Baked Beans in the Garden of Eden

The Yanks call it “baseball on Valium”, while non-believers closer to home refer to it as “organised loafing”. But you’ll get no such irreverence in India.

No matter how often I visit this amazing country, the locals’ passion for cricket never ceases to amaze me. Lack of space doesn’t cramp their style. At any given ground there might be up to four matches in progress, with a fieldsman potentially involved in three matches due to the overlapping fields resembling pairs of tangled bicycles. Imagine being at deep-fine-leg, with not a care in the world, except speculating how you’ll go that night with this absolute knockout you’ve asked out, when some clown from an adjoining game knocks you out attempting to take a classic catch.

Indians are just as passionate about their unpredictable national team’s fortunes as they are about playing the game themselves. Stories abound of Indian teams returning to the Subcontinent after being flogged in England (surely not!), the West Indies or, heaven forbid, Pakistan next door, and copping an even bigger flogging from their waiting “fans”. Occasionally the fans will burn effigies of the players – very occasionally they’ll burn the players themselves.

With the ongoing friction between the two neighbours (a continuation of the partition dramas of 1947), losing to the Pakistanis – even in a game of marbles – is the worst thing an Indian team can do. Indeed, one educated Indian I met bluntly said of Pakistan and the partition: “If you had a poisoned hand, you would cut it off, would you not?” When the two countries were drawn to play a Test match in Delhi in 1999, a Hindu militant, fiercely opposed to any contact with Pakistan, threatened to release sacks of cobras inside the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium to deter fans from turning up.

But it takes more than the odd snake or 50 pitched on a good length to keep most Indians away from the cricket – particularly when they’re winning.  I saw just how fanatical those fans could be when Australia suffered its worst Test loss in the past 77 years, at Kolkata’s magnificent Eden Gardens ground in March 1998.

Having both a knowledge and love of cricket is a must for any visitor to India. Many was the time I was evading yet another pushy carpet seller, shifty moneychanger or snake charmer more aggressive than his coiled comrade, when – thankfully – I chanced upon a group of young lads playing cricket. Surely no self-respecting carpet seller, moneychanger or snake charmer would dream of hassling a bloke while he’s playing cricket.

Realising I was from Down Under, the boys all wanted to put a bat in my hands and knock my stumps over, then put a ball in my hands and hit me for six. They’re optimistic little buggers if they seriously believe they can challenge me – yes, me – on the cricket field.  So much for the bravado – without fail, the boys would knock my stumps over or hit me for six, or generally both.  The one positive was that the pursuing merchants went easy on me after seeing what an ordinary cricketer I was.

Maybe it was delusions of grandeur, more likely my cricketia lackofabilitia affliction, but I once tried to pass myself off as the great Allan Border to an Indian seated opposite me on a train.  Since AB had long since retired, I thought I’d have some fun and a few seconds of fame, without being unmasked for the obvious fraud that I was.

“What country, sir?” my fellow passenger asked me.

“Aus-tra-lia, kan-ga-roo,” I replied, perhaps a tad patronisingly, but I didn’t want him to think I was from the land of Wiener Schnitzel.

“Aus-tra-lia – very good cricket country, sir.  Shane ‘Won’, Steve ‘Wog’, Mark ‘Wog’, Mark Taylor, Ian Healy, Glenn McGrath – all very good cricketers.  And what is your good name, sir?”

“Allan Border,” I replied without batting (oops) an eyelid.

“I am telling you that you are most definitely not Mr Allan Border, sir,” he answered matter-of-factly.  “Like you, he is quite a stout chap, but nevertheless very fit and athletic.  I am being far from uncharitable in saying that you are very fat, most unfit and extremely unathletic, and would struggle to tie up your own shoelaces, let alone score a Test match hundred.  Mr Allan Border was a great cricketer – 156 Test matches, including 93 as captain, and 11,174 runs at an average of 50.56 with 27 centuries and 63 half-centuries.  I was fortunate enough to be at the beautiful Eden Gardens when Mr Allan Border led Australia to victory over England in the 1987 World Cup final.  Of course, I was supporting your chaps.  He is a marvellous fellow is Mr Allan Border.”

And on and on this cricket encyclopedia went. If I’d wanted a lecture I would’ve gone back to university, but never again did I try and pass myself off as Mr Allan Border: one-time record Test runscorer and former Australian captain.

I wasn’t the only bloke who tried pulling such a stunt. While waiting for my flight to Mumbai, I bumped into a rough-and-ready Aussie named Dave, whom I’d enjoyed more than a few convivial ales with when stumps were drawn at Eden Gardens. Both the Aussie and Indian teams had arrived at the airport to fly to Bangalore for the final Test. It struck me that Dave travelled pretty light in terms of clothes, as he was still wearing the green-and-gold supporters’ shirt that he’d defiantly sported all match.

As we resumed our post-mortem of the shellacking the Aussies had just received, a middle-aged Indian wandered over and, completely ignoring me, said to Dave: “I am very much hoping that Australia plays better in Bangalore.”

“Me too, mate. We played like dogs here – no, that’s an insult to all the dogs of the world,” he replied.

“And which player might you be; you are not immediately recognisable?”

Don’t tell me this character actually thinks Dave’s one of the Aussie team.  This will be fun.

“Darren Lehmann, mate,” Dave answered, playing a straight bat. And a very good choice, given he shared Lehmann’s rotund build and soccer-ball head.

“You are Mr Darren ‘Lemon’?  It is beyond comprehension you are not in the Australian team!” the astounded fan replied.

“You’re not bloody wrong. It’s a fair-dinkum, absolute, friggin’ joke that I’ve missed out.  I shoulda been in the team years ago.  ‘Tubby’ Taylor and the selectors should be shot!”

“Well, very good luck, Mr Darren Lemon. I hope you are very soon chosen in the Test team,” said the Indian, shaking Darren “Dave” Lehmann’s hand before he left.

Ironically, the real Darren Lehmann – now an Ashes-winning coach – was promptly selected for his first Test and scored a creditable 52. Perhaps our Indian friend had a quiet word to the right people.

But I can no longer ignore Australia’s pathetic effort in the Second Test, following a first-up thrashing in Chennai. It would be a massive understatement to say the Aussies began badly, losing two wickets in the first over before being dismissed for an ordinary 233.

After a first-day Calcutta crowd of only 50,000, nearly 90,000 people turned up on Day 2 to see Indian legend Sachin Tendulkar bat. They were no doubt hoping Slashin’ Sachin would take champion leg-spinner Shane Warne to the cleaners, as many believed the series’ outcome depended on who won the Tendulkar-Warne battle. And Warnie hadn’t endeared himself to the locals after revealing he was avoiding Indian food, preferring instead to eat imported Aussie baked beans: the breakfast of champions. The media cried foul at this flatulent offering and thereafter called him Mr Bean.

Speaking of these two great cricketers, it’s amazing how revered they are throughout India. Tendulkar was only 16 when he made his Test debut against Pakistan in 1989, and it wasn’t long before his face was emblazoned on Pepsi billboards the length and breadth of Mumbai. They say Tendulkar has to don a false beard and dress like a street urchin to escape the clutches of his adoring fans when he goes to a movie. Unlike Sachin, dressing as a street urchin and avoiding people at the movies comes naturally to me.

I didn’t see any Indian billboards featuring Warnie – certainly none with him holding a can of Mr Heinz’s famed cowboy’s caviar. But such an impact did Warnie make – he later led the Rajasthan Royals to victory in the first season of the Indian Premier League in 2008 – a veteran Mumbai taxi driver said the proudest moment of his illustrious career came when he drove the great man from the flash Taj Mahal Hotel to a nearby shopping centre. If I were the driver, and given how many baked beans Warnie had probably consumed, I would’ve made the bugger walk.

The Indian batsmen went through the Aussie bowlers like a crook serve of curry. And at the risk of using yet another ordinary pun, one could say India was in the runs, knocking up 633 for only five men out before ending the slaughter. Poor old Warnie failed to take a wicket and was hit all over the park, with his baked beans’ love affair the butt (being the operative word) of many jokes among the jubilant crowd.

It was just as much a slaughter for the few Aussie fans.  We had frig-all to celebrate, with Tendulkar’s failure to make a century – he was dismissed for 79 – the only highlight.  Still, we cheered for our team as if there was no tomorrow – this in a “dry” stadium. The Barmy Army we were not, but the locals couldn’t believe why supporters of a mob being so comprehensively flogged would want to draw so much attention to themselves.

This attention increased tenfold when a group of young blokes dashed in front of us, carrying half-a-dozen Indian flags sown together.  To Jarrod, the self-appointed rebel without a cause wearing a Eureka Stockade T-shirt, this was akin to waving a red cricket ball at a bull.  He grabbed the giant “flag” – a big no-no in anybody’s language – and all hell broke loose. An extremely angry Indian leant over from behind me and, shaking his fist, yelled at Jarrod: “You are nothing but a rabid dog – come outside and I will shoot you!”

Half of India seemed to be shouting obscenities in our direction and I, for one, thought the struggling Aussie players had it easy. The crowd above us, below us and in the adjoining stand forgot about the game, and began pelting us with newspapers, plastic water bottles, food scraps and an assortment of unmentionables. I had visions of being pushed over the edge of the grandstand but, galvanised by the impending crisis, a police squad – complete with guns, tear gas and cane batons – formed a protective circle around us. Despite the copper cordon, the vocal Indian further baited Jarrod, shouting: “This is all your fault – you are the father of all chaos and confusion.”

I’ll give it to this eloquent fellow; he had a valid point – though I doubt that “Rhodes Scholar” Jarrod twigged. Thankfully, Jarrod put a sock in it and the rest of us didn’t say boo to a goose either – not that we had much to cheer about as the Aussies slid rapidly towards a humiliating defeat. Instead of waving our flags, we sang Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Based on our singing, we should’ve been out in the middle playing cricket for Australia.

The intensity of the Indian “drumbeat”, using empty water bottles on concrete seats, increased as the inevitable approached. When the final wicket fell to give India its then best-ever win, by an innings and 219 runs, most of these bottles found their way onto the arena. The celebrations had only just begun as hundreds of fires were lit in the stands. I’d heard of disgruntled Indian fans setting fire to grandstands when they believed their team had copped the rough end of the umpiring pineapple – not that they were upset on this occasion – so I was relieved the stands were made of concrete and not wood.  Even so, when a burning ring of fire surrounded us, I couldn’t help but think nobody would be too upset if a few rowdy Aussies went up in smoke.

After all that, it was a relief to receive a police exit from the ground. I soon lost my fellow countrymen (and thank God for that!), but not the hordes of jubilant Indians. Wearing an Australian supporters’ shirt, I stood out like a leper having a buffet meal at the Hilton.

Despite the shirt, heaps of Indians still asked: “What country, sir?” in a classic case of “sink the boots in”.

“Australia,” I replied with increasing dismay and far too much honesty.

Most of the Indians walked away smugly, in a manner roughly translating to: “Haven’t you got a piss poor cricket team!”

But one group stayed, firing questions at me like I was Mark “Tubby” Taylor, cricket-captain-slash-opening-batsman-of-Australia, not Peter “Fatty” Carter, cricket-fan-slash-closing-drinker-of-Australia.

“Who is the number one cricket country in the world now please, sir?”

Gnashing of teeth when I said that just because they’d knocked over the unofficial world champions, it didn’t automatically put India top of the wazza.

“Who is the best batsman in the world please?”

Disbelief when I admitted Sachin Tendulkar was pretty bloody good to watch, and would definitely rank among the top 10 batsmen in the modern game.

“How do you rate Shane Won following his failure to take a wicket in this match?”

Much laughter when I argued Warne was a lot better than the “five per cent talent, 95 per cent media hype” tag given to him by the local media.

“What do you think of Won’s avoidance of Indian food?”

Puzzled looks and a few backward steps when I said baked beans was the fuel for many a great Aussie sportsman, and that I’d had a couple of cans for breakfast that morning.

“What did you think of the umpiring?”

Bemusement when I implied the vocal, local crowd seemed willing to ‘assist’ the umpires with any marginal decisions that might benefit the home side.

“What do you think of Indian crowds?”

Absolute delight when I agreed that they were extremely knowledgeable and appreciative of good cricket from both teams. But what else could I say when I was being grilled by 20 overzealous fans from the winning team, many of whom were wielding cricket bats and stumps in a very threatening manner? That was my cue to leave.  ‘Press conference’ over, I stumbled upon yet another group of boys playing cricket.

One asked the inevitable: “Are you from Australia, sir?”

“Definitely not – I’m from New Zealand,” I lied, having finally put a match to my Aussie shirt.

“New Zealand – very good cricket country, sir. Chris Cairns, Stephen Fleming, Nathan Astle, Adam Parore, Dion Nash, Daniel Vettori – all very good cricketers, sir. Come, come … join us for a game.”

I joined the lads and, for once, didn’t have my stumps knocked over, nor was I hit for six. It seemed that by denouncing my Australian heritage I was free to play like a man possessed – the shackles were finally off!

For all the cowboy’s caviar in Calcutta, I hoped the Aussies wouldn’t have to resort to such desperate measures to record a face-saving victory in Bangalore.

 

About Pete Carter

Author of Dreamer, Drifter, Drunk, 1919 The Royal Domination Begins and Fitzroy's Fabulous Century: The 100 Greatest Victories, 1897-1996 (see www.fitzroypete.com.au); diehard Fitzroy supporter who's never forgiven the AFL for its "clinical execution" of the RoyBoys; fanatical fan of and club historian at WAFL club East Perth, the Mighty Royals; lover of all things willow on leather (we're only talking cricket here).

Comments

  1. I was on a canal tour in Amsterdam. The vessel was crowded and two Indian men sat across the table from me. They were engaged in an odd and uncomfortable conversation. with various furtive glances towards me. So I decided to play along. Whenever the German commentary came on the reacted knowingly., nodding my hear and looking towards the nearest obvious landmark, which I could generally pick up from the English commentary. As the tour progressed the men became more comfortable in my company and less so with each other. It came to pass that one was accusing the other of stealing 100 euros from him. There was much waggling of heads and hushed assertions. Eventually, the accused muttered something (obviously offensive) and stalked off to the back of the vessel. The wounded party looked at me … I then said “MS Dohni better pick up his game when you l tour in December.”

  2. That’s a brilliant punchline to your story, Mulcaster.
    What response did you receive from the wounded party?
    Surprisingly, I’ve met a few Indians who don’t like cricket, equivalent in many ways to those Melburnians who aren’t footy fans.

  3. He didn’t react well, like a man doubly betrayed.

  4. He would’ve felt any happier when Dhoni quit Test cricket before the recent Indian tour had concluded.
    Amazing cricketer, MSD, with his ODI batting average almost 15 runs higher than in Tests (52.85 versus 39.09).

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