Australia, specifically its cricket, conjures up memories of bleary-eyed December mornings spent in front of the television watching images from Down Under. Vast grounds, blue skies, Richie Benaud on air, and seagulls flying when batters essayed their drives, were all part of the mix. As another airborne journey took this writer to Bangkok and from there to Melbourne, it was time to chronicle the willow game’s latest attraction: the ICC Twenty20 World Cup.
India against Pakistan, invested with history, is cricket’s great clash, perhaps a touch below the Ashes that features England against Australia in Tests. Melbourne, with its high-rises, parks, and the Rod Laver Tennis Arena, geared up on October 23 for the contest between the subcontinental neighbours. At the Melbourne Cricket Ground, with boisterous Indian and Pakistani fans cheering their respective teams, the atmosphere turned electric.
Sport is often described as war minus the shooting, but it can also blur the Radcliffe Line. A fan held a placard that said: “Virat Kohli please come to Pakistan and score a hundred.” Through the game, the stands were throbbing with adrenalin, and on a special night, Kohli played a stunning innings, an unbeaten 82 that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Taxi rides throw up distinct tales that tug at the heart. Shahid Khan, hailing from Afghanistan and settled in Australia, asked: “Where from?” When told that his passengers were sports writers from India, Shahid’s enthusiasm quadrupled. Talk veered towards India being his country’s friend and then his voice quivered: “You guys will go back to your country after the World Cup, what about people like us? Every night when I get back home, there is this knowledge that our real home is far away, and with all that is happening there with the Taliban, we may never get back. There is also the guilt: the family and I are here but what about our countrymen in Kabul or across the Afghan countryside. I may smile but I am never happy. I keep thinking about my country; it was a great country and now it is a mess.”
Displacement is not just about people leaving for other countries either for greener pastures or to flee a despotic government, it is also at times a traumatic internal movement. Australia’s original inhabitants, the Aborigines, exist on the fringes in a massive country that has been populated by European stock ever since England sent its people across at a time when the sun never set on its empire. Successive governments have tried to integrate the Aborigines, and Jason Gillespie is the most famous Australian indigenous cricketer. Yet out on the streets, if you see visible poverty, it will be through an Aborigine hanging around near convenience stores, eateries, and pubs, making eye contact, at times asking for a dime, and often in a state of intoxication. They are the lost people in their own land, though quite a few have transitioned into prosperity, embracing Western education and moving up the value chain.
When people think about Australia, they tend to get fixated upon kangaroos, beer, and its great sporting ambassadors. Out on the roads, it is a different story as a significant percentage of Aussies love their fitness, and at any time of the day, be it in the sun, rain, or cold blustering winds, there will be a few on the run: pounding the pavements, checking their sports watches to figure out calories burnt, and just focussed on the street ahead. Some do not walk their dogs; they just run man’s best friend, and it is a lovely sight to see men, women, and a furry ball with a wagging tail out on the trot while a “howd’ya mate” is whispered.
Every New Year day will have this regular picture in most newspapers: fireworks greeting January 1 from the Sydney Harbour Bridge. One night, a few Indian cricket writers decided to meet the New Year cliche. A short cab ride took an eager bunch of writers to the spot, and selfies were taken, the bridge photographed, and it was time to quaff a frothy drink. The setting was gorgeous, and the sports hacks cracked inside jokes. Some needed their nicotine fix and a quick walk to the pier’s edge ensued. At a far corner, two men were locked in an intimate embrace. A West Asian couple walked in on them, and then with a blush reddening their cheeks and eyes locked onto the pavement, they hurried away to the nearby Opera House stairs. There they sat, hands demurely clasped and whispered sweet nothings while the two men were lost in their world. Truly, love is a many-splendoured thing.
K.C. Vijaya Kumar is Sports Editor, The Hindu