Published: July 6th 2006October 29th 2004
"Cricket is my religion"
"The stadium is my temple"
"Tendulkar is my God"
So said a banner at a recent Test Match in India. Though India has thousands of Gods and millions of devotees - there is one religion to rule them all - cricket.
Cricket is everywhere - whether they be played on beautiful mown pitches or on the uneven patches of concrete in an alleyway (where I was asked to be an umpire at one stage). There is no escaping it, for every night on television there are several stations which broadcast information about cricket. Normally the easiest way to make friends in a country is to smile - but in India - just mention cricket.
The sheer scale of the nation's passion for the game became obvious when I attended the 3rd test between Australia and India in Nagpur. Being an Australian (who was obviously here for the cricket) made me an instant focal point for a city to outpour its love for the game. At one stage, I passed a school ground and was literally swamped by dozens of children who wanted to shake my hand and sign autographs - and if they didn't have any paper - signing their hand was the next option. It was irrelevant that my own cricket abilities are dismal - the fact was I shared the love for their national game was all that mattered. This attention was also replicated every day I walked to and from the cricket ground - every few steps I was accosted by someone who wanted to shake my hand, know my name, and ask who my favourite cricketer was.
During one of the days of the Test Match, Tim (a like-minded traveller from Brisbane) informed me that he had received an invitation from the All Saints Hostel for the Bishop Cotton School - just across the road from the cricket stadium. The Hostel is a boarding school for those children whose education cannot be fulfilled where they live due to a lack of education infrastructure or stability in their part of India. Tim was asked to bring Brett Lee along (probably the favourite Australian cricketer in India) to have lunch in their dining hall. Being a close substitute ;-p I went in Brett's absence.
Arriving at the Hostel, Tim and I were led into the spotlessly clean and clinical dining area - a long hall with white-washed wall, tall vaulted ceilings and wooden chairs and tables arranged in perfect order. We were shown to a large table where we were served a sumptuous banquet of chicken, vegetables, rice, breads and sweets. Tim and I were quite taken aback by the generosity of the Hostel. Whilst we ate, dozens of dark-eyed, eager-faced children watched over every move - with the older children (whose English was very good) providing the conversation.
Once lunch was complete, we were swamped with requests to write messages in their books. I chose to write something simple and positive such as "follow your dreams" and "be happy". Some books asked personal questions about their new found friend (though the children, as a mark of respect for an elder, constantly addressed me by the title "uncle"). These questions were as diverse a my favourite colour, hobbies, favourite moment, and "dreamlover".
After 90 minutes of writing (and a touch of writer's cramp) the task was complete. So that we wouldn't miss any of the cricket, they turned on the television which was broadcasting the match. This included the bonus of comments from the young boys about the quality or otherwise of Indian bowling, Australian batting and umpiring decisions.
Two hours after we arrived, it was time to leave. This really was an amazing display of hospitality by the All Saints Hostel. In fact, it was indicative of the friendliness and warmth shown by the entire populace of this town. I used to think that Urfa, a Kurdish populated town in Eastern Turkey was the friendliest city on earth - but that was before I came to Nagpur.
In amongst all my fraternizing with the local populace, there was a cricket match going on. Inside the stadium, cricket in India is very different from cricket in Australia. Firstly, there is no alcohol served at the ground, so all those crazy flag-waving Indians you see on the television are not drunk, they are just crazy flag-waving Indians. Secondly, security is a bit more noticeable - plenty of security staff and police carrying lathi sticks wander around the ground - but they spend most of their time watching the game, and very little surveying any possible problems in the crowd. Also, the food choices are far more interesting - samosas, rice dishes, Masala Mix chips, veggie burgers - definitely more appetising and cheaper than the appalling food at Australian grounds. The only down side was a visit to the male toilets, an experience which will never see me complain about the cleanliness of such facilities at Australian sporting venues ever again.
For this test, there were three groups of Australians and a few independent travellers - the three groups were Waving the Flag (my choice) the Fanatics and the Official ACB tour group. All in all, we totalled about 200 - quite small when compared to a stadium of 30,000. For the Australians, we have quite a task trying to equal the noise that the Indians make, because every time one of their batsmen scored a four - it is like being at the Gabba when, deep into the fourth quarter, the Brisbane Lions kick a goal to take the lead.
The ebullience of the locals comes forth in their constant chanting IN-DEE-AH and the extremely fast Mexican Waves, which would zip around the ground in a little under 8 seconds. However, they saved some special treatment to their God, the little master, Sachin Tendulkar. When he strode to the crease on day two, the adoration and expectation of a nation poured forth onto this little man. I think it is a nation's total devotion to their sporting hero which gave him this aura which I had not seen during his games in Australia - and the mere sight of him dwarfed beneath the encircling stands of flag-waving cheering Indians sent a shiver up my spine - it was an amazing moment.
I am not going to go into details about the match, as cricket lovers will already know, and those who do not by this stage, probably don't care, however, it is worth mentioning the last few hours of the test match - which were most memorable.
Chasing an unlikely 542 runs to win, the Indians were floundering at an abysmal 5/37. Usually, such a scoreboard would see your normal sporting crowds leaving the stadium in droves - but not in India. With each wicket, the crowd became more raucous and more intense, and so, by the time the eighth wicket fell, every ball was cheered with feverish intensity - the Indians if any run was scored, the Australians when there was not. When the ninth wicket fell, the chanting of the crowd was a continuous roar, punctuated by deafening screaming every time a run was registered. The noise was more like the Indians closing in on victory, rather than them trying to lessen a devastating defeat. Barring my two Olympic games, this was the most atmosphere I have ever experienced at a sporting event - surpassing even the Rugby League State of Origin, the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix, and the AFL Grand Final.
Finally, with the score at 200, Zaheer Kahn lofted a ball high and long to the boundary. The cheering Indian crowd were silenced by the deliriously screaming Australian supporters who realised that Damien Martyn had taken a catch on the boundary line to give victory to the visitors. It had been 35 long years since Australia had won a series on Indian soil. Some Australian supporters who had travelled the world following their team were overcome with emotion - grown men had tears in their eyes at the realisation that Australia had conquered the final cricketing frontier.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the occasion was that in the hour following the match, at least 100 Indians approached me to congratulate me on the Australian victory. The gracious way the Indians relinquished their dominance over Australia endeared me to their supporters even more.
Afterwards, the Australians in Nagpur gathered together to celebrate. This victory had seen Australia reach the zenith of the cricketing world. It is the first time that any nation had achieved superiority against all nine other test playing teams. This was a day which I was truly honoured to witness - a day when history was created, and memories were born which will last a lifetime.