Michael Jeh June 19, 2008

Australia's Indian affair

The cricketers can thank their talents and their bulging wallets for this new-found appreciation of India

If cricket were a modern Australian fairytale, we would probably see ourselves as the cavalier knight who has fallen in love with Miss India, a beautiful princess whose kingdom is a kaleidoscopic contrast of fabulous wealth and numbing poverty. It is now clear that India is the new dynasty of cricket and the rest of the world, Australia included, is watching this love story unfold with a mixture of emotions.

Not so long ago in Australia, the subcontinent was the butt of crass humour and cheap stereotypes. The famous 'Twelfth Man' skits were hilarious but they hinted at a first-world superiority that made no apologies for making fun of the so-called curry munchers. Ironically, winning in the subcontinent was a major achievement (if you managed it) but losing was a minor irritation. After all, dodgy umpires, dodgy curries and dodgy pitches were standard fare, were they not? Real cricket was always played on fast, bouncy pitches or perfectly manicured green fields in faraway northern lands. Mind you, when the West Indian pace quartet of the 70's and 80's were playing 'chin music', we weren’t that keen on fast, bouncy pitches but that’s another opera altogether!

But Australian cricketers and fans alike are starting to warm to this impending marriage with a grudging affection that is born from being a nation of no-nonsense pragmatists. If you can’t break up the lovers, there’s no sense in missing out on a good party! It helps of course that our wonderfully talented team has all bases covered in cricketing terms. Batting, bowling and off-the-field, Australia is now comfortable with the notion of competing with the home nations in their backyard. The mystique and fear have largely been replaced by cultural familiarity and supreme adaptability in all conditions. No one can argue with Australia's ability to win away from home.

The cricketers can thank their talents and their bulging wallets for this new-found appreciation of India. Let’s be honest – the rupee is now the most seductive mistress of world cricket and any cricketer who pretends otherwise deserves our scorn. There’s nothing wrong with this so long as the love affair is mutually beneficial and not conducted behind a veil of hypocrisy.

From an Aussie fan’s perspective, India is both Montague and Capulet, saviour and villain. Reality suggests that this is where the future of the game now resides in an unholy alliance with the corporate moguls. It may be a marriage of necessity but here is a young maiden who is happy to be consummated on the altar of satellite television. And this bride is neither demure nor is she afraid to experiment. IPL hardly made a ripple here in terms of avid fans of the concept but there was nonetheless an appreciation that India had now changed the face of cricket forever. Whereas Australia used to be the innovator of change in the cricket world, even those who prefer tradition could not help but marvel at India’s ability to put on a show. And what a wedding it promises to be.....

On the other hand, there is also this uneasy sense that this could be a marriage based on a very convenient double-standard. The public perception of India is still that of a relatively poor country with social ills that the average Australian cannot comprehend. Perceptions can of course be wrong but perception is reality. How do we reconcile this poverty with the outrageous dowries being paid for Twenty20 mercenaries and the possibly devastating impact on our own local talent pool? If Corporate India has this much money to ‘waste’ on cricket, perhaps India should be viewed as a first-world country and therefore no longer to be viewed in a condescending (or sympathetic) light when it comes to broader economic perceptions.

South Africa has had to grapple with this duality for a long time and their experiences will provide a fascinating insight into how we understand modern India. Powerhouse or poorhouse?

At many Western weddings, it is customary for the guests to be asked the question: “if you have any objections, speak now or forever hold your peace”. Cricket Australia may have done just that but it is now a faltering voice, ignored by the princess and her followers. Australian cricket is definitely nervous about this shift in power but one hopes it is not a nervousness spawned by cultural prejudice. We ran the game for so many years and expected everyone else to respect our authority. The King is dead. Long live the King. We should now have the grace to hand over the reigns with willing hearts and minds.

To continue with the marriage analogy, it is not so much an issue as to where the Princess hails from but how benevolently and wisely she will govern the kingdom. World cricket cannot afford a ruthless dictator but countries like Australia need to remember that when we ran the show, shotgun marriages were often the norm. The only difference may be that the shotgun is now in different hands.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane