February 2002: Columns

Of Australianism

Out of the blue this e-mail landed up in my mailbox. It was a name I did not know and it had a huge 'Read Me' sign all over it. Normally the trash button gobbles those up, but for some reason I read Anant Sundaram's letter. "I saw your piece about Australia," he wrote, and added that it reminded him about another he had read in The Picador Book of Cricket. He insisted that I read it. I did. And just as well.

It fascinated me not because the author was well known, but because it had stood the test of time so well. Often in our obsession with the present, and the immediate, we leave ourselves too little time to glance at our roots, to see how we have evolved. Sadly, cricket in the subcontinent runs the risk of becoming just another daily soap-opera; episode number 32 forgotten when number 69 comes on, a cricketer forgotten 48 hours after he announces his retirement, a new stop-gap opener replacing another.

Yet, looked at over the years, cricket seems to do a very good job of reflecting national character. It certainly looks that way as I see the Indian cricket team moving along: so much ability, so much chaos, so much noise, so little to show for it. Across the border, Pakistan's feudal but fiery character finds an echo in the way its national side plays cricket. And the South Africans, so inward and combative, mirror the island they had let themselves become.

But this story is about Australia, the best cricket team in the world by a long mile. They are playing fabulous, intoxicating cricket and they are setting new standards in the attitude they bring to a cricket match.

Ah, did I say new standards in attitude? New? Here is an extract from the said essay. (When the word was an elegant exposition of a point of view, not as in "essayed a cover drive" which seems an abbreviation, a bit like "he kayoed his opponent".) As you pass the words by, ask yourself which era they bear most resemblance to.

"We are faced with Australian batting, bowling, fielding, captaincy - and `Australianism'. `Australianism' means single-minded determination to win - to win within the laws, but if necessary, to the last limit within them. It means that where the `impossible' is within the realm of what the human body can do, there are Australians who believe that they can do it - and who have succeeded often enough to make us wonder if anything is impossible to them. It means they have never lost a match - particularly a Test match - until the last run is scored or their last wicket has fallen."

Is this Steve Waugh's Australia? Or Mark Taylor's team? Or Allan Border's? Or maybe Ian Chappell's? What if I told you that the extract is from John Arlott's essay on `Australianism' written in 1949? A full 52 years ago. Before either coach or captain of this current team was born? Is there a legacy then, that one generation bequeaths to another? Do they tell each other tales of `Australianism'? Is the process of bestowing national character and spirit akin to the manner in which our holy texts were once passed down by rote from father to son and down thereafter? Or is the enunciation of Arlott's `Australianism' an illustration of all that binds this vast and yet homogeneous continent?

The first thing Rohit Brijnath, India's best sportswriter, told me after he moved to Australia was that he was struck by the oneness of the country; cities, cuisines and cultures that stayed steadfastly consistent across states. There was not the gradation in the pickles for example, from the manageable sarson ka tel in Punjab to the intimidatory garlic paste in the south; nor differences in size, colour or language. Why, in India, each zone seemed to have its own style of playing cricket as well. Could Chandra have been from anywhere but the South? Wasn't Gavaskar the very definition of the West? And wasn't Kapil Dev a symbol of the North? On the other hand, is McGrath from the south-east different from Langer from the deep west?

Arlott's 'Australanism' is an eye-opener at a time when even South Africa's apparent state of oneness lies shattered. Once again, a diverse society, a collage of cultures, has allowed the differences within it to weaken the bond rather than draw strength from its many components.

In the year 2049, if we are still playing cricket, what odds that Arlott's words above would still be valid?

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