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March 8, 2001

Cricket with the 'mates'

Roshan Paul

"Shane Warne is a hero for fat bastards everywhere...when
he was my age, he was sitting down in front of the TV
and watching cricket over a beer and fries."

As Shane Warne waltzed down the pitch in his inimitable way to clobber Harbhajan Singh for yet another six, I looked behind me in amusement to see who had made the comment. There were three fellow college students at a table, each with a mug of Foster's before him. But that outrageous description of Warne - a term made famous by Austin Powers 2 - had to have come from the one whom himself had a mountain of French fries in front of him and whose waist size, I would wager, was double his age. No wonder he adores "Whaarney", I chuckled to myself.

You have to be a die-hard cricket fan or a masochist to be able to watch your cricket team play against the Australians these days. And when you happen to be a relatively scrawny Indian boy sitting in a pub in an Australian university, surrounded by brawny beer-drinking Australians yelling "Whaarney" as the chubby blond spinner proceeded to conquer his personal final frontier, it is even more intimidating.

Sigh...I have two more Tests of this to endure.

It was an interesting three days, however. Amongst Australians here in Sydney, the 5-0 drubbing of the West Indies has produced a desire to see an actual contest against their record-breaking team. A number of people I spoke to referred to the West Indian series as a "joke" and all of them thought India at home would be quite a challenge. One of these locals was my philosophy professor, a young woman definitely not older than 30, who introduced herself to the class by saying, "The only thing you need to know about me is that I'm obsessed with cricket. So, we're going to wind up this class early to allow me to make it back home before the game starts."

She kept her word.

The match was being shown on a giant screen in my university's bar. I was peacefully sitting at a table minding my own business and wincing in anguish as Gilchrist and Hayden reminded me how much we are missing Kumble's accuracy when a glass of beer and a cricket ball thudded simultaneously onto my table, the noise making me jump in alarm.

I looked up to see a guy three times my size sit down next to me, without waiting for an invitation. Noting his size, I decided discretion was the better part of valour, and anyway, I welcomed the company. His name was Anthony and for all his bulk, he was actually only 19-years old. He proudly showed me the black armband he was wearing in tribute to The Don's death. (He wasn't the only person wearing an armband, I noticed.)

He began to quiz me on the Indian spinners and what I thought of them. He was watching Harbhajan Singh bowling as we talked and he rather suddenly remarked, "At least, he doesn't chuck like Muralitharan," startling me as much with the vehemence with which he spoke as with the statement itself. I attempted to turn the tables back on him by arguing that Brett Lee too bent his elbow at times. This, he argued, was all right because all bowlers "threw" their "impact ball". Again I argued, saying that you can't have a rule against something and allow some people to break it occasionally, but all logic was wasted on him.

To give him credit, though, he was also very knowledgeable about cricket in general and spoke lucidly about several issues. The conversation drifted back to the Australians' chances of winning the series and he said that it all depended on the batting. "Our bowlers can get your team out easily enough but it's the batting I'm worried about."

He went on to say that the top three Australians probably held the key to the series. According to him, Hayden is a poor player of spin bowling but his sheer size allows him to get away with the lack of technique. "So, he'll be fine but Slater and Langer don't have a clue which way the ball is turning." And so far, young Anthony has been right.

As the celebrated Indian batting line-up collapsed on the first day, it struck me how much respect Tendulkar generates in this country. After each wicket fell, the Aussies around me would smile and nod to each other, as if they had expected it all along. No overt delight, though.

But, when McGrath induced the edge from Tendulkar after that blistering innings of 76, the bar erupted. Beer flew everywhere as those around me jumped to their feet yelling with joy, embracing total strangers and chanting "C'mon, Aussie, C'mon." The contrast to the reaction when Ganguly or Dravid got out couldn't have been greater. The Aussies firmly believe India has one batsman only, but they also agree that Tendulkar is by far the best in the world and is the only obstacle in Steve Waugh's way to making it 18 successive wins.

Let's hope they're wrong.

Postscript: Every Aussie I spoke to is thoroughly disgusted with Michael Slater's behaviour. The break-up of his marriage is quite public here in his hometown and everyone seems to believe that that was the cause of the outbreak, no matter how much Slater denies it. As one lady put it, "If he behaves like that at home, I'm not surprised she left him!"

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh   

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