The Australian Way is a cricket document on how the game is played Down Under. One understands it was a paper popular among cricket coaches the world over since it highlighted the technical side of the game. The Aussies have traditionally been great competitors and cricket acknowledges their contribution in making the game popular, globally.
When India plays Australia, certainly in modern times, the quality of cricket generated is of the highest class. The Ashes always demands the best of an Australian and English cricketer, but matches involving India have taken the top slot in the last two decades. India and Australia have a history of close contests and nothing greater than the 1986 Tied Test in Madras to illustrate the fierce competition between the two.
Australia offers a cricket lover the best in terms of competition and infrastructure. For more than a 100 years, the game has come to establish itself as a major summer sport in Australia, which, essentially, is a sport-loving and outdoor-event country. From sailing to tennis to hockey to cricket, the Australians are known to enjoy their sport.
I have enjoyed the best of cricket viewing in Australia on my two assignments in 1999-2000 and 2003-2004. Every cricket nation has a charm of its own, Australia too. The challenging conditions on the field can test a player severely even though there could be arguments that English conditions can be equally demanding.
For an average Australian, a day at cricket can be an ideal way to have fun. They value history and the tradition of Test cricket and the vociferous response from the stands can be a testimony to their involvement. The Aussies are known to play hard but they also can be generous when it comes to appreciating the opponents. There have been a few unsavoury incidents involving spectators but then nothing can take away the standing ovation a good performance evokes from the crowd.
Australians are well informed when it comes to sport. The enthusiasm is not to be missed and I want to share the fond memories of an Australian fan who became a friend during my travel Down Under. I remember seeing Don Wigan among a small bunch of fans at a practice session in Melbourne on the 1999 tour. He caught my eye because he stood out for his figure — tall and muscular.
I walked up to Don and he was quick to extend his hand with a smile. The handshake was warm. I noticed he was clutching photographs of Indian cricketers and wanted to get their autographs. “May I help you,” I made an offer. He was obviously delighted. I got the pictures signed for him and he seemed to have landed a jackpot. His trip was made and we met for dinner during the course of that Test which India lost despite two classy knocks by Sachin Tendulkar.
Don exemplified the crazy Australian fan. The Boxing Day Test in Melbourne had been a part of his annual cricket itinerary for 25 years. “I have not missed a Boxing Day Test in 25 years,” he told me. It needed planning since Don was based in Launceston in Tasmania, the other Australia as they say. His planning for the Boxing Day Test would start 300 days in advance. From applying for leave from work to booking air tickets and hotel accommodation — it was in place. “Everything was perfectly laid out from the time I left my home,” he smiled. There were many like him who put all work aside once a year to be at the grand Melbourne Cricket Ground.
The cricket venues in Australia are such a treat. Beginning with Brisbane to Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart, Perth and Sydney, these great cricket centres offer some dream competitions. The infrastructure temps you not to miss any cricket, regardless of the opposition. When it is India, the desire to be at the ground is a priority for the fans, who are also good at knowing their cricket.
In the opinion of Harbhajan Singh, who faced the wrath of the media following the incident with Andrew Symonds in Sydney in 2008, cricket in Australia is top quality competition. “I have found playing in Australia challenging because the conditions vary so much. The pitch offers bounce in Brisbane, turn in Sydney and a flat deck in Melbourne. Adelaide is sporting and in Hobart, it depends on the atmosphere. As a cricketer, batsman, fast bowler or a spinner, you have to absorb all conditions and learn to perform on different surfaces. Australia can be very testing,” said Harbhajan.
For a journalist reporting from Australia, the greatest advantage is the time difference. There is no deadline pressure and one can relax after the day’s play, get to the room and write the report in comfort. For some it can also be a temptation to catch the early editions of the Australian newspapers for extra information. As my photographer colleague, V. V. Krishnan, would say, “I love the Australian assignment because it gives me breathing space to file my pictures. The natural light is so wonderful in enhancing the quality of the photos.”
Australia offers a cricket writer some great personalities to meet and talk to. What stands out is the warmth that marks their personality when you earn the chance to conduct long-form interviews. I have found the Australian cricketers from the past to be very friendly and accommodating. It was such fun meeting stars like Richie Benaud, Bob Simpson, Bill Lawry, Neil Harvey, Ian Redpath, Jeff Thomson, Doug Walters, Paul Sheahan and Keith Stackpole.
For a fan, scribe or a player, Australia is a not-to-be-missed experience. It is a lesson in preserving history when you visit the cricket museums which are part of every big ground in Australia. They value their heroes and their opponents too. “They value their cricket a lot,” said former India fast bowler Ajit Agarkar, who figured in two Test series in Australia.
“There is such competition and such variety in the playing conditions. It can be great fun playing in Australia for this very reason. They play tough and also are tough to beat. The cricket there is of a very different level. Only the best can come through and we learnt our lessons well in 1999-200. When we visited Australia next, four years later, the cricket that was seen in the series was exceptionally good. I have loved playing in Australia,” asserted Agarkar.
As we wait for the cricket to begin, my mind is flooded with memories of the days gone by when you would set the alarm to much before sunrise and the crackling sound of the wonderful Australian commentators, especially the iconic Alan McGilvray, would warm you up to the day’s play. To be up at that unearthly hour and tuning into the radio at low volume to avoid disturbing others in the family was a fantastic experience. The commentators would almost create the contest for us, describing the game in detail, the bowler, the batsmen, and the field. They would create the romance of cricket and for many like me it was the commentary from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that stoked the love for the game.
Television has replaced radio as the medium to follow cricket from Australia. I am sure the fans in India must be geared up to relish cricket from Down Under.
My friend Don passed away a few years back. Sadly with him has gone the connect between the fans and the cricketers in this series. Cricketers and cricket have been engulfed by the bio-bubble in these times of pandemic. Hopefully the quality of on-field competition would be free of any impact of the dreaded COVID-19 virus. We all wait for the umpires to say, “Play.”