India playing Australia in the semi-final of the World Cup is a lip-smacking prospect. An India-Pakistan semi-final would have been a marketer’s dream come true and provided great opportunity for those who feast on bellicose jingoism. But frankly, save a few brilliant moments, Pakistan was a shallow team in this tournament and not a patch on MS Dhoni’s team.
Where cricket is concerned, Australia is the real test for India. And vice versa. Both teams look well-matched on paper and have played with equal intensity. I would venture that whoever wins on Thursday should go on to win the title.
The appeal of Australian cricket has stayed with me ever since I watched my first Test match, at the Brabourne Stadium in the season of 1964-65. It turned out to be a hard-fought contest finally decided in a tingling climax. Those five days made me a cricket addict for life.
For the record, India beat Australia by a narrow margin of two wickets chasing 254 to win. Chandu Borde held his nerve to steer the team home in the company of tail-enders. Pandemonium broke when the winning run was scored.
Hundreds of spectators jumped over the fences and ran towards the CCI pavilion. I was one in the melee, pulled along by my uncle whose proclaimed purpose in life was to shake the Nawab of Pataudi’s hands.
Pataudi, of course, was a national hero and a roar went up when he came on to the CCI balcony with his teammates to acknowledge the crowds. A photograph of that memorable moment adorns one of the walls of the CCI today.
Post-match presentations were unheard of in those days. There was no man of the match either. If there had been, the clear winner would have been BS Chandrashekhar for his eight wickets in the match, which left the Aussies bamboozled.
In the annals of cricket, Chandra remains unique. He bowled unorthodox leg spin at rapid pace with a polio-affected arm, could hardly bat, was obviously limited in fielding ability, and sang sad Mukesh and KL Saigal songs in his run up.
It seems highly unlikely that Chandra would get into a cricket clinic even for schoolboys in the modern game. But he finished with 242 Test wickets in 48 Tests.
In my opinion, his is among the greatest stories in the history of sport. Very loosely, he was also perhaps the inspiration for match-winning bowler Kachra in Ashutosh Gowarikar’s opus Lagaan.
The 1964 Test match left me fascinated and there was no way I was going to miss the Test at the Brabourne five years later. The Australian captain then was Bill Lawry, who on the field was quite a different character from the hyperventilating, fun-loving commentator we have heard for so many years.
There was a tense moment in the 1969 Test when the Aussie players, with Lawry at the front, pulled the stumps out from the ground to fight off rioters who had invaded the field after S Venkatraghavan had been given out.
At that point, we all thought the Aussies were villains for appealing wrongly and then picking a fight with infuriated home fans. Later we learnt that the unrest had been instigated by a radio commentator who had declared Venkat not out!
Lawry in many ways is still symptomatic of the Aussie cricketer: tough and unrelenting, to the point of being ugly. While there is obviously some truth to this, it must be said that the Australian cricketers have also been victims of stereotyping.
They can be brusque, even confrontational, and as is now well-known, also sledge to gain whatever little advantage. But they play to win. Unlike most other teams, they don’t make excuses when they lose. That makes for a fine ethos.
In many ways, India have gained from playing Australia more frequently in the past 15-odd years. Some strong aspects of Aussie cricket culture, admired by the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and other modern players, have seeped in gradually into Indian cricket too.
The IPL has helped in fostering not just friendship between players, but also exchange of ideas and expertise through coaches, fitness experts, curriculums for juniors, among others, in which the Aussies have been most in demand.
This has enriched Indian cricket certainly. But it’s not been only a one-way traffic. Apart from exposing Aussie players to slow turners and tingling, spicy curries, the Indian experience seems to have tempered their on-field aggression a whit and certainly reduced their naivete.
For instance, there is not a single Australian today, I dare say, who doesn’t know the difference between ‘monkey’ and ‘teri maaki’!