Australian politicians and diplomats are hoping that a shared love of cricket can be used to repair the country’s frayed relationship with India.
Australia’s reputation on the Subcontinent has taken a battering in recent months following a spate of racist attacks on Indian students studying in the country. In particular, the image of the southern state of Victoria took a hit after an Indian national was stabbed to death there.
India’s High Commissioner to Australia, Sujatha Singh, made her feelings known as she prepared to return to New Delhi for a regular meeting with her prime minister, telling Australia’s governor general, Quentin Bryce, that Victoria is in denial over its violence problem.
In many ways, she is right. Victoria’s capital city of Melbourne does have a violence problem, with police admitting as much when they recently said crimes against Indians have been on the rise over the past year or so. However, they say the attacks are mostly motivated by petty crime and not racism.
From a diplomatic point of view, it doesn’t really matter. Australia in general and Melbourne in particular have an image problem in India that could seriously affect relations – not to mention a lucrative business in educating Indian students. Now, cricket is shaping up to be a diplomatic tool in the effort to repair the rift.
The Indian Premier League cricket extravaganza starts next month, bringing with it a host of Australian cricketers who will take to the field with their Indian teammates.
Indian cricket fans place Australians just below their own in the sport’s pantheon. Tell an Indian you are from Australia and even now the response will invariably be a smile and a thumbs-up followed by “Ricky Ponting! Shane Warne!”
Warne – who captains and coaches the Rajasthan Royals IPL franchise – hopes to use his own cult-like status in India to play a role in easing the tension.
The Victorian premier, John Brumby, was a relieved man when he spoke of Warne’s desire to help. “It might be that he does some work for us in India, in terms of just stating the case about what a great place Victoria is, what a great place Australia is,” he said when announcing the leg-spinner’s offer to help.
Brumby, who is due to meet Warne early this month to discuss a strategy, hopes a friendly cricket match or some other charm offensive can help his beleaguered state’s reputation.
Indian-born Carlos Monteiro, a senior editor at Australian publisher Fairfax Media, agrees. “Cricket is in the lifeblood of both Australians and Indians,” he says. “So to use the game to mend the fractured relations between the two peoples would be a no-brainer. A one-off game between Indian and Aussie players could have far-reaching significance. Fans in India would embrace it if projected as a unity match.
“The Australian government needs to employ the likes of Brett Lee, Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne – all idolised by Indians and Aussies alike – in community initiatives to get the right message of peace, harmony and co-existence across,” says Monteiro.