A pilgrimage to India has almost become a rite of passage for most Australian cricketers post-Indian Premier League. No country has more players lining up for the auction, and none sees more of its best talent lured by the riches of the T20 league.
Between the IPL and the Champions League T20, many Australian cricketers end up spending almost three months in the country. They travel in their Volvo team buses and their chauffeured Toyota Innovas from their five-star hotels to the stadiums to the airport (with a few high-end detours). The older ones come with their families, toddlers and nannies in tow. The sound bites always marvel over India and its diverse nature.
The Aussies just love playing in India! The Aussies just love India! But it wasn't always so…
When Australia first toured India in 1956-57, the nation wasn't yet 10 years into independence and seemingly light years away for the economic giant it is today.
In those days, a tour of India was invariably clubbed with a tour of Pakistan, and posed a unique set of challenges that extended far beyond the turning pitches. The long-train rides into the smaller centres for tour matches, the sub-standard accommodation their own board would put them up in, the passionate yet volatile fans who were as likely shower you with praise as they were to pelt you with a stone.
Alan Davidson, one of the greatest left-arm seamers, was part of Australian squad that made their first sojourn to the sub-continent. When time came to return for 1959-60 series, Davidson was apprehensive, not the least because of an ankle injury prior to the series. The now 83-year-old revealed an interesting anecdote on what happened next when he spoke to your correspondent in Sydney during India's last tour Down Under.
While recovering from his ankle injury, Davidson was bowling in the nets, when unknown to him Australia's cricketing patron, and selector at the time, Sir Don Bradman hid in the crowd and assessed his match fitness. When walking back to the dressing room, Davidson spotted him. "Good morning, Don," he said. "Good morning, Alan. How are you?" the Don enquired. Davidson took the chance to express his apprehensions and asked if it was compulsory to tour India and Pakistan later in the year. The Don shot back acerbically, "You've retired, have you?"
A stuttering Davidson replied that he had not. "Good. You might tell the others up in the room the same thing," squeaked Bradman as Davidson walked back with his tail between his legs.
Davidson would eventually tour and finish as the leading wicket-taker, including a career-best 12/124 in Kanpur.
The Toughest Challenge
The Bill Lawry-led 1969 team faced the stiffest challenge as a monetary row saw the erstwhile Australian Cricket Board lodge them in shabby hotels. Off-spinner Ashley Mallet, who was the leading wicket-taker in the series, later described the accommodation as "more hovels than hotels". He wrote that on a late-night visit to their hotel kitchen in Guwahati before the Calcutta Test, the players "were greeted by a sea of cockroaches swarming over the wet floor and several cats dancing on the salads in the fridge".
While the problems in smaller centres persisted, the major cities that hosted Test matches had luxurious hotels. The problem for the Australian players was the ham-fisted nature of their board. The teams saw just what they were missing when on the night before leaving for South Africa, after a 3-1 series triumph, their board put them up in Bombay's majestic Taj Mahal Hotel. In his book, Chappelli Speaks Out, Ian Chappell recounted, "but it (stay in Bombay Taj) was only for one night, and that only increased our anger because we knew that there were good hotels in India, but our board wouldn't book us in at them".
None of Australia's next generation of greats played a Test in India. So, while Dennis Lillee would unearth many a promising Indian fast bowler at the MRF Academy and Greg Chappell would go on to coach India, they along with Rod Marsh would never tour India.
Food For Thought
By the time Kim Hughes led the Aussies to India in 1979, they stayed in solid accommodations during the Test matches, but the Tour posed its own challenges. "In our day, a tour would be three months. In between the Test matches, we would head out to the smaller centres on trains for three-day matches. It was draining, but it also had its benefits. If between Tests you were out of form you'd use these matches to get back in the groove," he told HT over phone from Perth.
The food, spicy and bowel-fear inducing, was still a big worry for the players. "The initial week when we landed here was especially tough on a few of the players. I had an iron stomach, but many had upset tummies," recalled Hughes. Now, even Shane Warne, him of the famed canned baked beans and spaghetti cravings, enjoys his butter chicken.
The Aussies didn't begin to embrace India till the 1998 series. Before that Australia had toured the country six times in 32 years, in the 15 years since they've already toured that many times.
There may have been some ugly instances off the field (Ricky Ponting getting into a pub brawl in Kolkata in 1998. But, then, a young Ponting was as likely to pick up fight in Sydney's Kings Cross as he was in Kolkata's Park Street), but for the most part the Aussies opened up to the charms of India. Steve Waugh would go on his philanthropic drives across the slums, Justin Langer would visit the ashram of yoga guru BKS Iyengar, Brett Lee would go zipping and zooming with Sachin Tendulkar on karting tracks and the maestro's now-sold Ferrari. Andrew Symonds would turn enemies to friends bank-rolled by the Ambani wealth. No wonder the Aussies love playing in India! No wonder the Aussies love India!