Every year, around late-October-early November, I start feeling a strong sense of anticipation. It’s partly to do with the first stirrings of winter (okay, won’t romanticise this much because I also invariably get change-of-weather flu!) but there’s something else I associate with this time of year – the start of the Australian Cricket Season. Each year, it helps me fall in love with the game all over again.
I became a serious cricket watcher around 1996 and in the early winter of that year I clued in to the fact that if I got up at 5.30 am and switched the TV on I’d be transported to this beguiling land where cricket was so much fresher and more compelling than the proliferating one-day tournaments in the subcontinent. It was the start of my appreciation for Test cricket as well as of many of the finer points of the game. I loved every detail of Channel 9’s breathtaking coverage – the telecast did full justice to the beautiful grounds and the quality of cricket. Sporting pitches too! An even contest between bat and ball. (This was a concept wholly new to me after watching Aamir Khan swing nondescript bowlers out of the park in Awwal Number - and also months of real-life run-gluts between on dead subcontinental pitches where the bowlers needn’t have showed up.)
Each season, one could look forward to some technical innovation or other. And the commentary team, headed by cricket’s Master Yoda, the great Richie Benaud, was nonpareil. Even Tony Greig, who could be so boorish and headache-inducing when he hollered about the exploits of Jayasuriya or Afridi during a Sharjah series, was relatively restrained when sitting next to Benaud. The commentary always managed to be fresh and insightful.
I loved Australia’s contribution to making the game so attractive to watch (both through the coverage and the brilliance of the team’s play). I admired the fact that though the Aussies had laid the groundwork for the ODI revolution in the early 1980s (through the Packer circus), they couldn’t be accused of neglecting the five-day game; Australia has attained a near-perfect balance between its Test and one-day calendar, while other teams still have so much to learn about proper scheduling. I admired how the team usually managed to bowl its quota of overs in time despite relying largely on pace bowlers; it spoke volumes of their professionalism and their sense of purpose.
There was a time when I wouldn’t miss a day of any of the Tests played during the Australian season. I became obsessive: even when working a tiring evening shift a few years ago, I would reach home at 3.30 in the morning, sleep for a couple of hours and then be up in time to watch Australia-New Zealand or Australia-South Africa. Most of the excitement came from the quality of play of Mark Taylor’s (later Steve Waugh’s) team. It was the beginning of an almost irrational idolatry (and of course, all the great idolatries in cricket must be irrational) and for 10 years now I’ve been an Australia supporter. (As a few dismayed friends know, I might have been the only Indian who was sulking on the last day of that Kolkata Test in 2001.)
And now it’s that time of year again, but I’m feeling some trepidation this time. This Australian side is probably on the decline, and if the standard of their play falls considerably I wonder if the cricket season Down Under will ever be as attractive as before. As it is, I’m concerned that Tendulkar’s retirement will mark the end of my interest in the game. An unexciting Australian cricket season would be a serious double-blow.
But it’s time to set those thoughts aside. As I write this, Brian Lara has just come in and is facing up to Glenn McGrath. For now, it's all good.