January 23, 2008

Wake up, tune in

On the joys of watching cricket in Australia - both at the ground and at the crack of dawn on TV in India



It's more fun Down Under © Getty Images

Remember the bikinis? When I think now of what I remember most about first watching cricket played in Australia, it seems to be the bikinis. It was over February and March 1985, the Benson and Hedges World Championship of Cricket, and it was the first time I remember watching cricket telecast from a country I defined at the time solely by its cricket team and cricket grounds.

The tournament was thrilling. India won, beating Pakistan in a day-night final on March 10. Ravi Shastri emerged as champion of champions and took the team on a ride around the MCG in the Audi that was his prize. Such bliss. For me, a teenager watching in the living room of our south Kolkata home, in a not-so-liberal, not-at-all liberalised India, seeing a car like the Audi -- and the fact that an Indian sporting hero could now possess it -- was a thrill. But the sight of all those toned female bodies and the Channel 9 cameras lingering over them in their jokey, nudge-nudge-wink-wink slow tracks was a far bigger, almost illicit, thrill.

Of course, there was the magnificent Channel 9 coverage. A whole generation of Indian cricket fans growing up in the 1970s had never ever seen anything like that before. Used - and that only just - to Doordarshan's stodgy, boring, shot-from-one-angle stuff and execrable commentary, the manner in which cricket could be brought alive on TV, made spectator-friendly, participatory and exciting was a revelation. Angles, cameras, experts, debates, urgency, the details: how I loved it. It seemed like justification for being a fan.

It was appropriate, perhaps, that in that spring of 1985, more and more middle-class Indian families were buying colour TV sets. My parents had bought one the previous year, but in my memory somehow the images in colour of that tournament from Australia are the first I have of watching colour TV in India.

Then there was the commentary. I had grown up with Test Match Special, broadcast from England on short-wave radio, and from it had formed a particular - and peculiar - idea of English commentators and English cricket grounds. On TV from Australia, it was all so different - the accents certainly were. Before the season was over, Bill Lawry and Keith Stackpole and the rest of the Channel 9 team had become if not quite as familiar, at least almost as treasured companions as Brian Johnston and Chris Martin-Jenkins from TMS; but the grounds, the atmosphere, the crowds seemed unrecognisable from what I had first imagined - and then seen during the 1983 Prudential Cup - of cricket played in England. In Australia, it appeared to me, there was more vibrancy, there was more celebration; it was far more of a riotous cavalcade of colour, delight and enjoyment.

Years later when I went to Australia and watched cricket at the grounds, I realised that these early impressions, gleaned from TV, were accurate. Having grown up watching cricket in India and trying to squeeze my bum into three square inches of concrete and queuing for water and food and the toilet, which always stank, I found that watching cricket at an Australian ground was liberating: it was as much fun as I had imagined; it was an inclusive, comfortable, leisurely, unrestrained picnic, a celebration as much of the game we adore as of the white-hot, glorious days of the southern summer.

 
 
Years later when I went to Australia and watched cricket at the grounds, I realised that these early impressions, gleaned from TV, were accurate. Having grown up watching cricket in India and trying to squeeze my bum into three square inches of concrete and queuing for water and food and the toilet, which always stank, I found that watching cricket at an Australian ground was liberating
 

I realised something else when I watched cricket at Australian grounds. There are as many boors there as there are at, say, Indian cricket grounds. But more Australian spectators show respect for top-class players from the opposition than people do in India. Every time Sachin Tendulkar walked out to bat at an Australian ground, I discovered, he was given a standing ovation. Australian fans treated VVS Laxman, who has softly scythed through the Australian bowling on more occasions than perhaps any other batsman from the subcontinent, like a deity. I don't think I would see that sort of response from Indian spectators in India to the heroics of Matthew Hayden or Ricky Ponting or Brett Lee or Glenn McGrath.

I have watched this riveting ongoing series on TV at my Mumbai home. (And I already feel sort of nostalgic, regretting the fact that the Test series will be over after the Adelaide game.) I no longer find the bikinis as much of a novelty as I used to. Also, frankly, not half as much of an attraction. And with the technical sophistication in the coverage of cricket in India now about world-class, Channel 9 doesn't seem that different any longer. In any case, I don't watch Channel 9 at home but Star Cricket.

A lot has changed. But there is one thing that is common even now to my first experiences of watching cricket in Australia: the unrivalled pleasure of getting up in the morning to watch the game. Could anything be better, quite so unsullied an enjoyment? If I am watching in India, matches in the Caribbean go on till early in the morning. A lot of the cricket played in England - and certainly the start of a day of Test cricket, especially the first session of a Test, the one that I find has unique appeal - is during working hours. With cricket in Australia, I am fine. I go to sleep in delicious anticipation, looking forward to waking up and watching. I start the day with the game, mind uncluttered, nothing having yet happened to ruin my day or mood.

I go to bed with the remote on my bedside table. Wake up and smell the coffee? No, wake up and watch the cricket. It's much more invigorating.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the author of the acclaimed memoir, You Must Like Cricket? He is the deputy editor of Hindustan Times in Mumbai

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