Rivals deserve their place in the southern sun
Early on Saturday morning, I sent out a question to a large number of friends and relatives across several generations of Indians. They are unconnected to cricket and the question was this: Who was the first famous Australian and New Zealander they had heard about?
The answers returned: Don Bradman, Sir Edmund Hillary, Richard Hadlee, John Wright, Allan Border, Martin Crowe, Shane Warne, Steve Waugh, Daniel Vettori, Brett Lee, Pat Cash, Ricky Ponting, Ross Taylor, Ian Thorpe, Russell Crowe, David Boon, Kiri Te Kanawa, Rupert Murdoch, Kylie Minogue, George Calombaris, David Lange, and Bob Hawke (the last two from my brother, who has zero interest in cricket).
Barring Sir Ed, the cricketers turned up over and over again. Always cricketers. Say "Australia" or "New Zealand" to Indians and the largest demographic of recall will be cricketers. As though it was all people in Australia and New Zealand did. Play cricket and climb mountains. Surrounded by kangaroos and kiwi fruit, no doubt. And hobbits.
People in India may have thought of "Australia-New Zillan" (that's how we pronounce it) in the same breath but their cricketers were always known as distinctly different. The Aussies were hard as nails, tough talkers, fast bowlers, attacking batsmen. The Kiwis were less flinty but adhesive, not easily dislodged if they didn't want to be, capable of surprise and boil-overs, producing, out of some invisible hat, mesmeric spells of bowling and possessing batsmen who could go crackle and pop.
It will be those cricketers at it again on Sunday morning India time in the final of the 2015 ICC World Cup. Co-hosts, big country, small country. Big brother, little brother. Much like the 2011 World Cup final. Co-hosts, big country, small country. Except India and many of its south Asian brethren do not think of themselves as brothers but more like annoying neighbours.
Australia and New Zealand though still speak the same language (enough about the accents), their armies fought under the ANZAC banner in World War I, and even their flags look similar, barring the number of stars. It's a four-hour flight from Auckland to Melbourne and there is a two-hour time difference between the two countries. What kind of fight could you pick from that far? What rivalry could you sustain?
As a turns out, a very deep-seated one which the "tyranny of distance" (to quote *Split Enz) keeps fresh for ages. For an outsider, particularly an Indian, the Australia-New Zealand sporting contest is hard to grasp as it is entrenched in neither politics nor geography nor culture. Yes, we heard about the underarm incident and yes, it was terrible, but that was ages ago.
But that's the whole point. This rivalry belongs purely to sporting history that carries itself over to many parts. No wars have been fought, but sporting grudges between the two are nursed for a very long time. Not like drinks are after a day's play but like an ancient college t-shirt is worn for security and comfort.
Underarm has sustained itself as a biting counter to all the sheep jokes. On Saturday, one of the Melbourne tabloids went into a fairly bird-brained "why we're better" two-page graphic. It compared, among other things, the tenure of the country's two female prime ministers, their actors, athletes, singers, supermodels and so on.
No doubt there's someone in New Zealand reminding everyone that the All Blacks have been stamping on the Wallabies forever, and that Wellington Phoenix are on top of Australia's premier soccer league, the A-League. Then we hear that Russell Crowe is angry because his application for Australian citizenship has been refused. But hey, the Kiwis say, at least we're mature enough to go to vote on whether we need a new flag or not.
Aucklander Scott Pearson sat next to me on the flight from Sydney to Melbourne and had, on his tablet, pictures of his MCG tickets and the Beige Brigade uniform he owns (both shirt and trousers) but wasn't sure what he was going to wear on finals day. He had calculated that the MCG crowd could well be ten Aussies per Kiwi, and gave a simple analysis of the essential difference between the two peoples.
"Because we are so small, New Zealanders are more amenable to everyone and everything around us," he explained. "Australia is so large, that they can do whatever they want. They are the America of the South Pacific."
America-sized in everything: collecting Olympic medals, world sporting titles - and thus, bragging rights. Australia's highest-paid athletes are NBA player Andrew Bogut and golfer Adam Scott. New Zealand's top two are yachtsman Russell Coutts and footballer-coach Ryan Nelsen. At one time, it used to be Tiger Woods' caddy. Seriously. Mock that if you will, but which football team stayed undefeated in the 2010 FIFA World Cup? That's right. New Zealand.
At the pre-final press conferences, Brendon McCullum spoke in low, clipped tones about his team playing their attacking brand of cricket with "humility." He used the word not once but twice. About 45 minutes later, Michael Clarke walked in and announced his retirement from ODI cricket. Flashlights, camera, action.
A "national character" is difficult to nail down, but it was a conversation with an IPL insider that offered an insight about how teams dealt with cricketers from different nationalities. At the end of a net session, he said, the Indian cricketer would head over to the coach to ask how the session had gone. The West Indian would have to be asked how it had gone. The Australian would come over and tell the coach how well it had gone. The coach would have to go over to the New Zealander, put an arm around his shoulder and tell him that that the net had gone well. Now this is a sweeping generalisation, which does not take into account individuals and their singular distinctions, but it does make for a good story.
In the World Cup final, though, Australia will not crow and New Zealand will not be looking for reassurances. Despite differences in personality and sporting issues, Australia and New Zealand will always be linked together because they are, in fact, more than mere geographical neighbours or brothers, big or small. They will always be the two contenders in a contest. Without one, the other would be incomplete. There would be no contest. And then, where's the fun? What's the point?
That the World Cup final will be played between the hosts is only fair. For six weeks, their order and method have handled frequent collisions with the tumult and chaos of the rest of the cricket world. The decks are now clear and a sporting rivalry that belongs only to sport itself, will stretch itself, be heard and be seen.
The World Cup final. Australia v New Zealand. Those cricketers from the furthest corner of the South Pacific, nearer to Antarctica than to the rest of us in the cricketing world. Those cricketers. They're at it again.
*The article had earlier attributed "tyranny of distance" to Crowded House. It has been corrected to Split Enz
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo