August 31, 2000


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Country first

Rohit Brijnath

To understand Australia, to get under that rawhide skin and reach out and feel its pounding, sporting heart, is to watch footy (or Australian Rules Football).

It is a sport like no other, somehow pleasing in its brutality, as if the ghosts of Roman gladiators who battled to death in coliseums have returned to haunt us. Elbows meet ribs, heads clash, teeth rattle, knees jar, collisions that have no pads, guards, shields, helmets, to soften them. But you play on. Robert DiPierdonenico plays a footy match with a punctured lung. It's a Grand Final, you'd need a posse of policemen to get him off.

Everyone watches. Knee high kids, wizened great-grandmothers, busy politicians, other sportsmen, for eventually, you sense, this is what they want to be. As if the Aussie football player is the highest form of Australian manhood. As if they set the standard on machismo.

One night on The Footy Show, a weekly, two-hour Channel 9 television programme that is a national addiction, a footy player produces a small trophy in the form of a gold-coloured boot. Ah, you think, this is a reward for some gifted player?

Well, hmmm, actually, not really.

The boot is presented to a player who the previous night got a massive kick in the crotch during a game, and the plaque on the trophy reads, "When 16 inches between your legs is too much." The player is asked if he's touched on receiving the award, and he replies, laughing, "Yes, I'm very emotional, the memory brings tears to my eyes."

Whining here is not acceptable, cringing doesn't exist, excuses won't work. It comes perhaps from a young, 212-year-old country's need to reassert itself. Hardship in a harsh land is a way of life, met with a laconic drawl. Ask an Aussie about a tornado that blew down his house, and he'll respond, "Bit of a breeze last night, wasn't it."

One of sports most spouted cliches is "giving 100%"; here it's equivalent to a national sporting anthem. Losing does not bring capital punishment---Ron Clarke never won Olympic gold but remains a national icon---but not giving effort does. As Davis Cup captain John Newcombe once told his players, "Roy Emerson once told me that if you lose when playing for Australia you better leave your blood on the court."

You see this uncompromising stance in Steve Waugh's batting; you see it in Lleyton Hewitt's refusal to accept defeat; you see it in 1992 Olympics 1500m swimming gold medallist Keiren Perkins, suffering from a viral fever, managing the last qualifying place in the Australian trials for the 1996 Olympics, and then winning gold again at the Games.

And you see that in javelin thrower Louise Currey, winning silver in Atlanta with a fracture in the spine, and now back in training 10 days after knee surgery desperate to compete in Sydney. As she says: "The pain of physiotherapy and the pain I will go through to get there is insignificant to the pain of missing out." And so, as The Age in Melbourne described, "she sleeps with her knee iced and elevated to reduce the swelling, and changes the ice pack three times at night."

There exists a highly developed sense of Australian identity. Not a rah-rah, chest-beating, patriotism but a specific understanding that country precedes the individual, that their cause is not personal but Australian.

It is what makes for formidable teams, bound as they are by that invisible glue called mate-ship. For the Aussie to abandon the team is a sin beyond redemption.

In 1999, Mark Philipoussis won both his singles in the final to secure Australia the Davis Cup and owned every front page; seven months later, when he, known for being a lone ranger, cited an injured knee as his reason for not playing against Brazil in the Cup semi-finals he was ridiculed by his teammates. Injured knee, jeez mate, so what, there isn't a body-part of Patrick Rafter that doesn't squeak or groan. By the end of the tie there were suggestions that the team might remain unchanged for the final. The message: Philippoussis's added presence might increase their chances but decrease their spirit.

Incredibly---and I say that because it's unnoticeable elsewhere---these tentacles of mate-ship extend from one sport to another. Last winter, Patrick Rafter, swimmers, hockey players attended Australian cricket team dinners. This year Steve Waugh has been invited to give inspirational talks to the hockey team, rugby team and a footy team.

It is not new. In the mid-1980s, when Neale Fraser wanted his Pat Cash-led Davis Cup team to be fired up, he invited John Bertrand, skipper of the boat that had just won the famed America's Cup, to talk to them on the eve of the final against Sweden. Australia won. So what if they are men from disparate sports? They recognise a kinship, that they are all bearers of a common flag, safe-keepers of the green and gold shirt.

It is unlike India where interaction is minimal, the cricketers in seventh heaven, the rest mere mortals. Unlike India too, where the past is quickly dismissed, where the men who built its sporting history piece by sweating are swiftly abandoned - - - imagine, three Delhi players only at Lala Amarnath's funeral? --- here they draw deeply from it.

Tradition has its value, and Steve Waugh speaks often, and with obvious pride, of the fact that the baggy green cap he wears once was perched on the heads of great men like Donald Bradman and Keith Miller. He finds strength in his history; he knows too that to play with heart and courage is to honour his past.

The Australian hero has his respect, but there is no coddling like the sub-continent, no hysterical worship of the individual (well, of Bradman, yes). I once spent an evening with Ian Chappell and Mark Taylor at a Hobart bar, and was amazed by everyone's disinterest in them and the casual "Ian, how you going?" remarks passing strangers would direct at Chappell.

Heroes are nice but sentiment and performance are rarely confused. Ian Healy had a chance to play his last Test before his beloved home crowd in Brisbane. Didn't happen. Shane Warne is almost an Indian Tendulkar here, but when his form hiccuped in the West Indies, he was dropped. Now then, Tendulkar could go 10 innings under 15 runs and the first man who said 'drop him' would be guillotined.

It is hardly that sport here has found its ultimate expression. Surely not. The Australian player is known on occasion to be undisciplined (Rafter appearing for a dead Davis Cup match still drunk from the previous evening), indulge in dubious practices (Warne and Mark Waugh taking money from a bookie), take drugs (an Australian discus thrower alleges he was warned about when tests would be held); the Australian player can also be arrogant, overbearing, excessively aggressive, expecting the world to live by their motto of 'play hard and have a beer (make that many beers) later', when other cultures (India, for instance) don't quite see it that way.

But in a sporting world swimming in hype, corrupted by big money, there is a purity here that is becoming.

That Australia are champions in rugby (1999 World Cup), in one-day (1999 World Cup) and Test cricket, in men's and women's hockey (1999 Champions Trophy), in tennis (1999 Davis Cup), in surfing, and God knows what else, is anything but a coincidence.

Rohit Brijnath

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