26, 2008. He introduced the game to his team-mates and it became a part of the training sessions.   -  K. PICHUMANI

 

“It is a massive festival here. The Grand final happens on the last Saturday of September at the MCG and the State of Victoria gives a public holiday on the Friday of that week. There was no public holiday even when India won the World Cup in 2011. Here, it happens every year,” says Sudip Chakrobarty, the AFL and Essendon Football club Community Officer.

With a clever cap on players’ salary as well as coach recruitment, the AFL has made sure there is no big-club advantage and it is anybody’s league to win. Why clever? The AFL doesn’t outright ban excessive spending. It merely taxes at nearly 100 per cent for every dollar spent on player and coach recruitment. If you want to pay more for a player, pay the AFL as well. With 24x7 channels exclusively for the AFL and every game stripped and discussed in devilish detail, stadiums filling up for every game, it was time for the league to expand “beyond the shores”, as David Stevenson, GM for China & India Operations, puts it.

“From being a largely indigenous sport, what we are trying to do is to grow beyond our shores. It is in respect to how Australia is also changing. We are proud of our immigration; social interaction and inclusion is important for us. We want to play a role in this changing phase, make it as multicultural as possible and spread footy to the world,” he says.

Stevenson, who has earlier worked to spread the AFL in Europe and the US, says the focus has now shifted to Asia, thanks to the success of the Pro Kabaddi League. “To see a traditional sport having a professional league and doing so well has inspired us to think broader,” he says.

But entering newer markets like India will have its bottlenecks. Finding a large oval ground and placing 44 players on field for a relatively unknown sport and expecting its growth in the country is nothing but a Sisyphean task. But the AFL is testing out newer formats to package and promote footy to such markets. It trialled the AFLX, a seven-a-side version played in two 10-minute halves in a rectangular and much smaller ground than the traditional AFL games, in pre-season earlier this year.

Though the format is still a work in progress, it is this abridged version that the AFL is aspiring to promote in India.

Can India accommodate a new sport? Will there be takers for the AFL? The trick lies in the involvement of broadcasters, as seen by the success of kabaddi.

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Catching them young is the philosophy to spread Footy and there are some 4000 active participants in India now. Here, Rick Shrowder, Aussie Football coach and Founder of Global Community Sports gives a demonstration of the game to students of the A.V. Higher Secondary School in Kovilpatti on September 8, 2011.   -  N. RAJESH

 

So, a part of the AFL’s groundwork involved meeting with the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and Star Sports around April to discuss the feasibility of the sport and try emulating the kabaddi model of success. There has been little progress on that front since then. With India offering a chance to increase viewership considerably, the commercial aspects of promoting the game in this region has ensured the AFL is in it for the long haul. But the League hasn’t set a timeframe and is in no hurry to introduce a commercially viable footy to the Indian market.

The groundwork, in fact, had begun even before the success of kabaddi in India.

In 2008, former Australian captain Ricky Ponting introduced the sport he loved and played to the Kolkata Knight Riders so he could play with them in his off-time. “That’s how I got involved into the game,” says Chakraborty, who holds the role of National Development Manager in India.

“An AFL coach was soon sent to the country to prepare an Indian team to play in the AFL International Cup which happens every three years. There were just 150 players initially. Ever since then, we have taken the sport to 10 different states across India and we have reached 10,000 participants. There are at least 4000 active participants now,” he says.

“In 2011, we won our first game against East Timor. In 2014, we established the Australian Rules Football Association of India (ARFAI) and are working closely with the SAI to get it recognised as a national sport so that the players pursuing the sport get all the benefits,” he sums it up.

The ARFAI, with support from the AFL and top clubs like Richmond FC and Essendon FC, predominantly works in the grassroots and involves NGOs to promote the game in slums and villages. It is game development, promotion and sports diplomacy all rolled into one.