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Indian Summers-Whispering Jacaranda

To the English, who gave the world the game of cricket, the sound of leather upon willow announced the arrival of summer. To a kid growing up in regional Queensland in the 1960s, it was the explosion of purple Jacaranda blooms. They drifted to earth forming a lavish purple carpet on the streets of my hometown Toowoomba. These, in turn, attracted bees, whose low drone mingled with the cicada hum of crackling descriptions of play on the wireless in our living room. That sound of summer was ubiquitous. My mates and I placed a tiny transistor radio on a fence post beside our improvised backyard cricket pitch where we toiled for hours. Our workload management would incur censure from the army of High-Performance gurus employed in the game nowadays. But what we lacked in technique we made up for in resilience. Entire summer days elapsed in these fiercely contested ‘Tests’.

I had become enthralled by cricket on the radio during the summer of 1962-63. England, or more correctly the MCC was touring Australia. I was only 6 years old but deduced that all the adults in my family and among our neighbours regarded the Test series as being an event of great moment. Conversations invariably commenced ‘Any idea of the score?’ I was an instant and fanatical recruit to the cause.

From the outset, I learnt to loathe the ‘Poms’ and to worship the Australians whom I regarded as invincible as the other Olympian figures of my childhood, the ANZACs. In particular, I gleaned from Dad that Queenslanders like Peter Burge and Ken (Slasher) Mackay were even more admirable than the others. Queenslanders had to be twice as good to make the Test side. Life was a conspiracy against us by ‘Southerners’.

Cricket has since been the golden thread running through my life, which is now in its seventh decade. I still play. I write about it. I love it deeply. And in the summer of 2011-12 when I was at the brink of self-extinction it nurtured me, and its family saved my life. In 2016 I met the arresting and charismatic Marta Dusseldorp to discuss a play and television series about my life. In person, her remote beauty is even more breathtaking than her screen presence in Janet King. Discussing my life with Director Priscilla Jackman, Marta asked, ‘How much cricket is there?’ ‘Lots’ was the reply. ‘It provides the through line.’ That sounds about right.

By the time India arrived in Australia for their 1967-68 Test series, cricket was my absolute passion. I would hit balls against the back fence in what my mother described as an almost trance-like state. I was not seeking to emulate Bradman. I only admired players from my own era. I adored a tall Victorian left-hander, named Bob Cowper. Left-handed kids were regarded as odd and subjected to concerted attempts to convert us to normality. I am glad I did not let on that left-handedness was not the only thing that set me apart from the class. But cricket helped me make sense of the world. Every summer the Jacaranda blossoms evoke that idyllic time of innocence. I can still conjure the aroma of suntan lotion mingling with mosquito coils amid the pervasive lilt of the ABC radio commentary.

Yet, despite my sense of timeless hope and serenity, the world was changing rapidly.  Ultimately not even cricket was able to stand aloof and immune from the social and economic changes underway in 1967 that confounded my parents and their generation. Australia had changed its currency to dollars and cents during the Fifth Test of the Ashes series in February 1966. Sorry, I should explain – as well as providing a ‘through line’ cricket has also given me a cadence and calendar marking the passing of time. Give me a Test match and I can give you the political context of the time and maybe bang out a few bars of the Top 10 hits of the day. If you are really unlucky, that is.

By the time India arrived in December 1967, Britain had announced its withdrawal from East of Suez. Australia was conscripting young men to fight in Vietnam. A young National Service Man, named Errol Noack had been the first conscript killed in Vietnam on my tenth Birthday. And our Prime Minister, Harold Holt had drowned in the surf just before the First Test against the visitors in December 1967. My Mum viewed all of these trends with mounting consternation. She thought we would become a pallid imitation of the United States. We lived with the unease of a potential nuclear exchange. Though according to Mum at least that may have spared us the calamity of becoming a Republic. Many apparent certainties were evaporating. Cricket alone gave me a sense of continuity and transcendence. Yet, over time cricket has succumbed to the same commercial and globalizing forces. Many of those commercial pressures have emanated from the sub-continent from whence came those exotic tourists in 1967.

While concerned at our uncertain geo-strategic environment and the prospect of nuclear Armageddon, I was genuinely alarmed at our relative decline as cricket power. I had imbibed Australian invincibility with the cordial Mum had provided the teams during adjournments in our timeless ‘Tests’. Australian cricket hegemony was crumbling as I fell in love with the game. In rapid succession, we lost to the West Indies in the Caribbean in 1965. That was our first overseas loss to anyone but the Old Enemy, England. Then (inconceivable to me) my heroes, Cowper, Ian Chappell and Graham McKenzie were emphatically beaten by South Africa over there in 1966-67. Of some comfort, we at least we still held the Ashes, which to me were imbued with mystical significance. And we vanquished India comfortably that summer.

In languid insular Queensland, I found the men from the sub-continent incredibly mysterious and romantic. Their Captain was the Nawab of Pataudi. Imagine that will you- a Nawab no less, leading a cricket team with names that defied my tongue. Farokh Engineer. Bishen Bedi. Erapalli Prasanna. And apart from his noble title, there was Pataudi, whose full name was Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. To a kid who thought Toowoomba’s Loo Shan Chinese Restaurant was the pinnacle of cosmopolitan intrigue, the India cricketers propelled me into a new dimension.

Pataudi possessed only one eye, which compelled him to adopt a very square on stance. At the crease, he made George Bailey look blandly orthodox. He lived up to his nickname ‘Tiger’ throughout the series, batting with poise and character against a rampant Graham McKenzie in Melbourne. In addition to his visual impairment, he batted with a torn hamstring in Melbourne and required the assistance of a runner for most of his innings. In those days the Indians were not as physically imposing as the Australians.

Their attack lacked raw pace and was built around spinners such as Bedi and Prasanna. Bedi, who went on to win the hearts of Australian crowds during the tour of 1977-78, wore a brilliant blue turban. In my childish imagination, the Nawab and the turbaned Bedi had leapt straight out of novels about the Raj and the Indian Mutiny. Moreover, Bedi was a left-arm orthodox bowler like me. He went on to play 67 Test Matches, Captaining India 22 times. Quite a record for that era when the schedules were less frantic than today.

Apart from cricket, my only knowledge of India was through the eyes of the colonizing power, Britain. My reading diet comprised the tales of Biggles and assorted Boys Own books, which featured the odd loyal and brave sepoy. But the subcontinent was portrayed as vaguely mysterious and dangerous for the English and implicitly Australians. If Tiger Pataudi’s team had ridden bejewelled elephants to practice I would not have even raised an eyebrow. Over time India has cast off such patronizing stereotypes to be both the dominant financial and administrative power in global cricket. It arrives here as number one ranked Test team.

India’s ineluctable rise to economic, military, and cricket eminence is an inspiring story. An enormous nation of dazzling wealth and dismal poverty, its people unite around their cricket stars. To play for India is to carry the hopes, pride and aspirations of hundreds of millions. Few Australians fully grasp the intensity of India’s love of cricket. The rise of Indian cricket has gone some way to erasing the humiliation of colonization of an ancient and sophisticated civilization. They adopted the game of their oppressors and it has been one of their primary vehicles to assert their national pride. Today, world cricket without the power, prestige and wealth of sprawling, dynamic India is equally unimaginable.

This weekend the jacaranda are in bloom. The bees are buzzing. And another Indian tour fires my imagination and that of our cricket loving public. Just as their nation has grown in strength, so too, contemporary Indian players are bigger, stronger and more athletic than their forebears. India are yet to win a Test series here. This year looks to afford them their best chance ever.

While the Indian form against South Africa was uninspiring, the 4-1 result against England was more lopsided on paper than on the square. They possess some truly classy batsmen and a better- balanced bowling array than they have fielded for some time with genuine pace and spinners of the first rank. Australia’s woes need little elaboration. Our top order looks fragile. Neither Mitchell Marsh or Glenn Maxwell would be regarded as an Australian Test number 6 when our fortunes are at the flood. If we are to leverage the considerable advantage conferred by home grounds, then our fast bowlers will be crucial. They will need to restrict India to modest totals. I will evaluate both teams in more depth later this week. And I will be joined by a dear friend and accomplished Indian cricket journalist Harini Rana for an in-depth analysis of the tourists. Until then…..