|CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 20, 2004|
|Embracing India |
Australian cricketers on the previous tour found a lot to whine about-the noise, food, crowds, heat and dust. But the present bunch has been suitably seduced and is soaking in the desi culture, writes India Today's Anjali Doshi.
On a balmy Wednesday night in Mumbai, Jason Gillespie steps out of the Taj Hotel and heads to a white Qualis. Dressed in shorts, a white tee and Foster's cap, the fast bowler from Adelaide looks like he is on his way to the Wankhede for a net session under lights. But Dizzy, as his teammates know him, is not about to trundle down a pitch and hurl bouncers; he is all set to breeze in and out of Mumbai's pubs.
Mondegar, Leopold, TGIF, Starters and More, Athena: Gillespie fervently accosts each nightspot, signs autographs, poses with excited fans, glugs some beer and goes about his business, basking in the undisguised adulation from Indian fans on his whistle-stop tour of Mumbai's pubs for Foster's. "In Adelaide, people would wave at me if I'm walking down the street. But I've never been mobbed," he says with a lopsided smile.
While Gillespie, like several of his teammates, is undoubtedly reaping the rich financial rewards the Indian sub-continent offers, he says they have all gone the extra length on this tour to renounce the sanctuary of their hotel rooms and take in India. "We're not intimidated or overwhelmed by India anymore," agrees coach John Buchanan. In the five weeks the Australian cricketers have been here, Adam Gilchrist visited a Chennai slum as ambassador of ngo World Vision and was almost tempted to sample some appams off the street, Matthew Hayden cooked risotto for special guests at Mumbai's swank resto-bar Indigo and used the week's break between the second and third Test matches getting ayurvedic massages in Kerala. Shane Warne hosted a barbeque at Café Sesso in Mumbai, Justin Langer visited the B.K.S. Iyengar yoga institute in Pune and Brett Lee spontaneously strummed the guitar for his female fans at Not Just Jazz by the Bay.
This is a far cry from the days when the Australians would relentlessly whine about the rambunctious crowds, constant noise, foreign cuisine and the heat and dust. Arrogant and standoffish, Australian teams were rarely popular in the nations they toured, despised for their boorish behaviour and racist conduct. Reports of them calling locals "niggers" and poking sleeping Indians with their feet on a railway platform in Jamshedpur, as pointed out by Australian writer Malcolm Knox, further reinforced this perception. More recently, Ricky Ponting's brawl in a Kolkata nightclub and Michael Slater's spat with Rahul Dravid attracted much criticism.
On this tour all that seems to have changed. What is making the headlines instead is the Australian batsmen's proclivity to walk without waiting for the umpire's decision and the team and support staff's unbridled enthusiasm to soak in Indian culture. They have been everywhere, from restaurants to pubs to dvd and clothes shops. There are a few who still prefer the comfort of their hotel rooms and a cordoned-off swimming pool but most have been seduced by India. "We made a conscious decision before this tour to get out there and the guys have really enjoyed themselves," says Ponting.
Everyone from Gilchrist to Ponting to Buchanan has talked about "embracing India". Lee wants to learn the sitar, Gilchrist wants to watch a Bollywood flick, and Warne had a field day courting the Chennai crowd, while he was patrolling the boundary, with his imitation of Sachin Tendulkar's stance (minus the tugging at the crotch). Call it making politically correct noises or a genuine effort at assimilating into a foreign culture, there is little doubt it has worked for them. Not only did the team succeed in defeating Sri Lanka 3-0 in their home a few months ago, they pulled off a series win against India after trying for 35 years. "The Australians have shed the widely-held view among previous touring teams that India is all about rats and riots," says veteran Australian cricket journalist Mike Coward. "And adopted a more worldly and mature approach to touring India."
It was former Australian captain, currently chief selector, Allan Border who displayed a certain sensitivity to foreign cultures but the credit for going all out to appreciate India must go to Steve Waugh. His first visit to resurrection home Udayan in Barrackpore near Kolkata during the 1998 tour was the beginning of a legacy that many of his teammates have sought to follow. Right from being involved in charity to sharing their positive experiences with the younger members of the team. "Horror stories about India no longer pervade the dressing room," says Buchanan.
The new attitude stems from Australia's constant interaction with India. In the last eight years, the Australian team has visited India for cricket five times and individual players have shuttled in and out on several occasions for commercial commitments. While cynics like to believe the moolah is driving this attitude change that is only telling half the story. Not only have they been out to explore every city they visited, the team management even hired the services of a yoga trainer for this tour. The willingness to adapt, on and off the field, has been the key to their success. "We were much more patient about everything this time: the noise, crowds, food. Patience with things off the field only helped us focus better with things on the field," Border wrote in a column before the tour began. "The contemporary Australian cricketers have been particularly good at embracing diverse cultures." Not only did the Australians conquer the "final frontier", they topped the popularity stakes as well.