Explaining the India-Australia Rivalry

I was thinking yesterday about why it is that the Indian team cannot play the Australians without some emotional and difficult controversy erupting. Jarrod Kimber steps in, as part of Cricinfo‘s generally wonderful preview of the semifinal today, and recounts the long, tortured history. It got my blood boiling.

I had forgotten what it was like in the 1990s. Australia were coming into their own, ready to usurp the mantle from the West Indians. The 1996 World Cup was a rare mistake; otherwise, the dominance (and arrogance) of this team was breathtaking. I remember Warne refusing to eat the food in India; I remember the obvious discomfort of having to tour the country at all. Kimber fills in some other incendiary details:

Before 2001, this was kind of how Indian cricket was seen in Australia. As this effeminate version of cricket that really wasn’t for Australians…This was a country that only shortly before [2001] we were happy enough to laugh, or at least cringe in silence, as former Australian Greg Ritchie did a long-running racist portrayal of Indians on TV. Australia went from a country that called Indians “curry munchers” to a country that was now desperate to beat them.

YouTube has a few clips of Ritchie’s performances. They are unbelievably awful — Ritchie wears brown-face and a turban, and he speaks with an accent that puts The Simpsons’ Apu to shame. It’s a strange thing when you realize that you feel more resentful and angry toward white Australian cricketers than you do the white South Africans.

Things are better now, yes — India has done enough in the last 15 years to prove that its quality, and, in that same period, the Australians have suffered enough blows to seem more relatable. I have enough emotional distance to it to say I don’t regard either team with much enthusiasm; the Indians spew verbal attitude too much for my own taste. Kimber is right when he says both teams are bullies; they are genuinely hard to like, even if they deserve respect and awe.

Still, if the World Cup is more about history and emotion and spectacle, then on this late New England night, I can call on those ancient slights and insults and indulge in some good ol’ sports nationalism. A good performance tonight, please, just to exorcise Ritchie’s ghost once and for all.

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