There is more to India than curry

THE sub-continent is hot, chaotic and dirty, and cricket crowds are prone to excitability in the stands.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

THE sub-continent is hot, chaotic and dirty, and cricket crowds are prone to excitability in the stands. Or, if not that, it is all mystery and magic. Apparently, in some parts this is still news, but as a recurring theme it is boring (and I am not talking particularly about the current tour). Although cricketers are more familiar with India, and many journalists show an inquisitiveness beyond the mundane, a residue of such attitudes remains.

In a land where a different language is spoken across every border and history speaks from a thousand buildings, you'd think that at least occasionally there would be more compelling conversation openers. We are a land of more than curry. An Indian commentator, for instance, was incensed by recent reportage by an English writer in Bangladesh, who thought it fitting to remind us nothing works in that nation. In a disadvantaged land where two square meals is not easily had by millions, whining about a dysfunctional phone line or rubbish on the road is absurd.

Of course, us Indians are prone to being defensive, and meet every complaint as if it were some slur on the national character. If we accuse the Indian team of indiscipline perhaps the same is true of us as a people: walking across sightscreens during play is but one example.

Granted India is not an easy place to tour. Physically and mentally all manner of adjustments are necessary, but therein lies the beauty of world sport. Travel opens the mind they say, but not all see it that way. Adam Gilchrist writes in his column about visiting Bombay's red light district, and being moved by what he saw, and for once we do not cringe because he is a sensitive fellow. Perhaps fellow visitors would do well to exit their plush five-star hotels and see the world from the street. There is more to life than spinning a leather ball.

Touring India is not all that bad. Visiting cricketers face constant attention and are continually pestered, but they are also treated like nawabs. Nothing is too much trouble. Furthermore, numerous players, a number of Australians among them, earn sizeable cheques for endorsing Indian products. Good for them, too.

Indians do not like the cold of New Zealand, their culinary preferences are not always met in Australia, and hotels in England have often been a joke, but mostly they go about their business quietly. Culture shock has become such a tired phrase that an Indian cricketer confessed last week that he would claim the same upon arrival in Australia, regardless of whether it was true. Just to be able to say it, he said, and enjoy the reaction.

The world is shrinking. Danni Minogue features in Indian magazines, and Bollywood films can be seen a few miles from my home in Melbourne. Still, nations find more foreignness than familiarity in each other.

This is true of the game itself. Countries, and there are so few anyway, tour each other with alarming regularity, whether for Tests or tiresome one-dayers (one presumed the fall-out of the betting scandal would be less pointless matches), but still struggle endlessly with conditions. New Zealand apparently trained by practising while listening to crowd noises, which led Harbhajan Singh to wonder if the Indians should be slurping beer at nets prior to arriving in Australia. Perhaps it might strengthen their resolve.

You'd think India might have worked out some of Australia's bounce, and New Zealand some of the vagaries of pitches here, but that is hardly the case. Home advantage is still a powerful weapon; it works with most teams, except usually against Australia, who could manhandle anyone even on my mother's cabbage patch. Part of the reason is the Australian's skill, and resoluteness, but in time they have learnt to open their hearts and minds to India and such maturity has evidently helped. Embracing India, not keeping it at a distance, is the only way.

Now Kiwi captain Stephen Fleming, who carries himself with the calm of a modern sage, has pilloried the organisers of the tri-series over the scheduling. India gets slow turners during day-night matches, while the Kiwis and Australians battle the dew, and heat, and swerve, in small towns, and it is quite unbecoming, he says. Clearly, Indian hospitality has its finish line.

Stephen Fleming... his complaint about the scheduling of the tri-series sounds odd. -- Pic. AP-

Fleming is allowed to show his frustrations, and one might say that loading the deck helps no one's cause, in the long run not even the Indians. Nevertheless, such whinging from a captain who was delivered dull wickets that allowed him to draw Test series in India is odd. He should be down on his knees in thanks.

The business of cricket appears to have escaped Fleming, normally a fellow who is quick to spot such things. With no disrespect to the visitors, it is the Indian team that fills stadiums. Predictably, they will be allotted the better centres, and a schedule that suits them. It is the way of the world.

On a slightly different note, this entire business of a level-playing field is spurious and a complete nonsense. The whole idea of sport is advantage, which is why Australia is playing its Davis Cup final at home this month against the Spanish on grass, not clay.

Furthermore, while Asian and African sport is often teeming with politicians, corruption and a dismaying amateurism, part of the reason they struggle to compete is the very absence of that level-playing field. Established nations enjoy their superiority over developing nations and little is done to alter the status quo.

The World Cup rugby is on in Australia at present, and commentators have been religiously beating their chests about the inequities faced by smaller nations such as Fiji and Tonga. In money, facilities, coaching and exposure to better teams they are lacking, but despite some impressive tut-tutting four years hence the storyline will not alter.

In most developing nations, sport is not high on the agenda, and understandably so. It means golden spikes for runners, hyberbaric chambers, synthetic training tracks, dieticians, designer cycles, sports science and research centres are a figment of the imagination. When athletes gather at the starting blocks at the Olympics, only the naive would believe they arrive as equals.

Developing nations must grit their teeth and get on with it. Fleming perhaps should do the same. Unless, of course, he can ensure that when India visits New Zealand the tour is designed to suit the visitors.