I was seven years old the first time I watched Sachin Tendulkar bat.
The nameless blur of relatives in the Hyderabad apartment who hadn’t stopped screaming at each other in days fell eerily silent as the Little Master strutted onto the MCG turf. The religious experience lasted all of three minutes. Sachin chased a wide delivery down the leg-side and was caught behind first ball. The silence became painful, leaden with uncomfortable, awkward disappointment. At last, my great-grandmother — nonagenarian, bed-ridden, barely capable of speech — croaked, “Tendulkar must go”. When she died, months later, I learnt that those were amongst her last words.
Cricket is a contagious obsession in India. I left Sydney utterly indifferent and came back six months later a complete tragic. At the same time, returning to Australia filled me with a strange sense of unease that every young person of colour must eventually begin to grapple with — the growing feeling that my own reality was fundamentally different to the reality of ‘mainstream Australia’.
Cricket helped me pretend to inhabit that other reality, providing a convenient façade of assimilated sameness. My parents, previously worried about how their geeky child would survive in the sport-obsessed environment of an Australian primary school, were no doubt relieved. But even my love of cricket was done with a sense of difference. While other kids wanted to bowl like Brett Lee, the tall, blonde, Weetbix-guzzling paceman, I adopted an idiosyncratic and highly subcontinental brand of left-arm spin.
The façade was well and truly shattered the moment India played. As a child, I was unapologetic in my rebellious support for India. They were, after all, the plucky underdogs standing up to the Evil Empire that was the mid-2000s Australian cricket team. However, this loyalty became more complicated during my self-conscious adolescent years. India felt so distant, and without that sense of communal connection that gives sporting fandom meaning, my support became muted.
After all, it was difficult to be the lone voice of misery while Michael Clarke battered an insipid Indian bowling attack with exhilarating abandon.
For many children of Indian immigrants, cricket remains a difficult test of allegiance, and a symbol of our bifurcated identities. Cricket provides Indians and Australians with a common language that can transcend our cultural dissimilarities. Yet despite this shared affinity, and decades of migration from the Subcontinent, the Australian team has remained a stubbornly Anglo institution. Until Pakistani-born Usman Khawaja’s debut in 2011, nobody who looked like us had ever sported the famous baggy green.
For USyd student Pranay Jha, the overwhelming whiteness of the Australian team has always been alienating. Whilst he sees cricket as a way of engaging with his Indian culture, he has “never felt overly patriotic about the Australian cricket team”. Indeed, cricket is pretty much synonymous with the Australian summer, but often evokes a particularly exclusive and homogenous view of Australian-ness, characterised by broad accents, beachside barbecues, Southern Cross tattoos and blokey Victoria Bitter advertisements. For many Indian-Australians, this simply does not reflect our own reality.
However for others, like UNSW student Romaan Dulloo, cheering for Australia was key to developing a sense of belonging in a new country, particularly during his formative years.
Even though they looked nothing like him, Romaan saw the larger than life figures of that golden era of Australian cricket — like Hayden, Gilchrist and McGrath — as “heroes”.
Cricket, then, is emblematic of the tightrope many migrants must walk in Australia. Do we celebrate and take pride in our difference, or do we seek solace in the way our quintessentially-Indian love of cricket allows us to feel more Australian?
As I’ve grown older, and come to terms with my own sense of divided identity, I’ve finally fully embraced ‘Team India’. It’s not that I don’t feel Australian. Rather, in those particular moments I feel more Indian.