Roving reporter

The ABC of cricket

Rahul Bhatia watches the rain, and the elections in the United States, at the ABC commentary box

A rainy day and the groundstaff were under pressure © Getty Images
Jim Maxwell, Glenn Mitchell and Harsha Bhogle stare intently at the television as meaningful numbers flash, only to be replaced by other important figures. A map of the United States appears, divided into red or blue blocks. Kerry has 252 votes, and bleary-eyed news anchors tell us that there's more counting to be done.
"Tell me," says Harsha, "why does it take so long to count these votes?" Because the candidates' legal teams are involved, someone offers. So what's the difference between them and the BCCI, another asks. The drizzle outside creates a misty atmosphere within the stadium, and beyond it there are fans bunched together. A cup of steaming coffee arrives.
"In Australia, we'd have the covers off in 30 minutes ... 45 max," says Mitchell, leaning back in his chair, rubbing his beard as he observes the bleak picture unfolding outside the tiny commentary box. He's been with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for 15 years. He and Maxwell make an odd couple. He's young, unshaven, wearing shorts and a shirt, and talkative, while Maxwell, who's been with ABC for 30 years, is fifty-ish, less vocal, and clad in chequered blue trousers. Maxwell is also less restless right now. Mitchell can't believe a light drizzle has stopped play.
"What happened today, at this ground, is an absolute farce. In Australia, England, South Africa, the ground would have been ready for play 90 minutes earlier. When it started to rain today... there would have been a tractor pulling out a trailor, and the covers would have been laid within 20 seconds. What's the point of having 240 million dollars in the bank if you can't play cricket?"
"Riddikilous!" Maxwell chimes in, not looking up from a recorder he's fiddling with. "Simply riddikilous!" The man from the BBC pops in. "Any official announcement on the state of play?" Nah, we reply.
Some timed the groundstaff's reaction time at six minutes. Others claimed seven passed between raindrops hitting the ground and harried staff scurrying to lay out the covers. One story had it that the men in charge were sipping tea somewhere, unaware that it was drizzling, and that the match referee was horrified when he found out - but this hasn't been confirmed.
"What do you think the TV channel will be saying about it?" questions Maxwell, pointing at the covers. "What about them?" Mitchell counters, pointing at the silent spectators. "No refund!" Four overs have been bowled so far, and even if they do resume, not many more will be delivered. A man at the ticket counter where the sign says "Rs 700" says there's no refund. Even if there's no play? Even if there's no play.
"In Australia, if you don't get 25 overs bowled, you get a refund." Mitchell's flow is interrupted by a roar, hoots, whistling, the works. The umpires walk to the middle, and then walk away. "People here probably can't afford tickets as much as people in Australia can. We've given them four overs, mainly because of the incompetence of the fact that this ground doesn't have a support staff and the necessary equipment. And yet, the BCCI will say `here, have a look at our bank account.' You can have ten billion dollars in the bank, but you'll just have an hour and a half's cricket today.
"These grounds, to be very honest, are a disgrace. Some of the facilities, the toilets and things like that are a disgrace." Where does the money go, Mitchell wonders. "Four hundred million dollars should go back into the development of the game."
He explains how much sport means to Australians. They can't compete on a financial scale, so they try dominating sport instead. "That makes us walk tall." Mitchell has covered golf, tennis, soccer, and explains how competitive sports are even at league level back home.
Maxwell has a simple suggestion about why Australia are good at sport. "It's the climate. The climate." He believes the weather is great for sport. There are wide open areas, the air is breathable, and the water is clean. It all helps.
Bhogle wanders out of the room for a stretch. So how'd he start with the ABC? "He was with us in 1991-92," Mitchell squints as he remembers. "I think he had sent some tapes over, and we picked him. He's very popular in Australia. I think we picked him before anyone else had heard of him in India."
The mood has lifted again, now that we've stopped talking about the BCCI and the ground. I ask about a moving public ceremony where a Baggy Green was presented to Nathan Hauritz by Glenn McGrath. There were tears as the cap was accepted. But Hauritz's inclusion had been questioned before. Was this Australia's best team?
Now there's something, Mitchell says. He was included because Warne broke his thumb. Stuart MacGill was on standby, ready to be flown to India if anything happened to Warne. But the injury occoured the day before the game began, and was diagnosed in the evening. It was too late to get MacGill down. What would have happened if India had won at Chennai and both teams came to Mumbai with the series alive? Would the decision to include Hauritz in the final side have come under increased scrutiny then?
There's another cheer as the covers come off. The writer Peter Roebuck joins the box as Mitchell talks into his microphone to the studio. Play begins shortly afterwards, and Mitchell begins, "McGrath bowls to Tendulkar, who defends it." He goes quiet then, until the next ball is bowled. Why does he do this? They haven't linked to Australia yet, Harsha says. He's just practising. Soon, the evening news in Australia is done and the commentary goes live. Roebuck picks up from Mitchell and, within two overs of play restarting, the talk moves from cricket to how people consume pesticide to commit suicide. Everyone but Roebuck is laughing. Mitchell turns around and evilly says, "See? You can't do that on television!"