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Cricket is all that matters: symbolism in the Australia-India relationship November 9, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Patil, Tejaswini , trackback

Tejaswini Patil

The decision by Prime Minister Julia Gillard during her recent visit to India to award the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) to Sachin Tendulkar can be traced to the historical and cultural underpinnings of colonialism. The decision has been met with cautious scepticism in various quarters of the Australian media. Indian newspapers basked in the glory and pointedly noted Australian newspapers had criticised the award. Prime Minister Gillard had three underlying themes: extending economic cooperation between Australia and India, changing the military partnership with the selling of uranium to India, and employing cricket to unite the ties between the countries. Clearly, the decision to grant a cricket icon an OAM is worthy in and of itself, but does the Gillard government seriously think that Sachin Tendulkar has contributed to the fostering of better understanding between the two democracies?

Cricket, a game of colonial legacy, acts as a common thread that connects the social and political histories of Australia and India. The game provides an interesting metaphor for the way the recent relationship between the two countries has evolved.

The social history of cricket in Australia is dominated by two parallel discourses. One is the production of a counter-antipodean discourse to the English legacy of the game, reflecting the Australian popular imagination’s sense of ‘having a fair go’. The other discourse reflects how India and its cricket team are positioned in the broader social and cultural imagination from an oriental point of view. The Australian teams of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that visited India perpetuated old distinctions between the ‘west’ and the ‘east’. The popular images of a large, diverse, crowded, poor and hot country were some of the stereotypes in which India, and its cricket team, were positioned. There are countless tales of Australian cricketers unable to adjust and acclimatise to Indian food and culture. These perceptions reinforced the notions in Australia’s popular imagination of India as this ‘mystic, far-off exotic land’. These attitudes began to change in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s.

The growing economic might of India and the globalisation of cricket changed the power balance in cricket’s governing body from the western-dominated nations to a block of Asian and African nations led by India. This power shift in cricket has been a matter of great consternation and agitation particularly for the ‘white nations’, dominated by Australia, England and New Zealand. The emergence of the Indian Premier League and the ‘megabucks’ available from commercialising cricket attracted many Australian cricketers. The success of Australian cricketers such as Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Brett Lee in the Indian Premier League reinforces the notion that cricket is the only cultural and historical vehicle in which Indians imagine their relationship with Australia.

Cricket in India is embedded in its complex colonial and political histories. Cricket in the Indian popular imagination is identified with values of national character, solidarity and unity. It ties into the discourse that “we may be divided on caste, gender or class lines but when it comes to the cricket team, ‘we are all one’”. However, when India plays Pakistan it taps into anxiety around religious conflict between the Hindus and Muslims. In relation to Australia it would not be too far off the mark to say that Indians view Australia’s white Australia policy and prominent cricketers such as Shane Warne and Steve Waugh through a colonial lens. The report by the Australia-India Institute argues as much, that India’s cultural understanding of Australia stems from following an Australian national institution (its cricket team) that is an Anglo-Celtic preserve. In the popular imagination such a viewpoint masks the incredible diversity and difference that Australians live and experience. Though Australia has undergone significant political and economic transformations since the 1970s, the cultural distance between the countries remains a major barrier.

The announcement by the Gillard government that Sachin Tendulkar will be awarded the Order of Australia Medal plays into the cricket-centric colonial legacy that defines the relationship between Australia and India. Racist attacks on Indian students in 2009 caused much consternation among the Australian and Indian governments. The racist attacks got much media attention and the predominant discourse in which they were constructed was through the colonial lens. If Australia and India need to move beyond their common colonial legacies, it is important to focus on building state-to-state relationships that are mediated politically and to imagine themselves as part of the Indian Ocean rim. Central to this political strategy is framing the relationship in terms of what kind of role Australia and India envisage as political, economic and geostrategic partners in the Indian Ocean. This question should form the guiding principle for future links between the Australian and Indian governments, not symbolic gestures that continue to reinforce old stereotypes.


1. R. N. England - November 11, 2012

Cricket has introduced millions of boys from Eton, Islamabad, and beyond, to civilised competition ruled by laws that apply to every player. It has improved the standard of behaviour in all these places.

2. Sandy Gordon - November 12, 2012

Thanks Tejaswini for a really thoughtful piece.

Although your field is well placed, I think there are a couple of areas left uncovered. At the simple level, the Australian PM’s announcement was intended to give her visit some notice in India. Why was this needed? Because, essentially, Indians have a blind spot for Australia, not the other way round. This is only natural: Australia is likened in policy to the much bigger and more important US, and why talk to the servant when you can talk to the master?

Ipso facto, there is not much Australia can do to shift gears in the relationship other than what it has already done – reversing the silly policy of refusing to sell uranium. No brownie points for that, for why was it done in the first place, Indians would rightly ask.

In terms of your piece, as with so many others, the emphasis seems to be all about what Australia can do to leverage the relationship, rather than inquiring into the nature of the blind spot towards Australia as far as India is concerned.