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The warmth of a sweltering city

Mike Coward
The stifling heat doesn't dampen the enthusiasm of the local cricket lover and it won't that of tourists either

Whether it was the extraordinary cricket, the spontaneity and warmth of the hospitality or simply the wondrous dosas, idlis and sambhars, my embrace of India intensified markedly when I reached Chennai ahead of the north-east monsoon in 1986.

So much so that I have returned on many occasions and in 1989 lived south of the city, near the fishing village of Palavakkam, writing about the history and joys of Indo-Australian cricket. Kris Srikkanth would often toot and wave as he made his way to and from the city.

As though to affirm my affection for and allegiance to the region, I am writing while wearing a watch designed to mark the 150th anniversary of the Madras Cricket Club in 1996, and gifted by dear friend and fellow scribe R Mohan.

For many years now I have been firmly of the view that the thrilling rebirth of Australian cricket did not take place in England in 1989, as is generally thought, but in India in 1986 and 1987. There can be no doubt that at the direction of captain Allan Border and coach Bob Simpson, Australian cricket developed a new maturity, awareness and worldliness on these unforgettable visits. And the Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai, or Madras as the sprawling, welcoming city was then known, was the stage for two events that profoundly impacted on Australian cricket history.

On September 22, 1986, the first Test of a three-match series produced just the second tie in 1052 Test matches since 1877, and Dean Jones was rightly feted for playing an innings for the ages. On October 9, 1987, Australia defeated reigning champions India by one run in their opening match of the 1987 World Cup, which so stirringly was played under a banner of "Cricket for Peace". A month later at Eden Gardens, Australia defeated England to win the World Cup for the first time.

These were heady, unforgettable moments for anyone associated with Australian cricket at the time. Chennai occupies a special place in the annals of Australian cricket and not simply because so many touring teams have been successful. (The first of only two defeats came in 1998, when Sachin Tendulkar ran amok.)

Not all Australian legspinners have occupied a cultural backwater and professed a dependence on baked beans, and in 1979, Jim Higgs spotted an axiom painted on the wall of a fisherman's foreshore tenement in Chennai. What's more, he took a photograph of it for posterity: "To lose patience is to lose the battle".

The Chennai match was the first of six Tests in 1979-80 and while Kim Hughes' tourists were defeated 2-0 by Sunil Gavaskar's men, the dictum became a mantra for rest of the tour. And principally because of Border, who was vice-captain to Hughes, it has been well remembered and recalled. Subsequent teams, led by Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting, also unselfconsciously invoked the maxim, and it is indisputable that Australia's record on the Indian subcontinent improved in this time.

One fancies that Higgs spotted the tenement while taking the more scenic route to the ground along the Dr Radhakrishnan and South Beach roads, past the expansive Marina beach, where lovers stroll and children play on miniature merry-go-rounds and jalebi and poori wallahs bark for attention.

Of course, he could have reached the ground down the broad Mount Road (Anna Salai), which boasts one of my favourite Indian road signs: "Please observe lane discipline." And while traffic is certainly more ordered these days, one would hardly say it is disciplined or quieter - especially after stumps, when the shops and bazaars are doing a roaring trade.

It is true that the Chidambaram Stadium offers a particular challenge to the visitor. The ground, a cement cauldron in the inner suburb of Chepauk, was built alongside the Buckingham Canal, once a watercourse for traders but now an open sewer after urban Chennai overflowed. If the breezes from the Bay of Bengal are strong enough to stir the ancient African baobab trees along the eastern side of the ground, where cowpats dry for fuel, rank smells can waft throughout the stadium. Together with enervating high humidity, this can be suffocating and nauseating, as Dean Jones, among many others, will attest.

But at least to the spectator this is a mere bagatelle when one considers the joy of watching cricket with one of the most thoughtful and knowledgeable crowds in all of India at such a renowned venue. And if fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the Madras Cricket Club, one can reflect on the day's play over a beer or fresh-lime soda sweet (no ice) beneath gently oscillating fans. Not even the constant squawking of the carrion crows will disturb the reverie.

Certainly this scribe sought such sanctuary in 1986 and 1987, when newspaper reports were hammered out on noisy typewriters in an open press enclosure. Then, at the command of "Copy", the words were conveyed by runners to telex operators working in a wire cage in the bowels of the stadium, adjacent to the players' dressing rooms.

Often the copy, typed on new-fangled thermal paper, was stained with sweat that had poured from the brow, as unhelpful Australian deadlines were gallantly met in such oppressive heat. These days there is a swish new air-conditioned press box, but more often than not you will hear the older scribes talk about their commitment when the going was hardest all those summers ago.

What joy it will be to return to Chidambaram Stadium and after a memorable day's play hail an auto-rickshaw for a leisurely journey along the foreshore at Marina beach, perhaps stopping for a dosa or an ice-cream as dusk falls over a still Bay of Bengal.

Mike Coward is a cricket writer with the Australian