Cricket must not obscure breadth of India-Australia ties (Commentary)

July 9th, 2008 - 3:21 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Roger Federer
By Neena Bhandari
Sydney, July 9 (IANS) The overwhelming success of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Australia last month have helped inch India-Australia bilateral ties closer, beating the tyranny of distance and going beyond cricket and the Commonwealth to embrace commerce and culture. There have been zealous debates between the two sides on and off the cricket field, but recently at a BrainFood forum organised by the University of New South Wales (UNSW), experts debated impassioned the need to make the India-Australia relationship more significant.

Arguing that cricket is a good place to start to “stop the rot”, Neville Roach, chairman emeritus of the Australia-India Business Council and keynote speaker at the Brainfood forum, said: “Cricket is such an obsession for one billion Indians, so what happens on the cricket pitch affects all aspects of the relationship. We have a lot of work to do - on both sides.”

Roach, who was presented the Pravasi Bharatiya Award in January 2008, called for “zero tolerance” before Australia tours India this October, warning that otherwise “it will further sour our relationship. The bitterness has mellowed since the January test at the Sydney Cricket Ground, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the crisis has passed”.

Maybe the cricketers can take a leaf from the exemplary behaviour on Centre Court during the Wimbledon final July 6 as the King of Clay and the King of Grass clashed in an epic five-sets, the former deferential to the defending champion Roger Federer and the latter praising Rafael Nadal as a deserving champion.

Reflecting on the racism row that erupted during the January SCG Test, Neil Maxwell, CEO of the IPL’s Mohali team, said: “It showed lack of understanding of each other’s cultures. IPL has played a huge role in breaking down barriers and showcasing India as the most welcoming, warm and hospitable country. Cricketers must open their eyes and hearts to embracing other cultures.”

“India is underwriting the game with 70 percent cricket revenue coming from India. IPL redefined Indian life and India’s power and influence over cricket in the space of six months. Hats off to India and its bravado!” said Maxwell, pointing out how Australia was a roadblock to IPL and was peeved at how easily India could get its players on whom Cricket Australia spends so much money.

There is no denying that IPL has mended fences and for many, it has been an instant introduction to the enigma that is India. But Australia and India still don’t know enough about the contemporary reality of each other and simplistic stereotypes are blurring the larger picture.

“All policies need to be reviewed to reflect changing realities. Taking the high moral ground with India on uranium may not be as principled as it seems”, said Roach, adding: “Australia should promote itself as the best place to live, study and work as the number of Indian students, migrants and tourists grow, treat them as customers, provide better service and vegetarian food for tourists.”

At this juncture, the bilateral relationship needs a comprehensive, strategic and contextual approach. Kama Maclean, UNSW lecturer of South Asian and world history with special focus on Indian history, who has been travelling to India regularly for the past 15 years, urged that Australia should invest in Indian studies as part of the regular curriculum in schools and other educational institutions.

“India has an edge on us when it comes to public participation. We haven’t seen a protest like the one by taxi drivers from the sub-continent that brought Melbourne’s central business district to a stand still,” said Maclean, who holds a bachelors degree in Hindi and Indian politics. The Oxford University Press has just published her book, “Pilgrimage and Power: the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad”.

As the world comes knocking at India’s door, Australia faces strong competition to attract New Delhi’s attention. With a foreign minister hailing from Perth, Australia is set to go all out and meet India across the Indian Ocean.

No Indian prime minister has visited Australia since 1986 and former Australian prime minister John Howard spent only five days in India in 11 years. It will require consistent political will on part of government’s of both countries to take the bilateral ties on an upward trajectory.

It was author and former foreign correspondent in India, Christopher Kremmer, who aptly summed it up: “India is an incredible argument in the process everyday, where the impossible is achieved with apparent ease. Australia needs to understand the justifiable pride Indians have in their own country and their achievements.”

As India transcends into its modern form, Kremmer urges Australia to learn from India’s success giving the example of the metro in Delhi as Sydney’s roads and rails choke. “We can stand to the side, or plunge in and accept India as it is. If we don’t we will be the losers,” he said.

The Indian economy’s long strides and its large resource of skilled people will help bolster economies such as Australia’s impacted by ageing work forces.

For India, it will have to compete with the world seeking Australian resources such as iron ore, coal, steel and gold, uranium aside.

Having the common English language, parliamentary democracy, being part of the Commonwealth and playing cricket must not obscure the depth, breadth and the diversity needed to make India-Australia relationship a substantial one.

(Neena Bhandari is a journalist based in Sydney. She can be contacted at neena@india-voice.com.)

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