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Feature

A billion Bill Lawrys

Down the years, Australia was the cricket country Indians wanted theirs to aspire to be

Mohammad Azharuddin and Mark Taylor shake hands before the World Cup match, India v Australia, World Cup, Group A, Mumbai, February 27, 1996

Why can't we be more like them?  •  Shaun Botterill  /  Getty Images

There is something ethereal about cricket at dawn; staying up late is a lesser magic. Indians turn to cricket from England and South Africa after lunch, from the West Indies before dinner. New Zealand is so far ahead that it is still our night. We only rise to cricket from Australia.
Five-thirty: the hour is beautiful. Birds can be heard, and milkmen, but in the melting inkiness of the house you know you have beaten the city. Australia comes to us like a secret, crystalline. The cricketers in their whites are more defined than elsewhere. The sound of the ball pitching is harder; the thump into the wicketkeeper's gloves - fingers facing up - louder.
The slips are in conspiracy. They are chewing gum. They have paint on their faces and casual, staring eyes. In the background are bikinis, sombreros. There are banners in the crowd. They bear the word "curry". The commentators are talking smartly with broad vowels, asking us to buy framed photographs of matches gone by. "Edged and taken!" The warriors are in superior celebration. The batsman is out "fishing", an activity he is happy to avoid in his homeland. There's a cartoon duck waddling across the screen, spilling blue tears.
In the evenings we, kids, play in the building compound. There is a chatter of commentary. Occasionally Michael Holding or Geoffrey Boycott appear, but only for their eccentricity. We talk in Aussie. "Edged and taken!" - no matter that we play against a wall, or that no Aussie would recognise a syllable of our twang. Some among us can barely speak English. But even they can say "Bang!" like Bill Lawry. Richie Benaud is too sober for us. Lawry has our pulse. "It's all happening at the WACA!" Tony Greig, too - "It's a biggie!" - is he not Australian?
This is our sole interaction with Australia. We know nothing of Australia otherwise. I am in love with the song "Forgotten Years" but who is to imagine it has been created by Australians?
Session by session, season by season, Australia reveals its meaning. Australia means success; a state of being victorious. Huddled together in defeat we young friends ask each other questions. "How do they do it?" "Why can't we do it?" We agonise over this. "Why must we be let down?" We have a pretty decent player called Sachin Tendulkar. He has everything a batsman needs. But Steve Waugh, we decide, he has balls. How are we to grow Australian testicles? The world will not count us without them.
The years are rolling by. Australia slaps us with its meaning. We are growing older, our country is growing younger, faster. People are talking about the economy. Our television stations are multiplying and the internet is here and every day they are telling us more about Australia. Australia is mateship, one for all and all for one, a number stitched on a shirt and beneath the crest; it is kissing the crest in a moment of accomplishment, like Michael Slater at Lord's, and hitting a double-century while puking on the pitch, like Dean Jones in Madras. Australia is aggression, and ambition.
Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman are saying things like "no worries" and "cheers, mate". The "mate" is tending just a little bit towards "myte"
The sportswriters sometimes quote from John Arlott: "Australianism… 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." If what John Arlott wrote half a century ago was true then, and is true now, is it not an indisputable, perpetual truth?
The year 2000 is the high noon of Australian triumph. We are in a shambles. Our former captain, Azharuddin, has sold his country. Our current captain, Tendulkar, has been defeated so severely in Australia that he resigns. Australia is an immense thing, we are learning, a superculture. It has a superstructure: academies, centres of excellence. They have superadministrators, looking out for "all stakeholders". Theirs is a supermedia, guarding its territory like dogs, attacking all comers. They have supercricketers - spitters and cussers - who ingest a secret element that turns a talent into a champion. Above all their team is a superteam, led by a supercaptain, who invokes the green headgear as a call to prayer and to arms. We must plot all of this. The nation looks to Australia.
We will bring Brisbane to Bangalore and build a National Cricket Academy. The course is designed by Rod Marsh. From this academy we will send our brightest students on scholarships. To Australia. We will have not just our students coached but also our coaches. By Australians. They will issue us level-three certificates. In our academy for fast bowlers the guru is Dennis Lillee. Bit by bit we will make the superstructure.
We get a new captain. He has been scarred by Australia. They - the players, the press - have humiliated him in his youth. He knows that to be Australia, you have to beat Australia. He knows, this Ganguly, that Australia is aggression. He is telling the youths of his team this.
He is joined by a new coach, from New Zealand. It is sound logic: a New Zealander must know this enemy best? Even his name is appropriate: Wright. John Wright knows that to beat Australia, you have to be Australia. One day he mounts a chair in the dressing room. "You don't look up to them," he tells the team, "you f*****g look down on them." Andrew Leipus of Adelaide, a physiotherapist, gives the players bleep tests, takes them to the gym. Sandy Gordon, a psychologist from Perth, tells them that during competitions the great teams stay in a "f*** you" mode. The boys love it. He gives them a motto. "Never take a backward step." The emu and the kangaroo do not step backwards, and are they not on the Australian coat of arms?
Our cricketers are migrating: in their thoughts, habits and speech. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman are saying things like "no worries" and "cheers, mate". The "mate" is tending just a little bit towards "myte". Their vocabulary at press conferences is changing. They are no longer talking about innings; they speak only of partnerships. They are enjoying the process, they are controlling the controllables. The Australians taunt them with dirty words and the words slip off them like satin.
Ducks are no longer waddling across our screens. We are fishing less, spearing more. Dravid makes 305 runs in Adelaide: Australia are defeated in Australia. He talks into the camera like a soldier. His India blue has the aura of the mythical green. Steve Waugh retrieves the match ball from the gutter and hands it to him. Afterwards, in his final, mammoth memoir, Waugh offers the foreword to Dravid. "He gave grit a good name," Dravid writes. We have earned respect.
These years are the years of inspiration, heroism. We have fought epic battles, performed epic deeds, won some, lost some. Everyone has been in thrall. Our spirits have soared and slackened like sheets in the wind, and now we have moved towards parity. This is going to get nasty.
The teams fight like cocks. They leap and flutter and scratch and peck. Like cocks they want to fight till death. People are baying. If the Australians curry-bash, Indians will monkey-call. One week in Sydney, in 2008, it is alleged that one brat has called another a monkey, a racist insult. The Indians claim he only insulted the other guy's mother, which is deemed more acceptable. This is the dispute. It is bigger than brat versus brat, team versus team. This is nation versus nation, superculture versus superculture.
To our surprise it emerges that the Australian supercaptain is a thing of the past. His response to the confrontation is to rat to teacher. The bully can't handle it. He refuses to sort it out among the boys. He wants to initiate legal proceedings, claim damages. All those things we learned - "We play hard on the pitch but at the end of the day we're in the dressing room for a tinny, mate" - what has happened to them? Do they forget what they preach? He's making a mistake, Ricky Ponting. He has no idea. Our superadministrators will outmanoeuvre his. Our supermedia will smash his. We will outshout them. On the internet we will outnumber them. We are like ants around a mango, eating it from all sides.
It is a superculture in descent versus a superculture in ascent. Ours is a resounding victory. We are able to choose umpires, call off tours, change constitutions. They kept us out too long. They vetoed us away. It is our time. Demographics, markets, consumers; all are on our side. The superadministrators are ours. We realise we can more than merely defeat them: we can own them. We will build such a big thing they will have to come.
They are making for the boat from all over the world for the Indian Premier League. The Australians are lining up by the dozen. They are up for auction, like cows. Old and young, retired and not, they are being bought for heaps. They are the prized ones, the Australians, coming to bat, bowl and field; they are the coaches and the captains - kings, who are also bearers of our palanquin.
There are fireworks in the sky. On television the commentators are selling things, like in the dawns of our past, but not memorabilia - pieces of cricket itself. A real-estate developer has bought the six. A mobile phone company owns the catch. We cannot arrange for bikinis in the crowd, but we can arrange Caucasian cheerleaders in short skirts who dance with pompoms, spreading glitter. A bloke called Shaun Marsh becomes the tournament's top scorer. His team is owned by an Indian film actress. Shane Warne wins the title, and the most valuable player is Shane Watson, for a team bought by another Indian film actress. Shauns and Shanes and Adams. The glory is theirs, but like labourers in tinsel and tiaras they are also glorifying us, doing our bidding. This is what the supermedia is telling us: that the ultimate glory is ours.
But it is hollow. It feels impure somehow. We have mutated into something that we, the kids in the building compound, now old, can barely recognise. We are rising and rising. Our ambition has bloated us into a giant, or perhaps a monster. Australia is falling and falling. They were the standard; they gave us something to aim at. We are thinking, fools in nostalgia, of the epic battles, of the days when we ennobled each other, when we were peeling the layers and seeing what we were made of. The hardest years, the roarin' years, we think: those should not be forgotten years.
This article first appeared in Australia: Story of a Cricket Country, published November 2011.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan and the novel The Sly Company of People Who Care