The common paths of Oz and India

2008-02-02 00:00

Relations between India and Australia have reached their lowest point.

In time, the SCG Test will be regarded as a watershed, a bad-tempered match in which the Indians finally said “enough” and demanded their voices be heard. Eventually, the warring parties will realise that all this sound and fury is insignificant beside their need to get along.

Thereafter, they will work towards finding a way forwards. After all, these two great cricketing nations are rivals only on the field. Elsewhere, they are partners and friends; it’s just that sometimes, in the hysteria, amid the bellowing of the bulls, with the wild-eyed nationalists in a frenzy, they forget that they are on the same side.

For many years, and in many ways, Australia and India have followed a common path. They had to free themselves from the patronage of the MCC and the old powers in London. Throughout its formative years, and far into its adulthood, cricket was directed by the same people or their descendants who seized control of it in the middle of the 19th century — the old guard who tried to keep the game as pure as homogenised milk.

Although they hardly realised that these complacent souls had old-fashioned views on many matters, including class and colour. Cricket has had plenty of rebels, but precious few radicals.

Until the 1850s or so, the English game had two distinct threads, the professionals from Nottingham and the north who went around the country by train playing against local combinations for money, and the gentry from private schools who represented respectability.

The professionals wanted to make a living from their craft in the same manner as silversmiths, lacemakers and so forth — hereabouts skilled labour had started to assert itself. The gentlemen were the product of pulpits, headmasters and a ruling class determined to retain its position and to bestow its convictions in every nook and cranny of a growing empire. Naturally the gentlemen prevailed.

After World War 2, the cricket nations, most of which had fought with the Allied forces, gained their independence and embarked upon lives as free nations. For a long time, cricket was immune to changes felt in other sections of society. It was a poor game played by a small number of mostly impoverished people. Occasionally, the game was shown on television, but mostly it inhabited a separate world full of memories and sentiments. In India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, it was played mostly by the uppercrust, a group fond of British traditions.

Of course cricket could not forever remain the same. Sooner or later, independent nations were bound to demand a share, not so much of the spoils as of the decisions. After all, the game was spreading along with democracy and opportunity, and the middle class was growing in former British colonies. Cricket had been taken up by a new generation that did not look towards London, a generation proud of their country and colour and inclined to rely on their own wits, a generation that wanted to make money.

Among the other important cricket playing nations, only one has consistently stood its ground. The Australians have never been impressed with the class system, preachers or the British way. There was not much point going so far away merely to reproduce the past. Moreover, it was a harsh, raw continent full of fires and droughts. Together, the land and the history produced a breed of tough and direct men of independent disposition. Accordingly, the Australians played by their own lights, displaying a singularity of outlook that made them hard to love and harder to beat.

The major change in the last few years has been that other nations have also broken away to demand their rights. Unsurprisingly, India has been the most outspoken. None of the others were well enough placed to stand alone. India had the population, the power and the money. Australia met its match.

For a time, the Indians merely made an occasional noise. Sunil Gavaskar’s influence was important. Beloved of his people and lauded as a batsman, he spoke out against the cosy assumptions of London and, for that matter, Melbourne. Gavaskar’s weakness has been not that he led the protest, but that he has not moved on. India has become strong and has no need any longer to act like an outsider. Indeed it has a new responsibility.

And so the Australians and Indians stand as the new cricketing powerhouses. Australia has tried to move away from the confrontational approach instilled in numerous backyards where the game is learnt. Hopefully the SCG Test will be remembered as the last instance of the unacceptable face of Australian cricket. Not that they alone crossed the line. Ricky Ponting and his players had been sorely provoked not so much in Sydney as on their previous visit to India. Sensitivity works both ways.

In the last decade, India has gained wealth and its team is strong and proud. Whereas Arjuna Ranatunga was seizing the chance presented by leading an unusually gifted Lankan outfit, Sourav Ganguly and his successors have been captaining a side able to take care of itself in any company and likely to remain competitive hereafter. India looks even the fearsome Australians in the eye.

Before much more time has passed, these nations will learn a common language that goes beyond cricket. Australia will understand that its backyards are unique and that admired sides are supposed to set an example. India will see that it cannot over-react to every setback as if it were a conspiracy hatched by westerners.

From the current confrontations will come mutual respect. Love of the game and mutual interest will outlast these disturbances. Brett Lee is immensely popular in India and Sachin Tendulkar is widely admired downunder. Supporters have already taken the great leap. Now it is up to those directing cricket operations in both countries to raise their game. Good manners are needed, everywhere.

It is time for tongues to stop wagging and ears to start working.

•Peter Roebuck (peter@peterroebuck.com) is an international cricket writer who lives in the KZN midlands, but who is currently in Australia.

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