Baradwaj Rangan ambles around Adelaide, fingers fervently crossed at the prospect of slipping into the final test match at the Oval
The twenty-sixth of January, our Republic Day, is also Australia Day. The Advertiser, a newspaper whose name suggests an unblushing commitment to its priorities, asks its readers about their holiday plans. Tenille Aberle from Mawson Lakes replies, “Taking my new son to the beach.” At the other end of the spectrum, the decidedly commonsensical Jeff Kombuts, from Flagstaff Hill, says, “Sleeping and recovering from my hangover.” I would have written in that, as part of a media contingent visiting the city at the invitation of Tourism Australia, my plans were to spend the day at the Adelaide Oval, watching my home team undergo what the local papers are calling a whitewash, as if a fresh coat of paint were being applied over a wall inscribed with the legend “the greatest batting lineup in the world.” In The Advertiser, Scott Walsh gloats, “The shambles that has become India’s summer plunged to a horrific new low as Australia zeroed in on its inevitable 4-0 series sweep.”
Outside the legendary stadium, whose grass bears the crushing brunt of cricketers as well as footballers, people scurry past like ants heeding a queen’s call — thick lines of sports fans from all directions, a few brown-skinned and in defiant detergent-blue T-shirts, the rest white and proud and happy at finding a fitting occasion for an outpouring of patriotic feeling on their national day. Their happiness is manifest in team-coloured hats and face paintings and, in one attention-seeking instance, the Australian flag hanging off the shoulders like a cape. An emphatic roar erupts from inside the stadium — this has got to be bad news. However sporting a nation, they are not going to applaud so enthusiastically a visiting team’s anaemic achievements. Our guide arrives. We skirt the perimeter of the stadium and head towards special seats at the specially designated member’s area, where our sense of privilege is quickly extinguished. The woman at the window insists that there were no tickets left in an envelope for us. Wait here, our guide says, oblivious to the reality that a different option does not exist. He disappears inside with a grim sense of purpose.
Peering past the tall iron gates, like a pariah at a country club, I solve the mystery of the emphatic roar. A large man in a black T-shirt calls out to his companion, “Will, Tendulkar’s out. 25.” Our guide appears with the information that someone’s not been kept in the loop, and while that someone figures out what to do we will visit the Don Bradman museum. At least we’ll be on the other side of the gates.
Inside the museum, where a near-silent movie reel of the batsman is on constant play, a representative from the stadium tells us that she saw the tickets being put into an envelope — it’s just that no one seems to know where the envelope is. This is beginning to sound like the dry police procedural that kicks off an investigation in a penny dreadful: The Mystery of the Missing Tickets.
The museum is a small shrine to the great cricketer, inviting us to genuflect in front of his Royal portable typewriter and a battered briefcase whose skin is peeling away and a bat bearing the handwritten accolade “Record Test Score, Australia versus West Indies, 229 at Brisbane, 1931.”
With the assurance that the tickets will be found, we’re transitioned off to Jeff, a chatty local who takes us on a walking tour of Adelaide, the twenty-minute city. That’s how long it takes to get anywhere. Strolling past the Torrens river, Jeff informs us that the city is named for a queen and asks if we know any others. Victoria, I reply, and bask in his approval like a schoolchild who’s answered a tricky math question. We lunch at a café adjoining the Art Gallery of South Australia, whose chronologically mounted paintings are mostly photorealistic impressions of the continent as recorded by early settlers, with hints of modernism cropping up in the last few chambers. Nearby, at the stunning aboriginal exhibit at the South Australian Museum, the sad solemnity of the photograph of a native is broken by a little girl’s giggles that she could “see the man’s bum.” Rundle Mall, also close by, offers shops selling phone cards and water on this hot, hot day. In the forthcoming days, we would travel twenty minutes to the air-conditioned hills of Adelaide sprayed with scent from gum trees, to Handorf, with its tourist-ready street paved with shops determined to sell every product crafted by the hand of man, to the reassuringly lazy beach at the palindromically named Glenelg. But today, we cannot leave the city. What if the tickets arrived?
At a roadside beside the mall, leathery people in summer clothes are seated in chairs with wooden legs and canvas backs. Their necks are craned upwards, as if in anticipation of a daytime star. I follow their line of sight and see — to my delight, on a giant screen mounted on a wall — that it is a star. Kohli is batting at 91. We couldn’t go to the match but the match has come to us. The purpose on the young cricketer’s face promises that there may still be some cricket left when we enter the stadium, if we enter the stadium. The doubt transforms quickly into certainty as we walk back to the Oval and are, this time, let through. The gods of providence and perseverance seem to be smiling on more than one Indian. We slip into the shadows of the newly built stand for members of the South Australian Cricket Association — but the precaution is no longer necessary. Gulls have begun to coast in, heralding breeze from the sea.
At the seventh row from the boundary, the faces of players don’t fall into focus. But we can see the red stumps split wide open, like tree stumps splintered by a ferocious axe, every time a tail-ender is bowled out. Ashwin, Saha and Khan enter and leave like tourists making a hasty pilgrimage to the pitch on the last day of a vacation, now headed back home after setting foot on hallowed ground. Sharma, though, seems determined to support Kohli, who is teetering on the brink of a century.
The packed stadium unites in jeers whenever Sharma faces the ball. But he isn’t rattled, at least until a jubilant Kohli leaps into the air and pumps a fist into nothing. I stand up and applaud. Two rows ahead, two Indians do the same. And then, one by one, many Australians stand up to cheer. Something about this youngster’s sporting spirit and defiance at the face of death has seeped past patriotic fervor. An advertising panel on the boundary says Incredible India. For once it doesn’t feel like irony. It feels right.