Gulf News

Putting the flame in the match

- Special to Gulf News

Australia is a nation of sport-crazy people. Give them a game, and they’ll be there, you can wager your mortgaged house on it. True, they might draw the line at Scrabble and tiddlywink­s, but if it’s outdoors, rain, hail or shine, the Aussie will give it his best shot to be at the ground.

At one recent AFL game, it rained so heavily, that even my mother-in-law’s ageing round cringed mightily when it came time for it to go take its post-dinner ‘relief ’ ramble around the backyard; lending credence to the ‘ cats and dogs’ descriptio­n given to a torrential downpour. Not a cat was in sight, too, and there were two shabby tabbies in the vicinity at that time, but where they fled to that late evening was a mystery the worthy Mary Higgins Clark might have considered penning a novel about. Yet, when the bedraggled referee — his hair plastered flat against his forehead, his face pale like a waxwork gone seriously wrong — blew his whistle, and the rain slanted across the ground in gray sheets, one could see, as though through a muslin cloth, hardly an unoccupied chair.

Thousands of people attired in plastic of various hues, but mostly cellophane, stamped, pounded, clapped and cheered their chosen team on … to the bitter or delicious end. This sight was the exact antonym of the saying, ‘Only mad dogs and Englishmen…’ Thousands of sun-loving, beach-loving Aussies sat in this magnificen­t torrent as if they did this every day. Which brings me to an interestin­g observatio­n, an anomaly of sorts. Living, as they are, ‘Down Under’, the Aussies are fast becoming known for favouring the underdog. Three Australia Idol winners in three years — and reality television is another much-partaken-of sport – according to the newspapers and music industry analysts were all won by the underdog.

The favourite was denied that crowning moment of glory, falling at the final hurdle, dictated by the wishes of a voting Australian public. That’s the anomaly. This, after all, is a nation that prides itself on its champion status. Its women swimmers comprise a team of incredible champions.

In cricket, it has dominated the rankings so overwhelmi­ngly and for so long that the other nations are merely battling it out to determine who occupies second spot. Not many times before has ‘second’ been considered good enough.

At first, this baffled me thoroughly. I couldn’t envisage how a stadium filled with people, 80 per cent of them at least on the home-crowd side, cheering on Warne, Lee, McGrath and Ponting, could also seriously barrack for the underdog. Because in any cricket match played in Australia, the other team is automatica­lly the underdog. No question. England, in the recent Ashes series, is learning that you can score over 500 runs and still lose a test. So, here’s a nation that loves its sport — even the Prime Minister turns his arm over occasional­ly, not always with the greatest success in line and length; here’s a nation that loves its champions; and here, also, oddly enough, is a nation that loves the underdog. It might sound distinctly weird, the equation might simply not ‘equate’; folk are bound to say, ‘Look, they’ve got to be one or the other’, but no, in this land Down Under, they’ve found a way to cheer on their champs and spur on the challenger as well. And this, in the mix of things, lends itself to amazing sporting-mindedness. When you go to a ground to watch a match first and watch your team next, it makes for good spectator contributi­on to the sport itself. And by and large that is what the Aussie approach is all about. You will get the odd dissenter, but there’s an exception to every rule. Spelling and grammar are full of examples. Fire+ works=fireworks, but all + ready doesn’t equal already.

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