Kanishkaa Balachandran/The Hindu
Chennai, March 5: Two decades ago, if you had to sum up Steve Waugh’s relationship with India, it would be – “it’s complicated”. As captain of Australia from the late 1990s, Waugh encouraged his team-mates to uphold the ethos of Australian cricket – to be deeply respectful of the country’s cricketing legacy and at the same time, indulge in “mental disintegration” to psyche out the opposition even before the first ball was bowled.
In the midst of a record-winning streak in Test matches in 2001, Waugh wouldn’t rest until Australia scaled what he called the “final frontier” – winning a Test series in India, something Australia had not achieved since 1969. Following the customary pre-series war of words, Australia came within two wickets of breaching that frontier but fell short. Waugh never ever achieved his goal. With a billion Indian fans in the opposition, the determined Waugh was never going to be charitable with his words.
Yet, off the field, it was as if Waugh flicked a switch. A meeting with Mother Teresa in the mid-90s inspired him to take up philanthropy work for Udayan, an NGO for leprosy affected children at Barrackpore in West Bengal. But his love affair with India began much earlier. From his first tour in 1986, Waugh felt the urge to hop off the team bus and oblige the thousands who wanted his autograph and to capture gully cricket with his camera. As an active player, Waugh authored several tour diaries on cricket, absorbing the countries he visited, driven by his urge to develop as an international sportsman at a more holistic level.
Nearly 16 years since his retirement, Waugh returned to India on a photo expedition to produce his photo book, “The Spirit of Cricket – India”. The 17-day trip included 9 cities – Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Delhi, Agra, Mathura, Jodhpur, Dharamsala and Baroda. His journey is also an hour-long single part documentary, produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation titled “Capturing Cricket – Steve Waugh in India”, that just dropped on Discovery Plus.
A film crew followed Waugh and his companions – former Australian cricket team photographer Trent Parke and friend Jason Brookes, who Waugh described as a “Merv Hughes character to keep the spirits up” – as they captured the “organised chaos” of cricket in Mumbai’s maidans, tennis ball cricket with the Maharaja inside the Lakshmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara, Buddhist monks in Dharamsala playing cricket on a “spiteful” pitch and more, with Harsha Bhogle’s colourful narration in the backdrop.
The film is less on Waugh’s photography skills but keeps the focus on his knack for finding beauty amidst the filth and dust, and his evolution as a person, as narrated by former team-mates. Former spinner Gavin Robertson speaks of Waugh the reluctant celebrity, who had to step out of his comfort zone (incidentally the title of Waugh’s autobiography) to be a successful ambassador for the game. Child cricketing prodigies as young as three years old, made famous thanks to social media, are some of the subjects Waugh’s team visits and captures beautifully.
Of course, Waugh never resists the urge to grab the bat and have a knockabout with the locals. A group of blind cricketers in Bengaluru are probably still in disbelief that they forced an Australian legend, with nearly 11,000 Test runs, to play and miss the ball around 20 times when he took on the challenge, blindfolded, to face their bowling.
There are clichés in the film that Indian viewers need no reminding – that cricket is a religion in India and that it is now a lucrative career opportunity. Waugh’s companion Brookes, couldn’t help but point out the “respect” Sachin Tendulkar showed by leaving his shoes outside when he and Waugh visited the home of Vasant Raiji – then the oldest former first-class cricketer in India – on his 100th birthday.
With 17 days of travel condensed into one hour of film, not all cities get enough airtime. Jodhpur barely gets any coverage. There is also the tendency in all cricket-themed films in India to keep it Mumbai centric, at the expense of smaller towns and villages that have equally compelling stories to share.
Case in point is a game played around a garbage dump by the banks of a river in Mathura. Waugh, capturing the game from a rooftop, got so sidetracked clicking the monkeys around that he failed to evade the ball coming straight at him. As a batsman, Waugh’s biggest weakness was the short ball aimed at the body. This incident, caught on camera by the man himself, must have brought back memories.
(Capturing Cricket – Steve Waugh in India is streaming on Discovery Plus)