I remember coming across a glossy, glass-bound issue of ‘The Cricketer’ magazine at the British Council Library in Thiruvananthapuram years ago and not being able to take my eyes off the spectacular picture adorning the back cover. It showed a panoramic view of the Sydney Cricket Ground in floodlit glory. I wondered how great an experience it must be to actually watch a match, sitting in that magnificent theatre of a venue. This wish bore fruit for me recently as I attended the 2nd Test between India and Australia at the SCG. The game had its nerve-racking moments of elation and agony galore, but sadly it will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
1882 was when a Test was first staged at the SCG. That great son of New South Wales, Sir Donald Bradman, recorded the highest first class score on this ground, 452 against Queensland in 1928. When my company hosted the Christmas dinner for its Sydney clients in November last, it did so at the exclusive Members’ Box room at the SCG. We had the ebullient Tasmanian Max Walker – former Test cricketer, footballer, architect, radio host and author as MC for the evening. Also present was Dean Jones. Maxie reminisced how in that very room Kerry Packer and the lads had sowed the seeds of World Series Cricket exactly thirty years ago. Over the years the SCG has witnessed many outstanding feats in Tests – Brian Lara’s first Test century of 277 run out back in ‘93, Allan Border completing his 10,000th Test run, Steve Waugh emulating the same later on, etc. Waugh played his last Test here, against India in ‘04. It was here that three of the all-time greats from three departments of the game, Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh had together hung up their boots in a Test against Pakistan, back in ‘84. Early last year, bowling legends Shane Warne and Glen McGrath had had their swansong outing in the last Test of the Ashes here. India had not fared very badly at the ground. The first visit of an Indian team to the SCG was under Lala Amarnath in ’48. Our only win though was in ’77. Then Bishen Singh Bedi’s Indians had beaten a depleted Aussie team under Bob Simpson who, at 41, was pulled out of retirement. In ’92 a young Tendulkar dashed off 148 not out here while giving support to the senior Ravi Shastri who notched up his only Test double hundred. Twelve years later Tendulkar again set the ground ablaze with 241 not out, the highest score by an Indian on Aussie soil as India ran up their record score of 705 for 7 declared.
A bronze statue of Richie Benaud was inaugurated at the ground during the ’08 match in the presence of the great former captain himself. The Hill grandstand, The Walk of Honor, the tennis courts, the swimming pool, bars, all add to the charm of the ground. It stands beside the Sydney Football Stadium, another landmark in the city. The 2007-8 series saw India losing the opening encounter at Melbourne in 4 days and the Aussies were on a high. It was Ponting and crew’s 15th Test win in a row. After cleanly sweeping South Africa, Bangladesh, England and Sri Lanka, they were now looking forward to thrashing India twice to equal their own record of 16 consecutive wins set under Steve Waugh seven years ago. India had a new captain in seasoned warhorse Anil Kumble. He had won his first series as skipper, a home one, against Pakistan. Touring teams have found it tough to beat Australia in Australia. However the Border-Gavaskar trophy has been keenly contested in recent times. The Indian team boasted of five seniors with a combined experience of 568 Tests and who were on possibly their last tour Down Under. There was much to look forward to in the series therefore.
All roads led to Moore Park on 2nd Jan. The match attracted a crowd of 30,000 each day. VIP attendees on the first day included Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, former PM John Howard and Her Majesty’s Governor General Michael Jeffrey. ‘Serve from Merv,’ a series of ads on crowd etiquette featuring Merv Hughes regularly appeared on the big screen. Milo conducted tiny tots’ cricket practice and contests during lunch intervals. Volunteers of the Glen McGrath Breast Cancer Foundation had stalls set up in the park. Betting booths attracted the usual enthusiasts. The sight in the middle that greeted an early bird like me every morning was of the dapper duo of Ravi Shastri and Rameez Raja. These lookers in their trendy ties did their bit of pitch inspection as a kickoff to commentating for Channel 9. The sun shone on all days except some parts of the fourth day when it actually rained. I found myself seated in one of the concourses of the Messenger Stand and completely baked in the scorching heat before even noontime set in. I must say this is among the most unruly sections of the crowd, heavily Aussie and perennially reeking of Victoria Bitter. To me it was a study in mob psychology on the side that I chose to undertake. Let me tell you the Australian fan is a fiercely jingoistic creature who would not want any team to win but his. One has to see to believe the decrying and demonizing of opposition players. It is hardly healthy. Maybe matters are different in the more civilized sections like the Members’ pavilion but the truth is I would not have enjoyed the tussle from there. Here I could go primal, thump my applause of appreciation on the aluminum fence for every Indian boundary and wicket,sometimes even instigating my Aussie friends into insecure chants of ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie/ Oi Oi Oi!’ for no apparent reason. Insanely chilled beer and Sydney dogs – hot dogs slapped with coleslaw and considerable shavings of cheese – provided succor from the rising heat and hunger. Catcalls, wolf whistles, Mexican waves, rhythmic clapping, teasing of cops and volleying of giant balloons and balls lightened tedious sessions. Two suntanned blondes showing off in Oz flag bikinis garnered more attention than the men in whites at one point. The Indians who guarded the deep in my vicinity included Saurav Ganguly and Ishant Sharma. While the latter was taunted by the crowds for his boyish looks and skinny disposition (‘Hey Shaa’ma, wanna eat some lunch, mate?’ ‘Go back to high school kiddo’, ‘Stick-man!’) Ganguly understandably is the one they just loved to loathe. ‘Hey Gangoooly, retire!’ ‘Go back to Bollywood(sic)’ ‘Chaaa-ppell, Chaa-ppell’ and such war cries rent the charged air. Since the giant scoreboards and public address systems beamed messages warning patrons against racial abuse, some of the lads were curiously mellowed in their outbursts ‘I am sorry mate’, a bare-chested neighbor bloke with green and gold paint all over his face said to me, ‘your Dravid is a @#$% ’. This was when ‘The Wall’ was chiseling a painstaking fifty off 160 balls, like a born-again Boycott from hell. For once I almost concurred. ‘I didn’t pay for this, I came to watch Tandoori bat!’ yelled his chum, emptying a tube of sun cream on himself. As if in answer to his prayers Dravid got out and in strode the gladiator for whom the whole stadium rose as one man and applauded.
A midget of a cricketing He-man, a towering genius with an overweight willow, there stood Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar – the subcontinent’s biggest icon for nearly two decades now. The Little Master has had a special bond with the SCG. Laxman’s century on Day 2, his third in as many SCG appearances, was the most brilliant innings of the match, resplendent with flowing grace and elegance. Tendulkar’s unbeaten 154 on the other hand was a study in patience and temperament. His 38th hundred, on course of which he completed 2000 runs against Australia, was followed by Hayden equaling the Don with his 29th ton. Hussey, a latecomer to Tests who had to score 15,000 first class runs before earning his baggy green cap, continued to make up for lost time. This man with the biggest average after Bradman, the Victorian they call ‘Mr. Cricket’ carved a ton yet again. The other centurion of the match was eventual Man of the Match Symonds who benefited from a bad umpiring decision to hit a career best 162, in the process retrieving his country out of the opening day doldrums of 134 for 6. There were fine bowling performances in the form of a five wicket haul by Bret Lee and four wickets by Kumble (twice) and Rudra Pratap Singh. Occasional bowler Michael Clarke drove the final nail in India’s coffin with a freak figure of 3 for 5, eerily reminiscent of his 6 for 9 at Mumbai in 01. The Pandora’s Box opened on Day 3 with the host team lodging a racism complaint against India’s strike spinner Harbhajan Singh – a case of the pot calling the kettle black! But the real pain in the neck for India was Jamaican umpire Steve Bucknor proving their bugbear yet again. Out of the 12 wrong decisions taken in the match by him and his English partner Benson, 9 went against India. Some of these were during the crucial final innings chase. Added to this was the aggression of the Aussie players who wanted to pull off this 16th straight win by hook or crook. Indian fans watched mouths agape as Ponting appealed over a grassed catch, prompted the umpire to rule a batsman out over a doubtful call and threw all gentlemanliness to the winds. ‘Team India c Benson b Bucknor’ screamed the Indian Express back home. The row reached its nadir when the ICC slapped a three Test ban on Harbhajan even in the absence of substantial evidence for his allegedly calling Symonds a monkey. India did its bit in retaliation, complaining about spinner Brad Hogg’s verbal insult of Kumble. They also demanded that Bucknor, the long serving umpire dubbed ‘Slow Death’ for the time he takes in signaling dismissals, be stood down for the rest of the series. BCCI suspended the tour. The tail wagged the dog as ICC considered the fervent plea and reinstated Harbhajan pending appeal, while relieving Bucknor of his Perth Test duty. The respectable Peter Roebuck writing in the Sydney Morning Herald implored Ponting to step down from the captaincy. At the Press Conference that evening the normally restrained Kumble could not help remarking wryly that ‘only one team out there was playing cricket’. This comment which harked back to the infamous Bodyline series made the local media dub the present one the ‘Bollyline’ series. One wishes that these unfortunate incidents had not occurred to mar a great match which saw 1606 runs being scored as 37 wickets fell. Looked at from that angle it was cent vasool for the paying public. One beacon that shines amidst the final day’s mess is the outstanding leadership of Kumble. The quiet maestro led from the front, scalping 8 wickets, which took his tally to 100 against Oz and 599 overall. His defiant, unbeaten 45 was worth more than his Oval century the previous year. I hold it in the same league as Shastri’s 48 in the Tied Test. But alas it was for a losing cause. The ‘Swamy Army’ went home a disappointed lot. It just was not cricket, this loss. Exhausted from all those days in the sun I soothed my tired bones by plunging into the sea at Bondi beach, the trusted refuge of all wearied souls in this part of roo country.
Tailpiece: Today’s Daily Telegraph carried a cartoon showing two monkeys. One of them has his lips smeared with white sun cream. The other says to him, ‘Get that zinc off. You look nothing like Andrew Symonds.’