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Waugh on India’s cricket obsession

Although it was more than 30 years ago, Steve Waugh remembers his first encounter with India as clear as day.The then-rising star from the western suburbs of Sydney, barely out of his teens and sporting a mullet, had made his Test debut against the touring Indian team in the 1985 Boxing Day Test at the…

Although it was more than 30 years ago, Steve Waugh remembers his first encounter with India as clear as day.

The then-rising star from the western suburbs of Sydney, barely out of his teens and sporting a mullet, had made his Test debut against the touring Indian team in the 1985 Boxing Day Test at the MCG. Less than a year later he found himself weaving through the madness of Mumbai on a tour bus on the way to the Australian team’s hotel, an experience he now describes as “having my senses assaulted”.

“It’s very vivid,” he says of his first impression. “The smell was different, I looked around in the traffic and no one was staying in their lane or stopping at red lights or pedestrian crossings, there were people swarming on the streets and beggars around and cats and dogs and animals everywhere. And there were kids playing cricket in every possible place. It was like there was so much going out outside you couldn’t even take it in or comprehend what was happening around you.”

It was the beginning of what has become an enduring love affair between the cricketing great and the world’s second most populous nation, one the photography enthusiast has now documented in a new book The Spirit Of Cricket and the accompanying documentary, Capturing Cricket, which airs on the ABC tomorrow night.

Waugh has lost count of the times he has returned to the country – he estimates around 50 – both during his long playing career (which also ended against India 168 Test matches later) and as a businessman and philanthropist. While he doesn’t quite get the rock star treatment he once received – “as a player it’s fanatical, it’s a bit like the Beatles landing at the airport” – as the documentary shows, he can’t go more than a few steps without someone in the cricket-mad nation of 1.3 billion bailing him up for a selfie.

The great Indian batsman Rahul Dravid observes in the documentary that while the English might have invented cricket, Indians were born to play it. Waugh agrees, saying it’s the bond that unites a country of vast geographical variety, in which 26 languages are spoken and the disparity between rich and poor is sometimes shocking. On his 18-day tour of the country, in which he and photography mentor Trent Parke took more than 20,000 pictures, Waugh travels the length and breath of the country, surviving bouncers from monks at the foothills of the Himalayas and negotiating the 22 simultaneous games on the dusty pitches of Mumbai’s Azad Maidan grounds.

“I think it’s because you don’t have to have a lot of money to play cricket,” Waugh says of the level of obsession, which took over from hockey as the national sport after Kapil Dev’s unheralded team unexpectedly won the World Cup in 1983. “Anyone can play, you just need a bat and a ball and imagination and enthusiasm and energy and you can get a game going. You can make your stumps out of fence palings or bricks or get a bit of chalk and draw it on the wall and away you go.

“When you get a bat or a ball in your hands, everyone is equal. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done or where you come from, anyone is capable of hitting a four, anyone is capable of getting you out and it really is a huge leveller.”

As one of the few players to venture outside the team hotel bubble early in his career, the relentlessly curious Waugh came face-to-face with the overwhelming poverty in India, and came to realise how privileged, if simple, his upbringing had been hanging out with his equally sports-mad mates. A meeting with the revered Mother Teresa helped spark a passion for philanthropy that continues to this day, through a long association with the Udayan home and school for leprosy affected children and the Steve Waugh Foundation, which helps children with rare diseases in Australia.

“You do realise that you live a privileged life and you’re lucky to have amazing lifestyles as professional sportspeople and if you can give back then I think you should try to do that,” he says. “That’s always been important to me – and particularly when you see so many people living below the poverty line in India and that’s why cricket is important because it gives you a connection to their national sport and their heroes.”

Tensions have at times run high between the fiercely competitive Indian and Australian national teams in recent years, leading to some ugly incidents on the field. Ahead of this summer’s tour, Waugh says that just goes to show how much is at stake and the former Australian captain, a notorious sledger himself in his day, says “I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing”.

“There is a lot of media, a lot of scrutiny, a lot of pressure to do well and I think in those situations emotions definitely can bubble over,” he says. “You want passion from your players – it’s drawn attention to the fact that the Border-Gavaskar series is really sought after and highly prized and people want to win it. Maybe at times it’s gone a bit too far but overall, it’s played in a really good spirit between Australia and India and brings the countries closer together, which is really important for Australia.”

Capturing Cricket, Steve Waugh In India, tomorrow, 8.30pm, ABC

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