“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if Lillee don’t get you, Thommo must.”
When I first travelled to New Delhi to watch Australia play cricket in 2013, just leaving my hotel to confront the onslaught of this relentless, illogical city felt like a small victory.
Within three years, I’d transferred to the Indian capital from Sydney for work. Within three months of relocating, I’d met my now wife.
Yet I’m still to witness an Australian victory in the flesh across six years, three formats and five different stadiums – six, if you extend my subcontinental curse to Sri Lanka.
My record stands at 0-7, against all comers. And like a tourist encountering the Oh! Calcutta lunchtime buffet for the first time, resisting the temptation to go back for more is futile. Even if you regret the outcome, the meal is so exquisite you lick your lips at the mere thought of returning.
That fourth Test of the 2013 series fell in interesting times for Australian cricket. Shane Watson was named captain, despite being axed for the previous Test and flying home in the aftermath of ‘Homeworkgate’. Peter Siddle top-scored with a 50 in each innings. Glenn Maxwell opened the batting and bowling on a frantic final day, during which 16 wickets fell and Sachin Tendulkar walked onto the Feroz Shah Kotla in Test cricket for the last time.
The adoring crowd’s chant of “Sa-chinnnnn, Sa-chin!” will linger long after the memory of Australia’s capitulation fades.
— Kris Swales (@KrisSwales) March 22, 2013
The only thing crazier than the on-field action was getting there, which involved my first experience sitting in the back of an auto-rickshaw hurtling headlong into oncoming traffic.
This came after not even securing tickets, which were to be collected from officials operating out of a metal trunk in a district 15 minutes’ drive from the stadium, until after play started on the first day.
When you finally arrive the list of prohibited items is comprehensive, starting at coins and including anything you’d usually stuff into a backpack, including the backpack itself. If you’re lucky, by day three a kindly security guard might acknowledge your blistered nose and wave your tube of contraband SPF 30 through.
Once inside the Kotla, the amenities are spartan. In the top tiers, the grandstand’s rake is so poor you can’t see what’s happening along the boundary beneath you. Makeshift stalls serve water and soft drink and chai but not beer. Washrooms veer wildly from operational to character-building, often from cubicle to cubicle.
If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, but be warned. Let India get the slightest whiff of your discomfort and it can chew you up and spit you out, splattering across the pavement like betel nut that’s lost its edge.
This country slowly seduces you, though, if it doesn’t break you first. My intended two-week visit quickly extended to four to accommodate IPL games at Mumbai’s Wankhede and the iconic Eden Gardens.
Forget Eat Pray Love. Watching cricket in India had become the spiritual arm of my own Visionquest.
— Kris Swales (@KrisSwales) March 25, 2017
Living here since January 2016, I’ve added Test matches in Bangalore and Dharamsala, T20s in Mohali and Eden Gardens (against the West Indies), an ODI at Eden Gardens and a Test match across the ditch in Galle to my honour roll.
From winning positions, the Aussies have conspired to lose them all.
Subcontinental surrounds transform Australian cricketers. They win when you don’t expect them to and get rolled when they look unbeatable. Battle-hardened veterans become shattered husks before your eyes as a gruelling tour grinds on. World-weary eyes do little to disguise distracted minds, perhaps pining for the simple pleasures of home, where the most pressing challenge is remembering when bin night is.
Australian feats of courage are routinely one-upped. Shane Watson bowls the spell of his career to send Australia to the 2016 World T20 semi-finals? Virat Kohli says no, toying with us for 17 overs before putting the result beyond doubt in two overs of carnage, the Punjabi faithful crammed into Mohali’s concrete bowl dancing with religious fervour to the Bhangra beats greeting each imperious boundary.
Bhangra or not, every crowd generates its own unique brand of electricity. Not the confected “Ay-o!” call and response of the Australian summer, nor just an enthusiastic roar every time the IPL trumpet fanfare sounds. A gentle murmur of excitement in one corner of the stadium can organically ripple around the stands in an instant.
When the Indian spinners have their tails up, catching fielders converge on the batsman like office workers surrounding a busy roadside chai wallah. The Feroz Shah Kotla grandstands seem to grow whenever the local fans find their voice, looming up and over the playing surface like the public galleries of The Trial at the end of Pink Floyd: The Wall.
— Kris Swales (@KrisSwales) March 5, 2017
Inside the bullring of Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy, Test cricket is very much alive. Fresh from a stunning victory in the first Test in Pune, the Aussies rolled in with a chance to ice the 2017 series in just two matches. After Nathan Lyon silenced the boisterous crowd with an eight-for on day one, the scene was set.
Day two turned attritional. Australia’s top order eked out runs with all the fluency of a tourist negotiating auto-rickshaw rates in Hindi. At one stage, Matt Renshaw and Ishant Sharma weren’t sure if they were playing cricket or auditioning for the World Gurning Championships.
Things were strange and about to get stranger.
With the fortunes of both teams balanced precariously on a knife’s edge, captain Virat Kohli sensed the time was right to debut a new party trick. Sensing the crowd’s restlessness, he exhorted them to demand Ishant conjure a wicket in the over before tea.
The Karnatakans whipped themselves into a frenzy. Ishant got one to keep low. A battling Mitch Marsh’s front pad duly obliged.
We immediately left the stadium to fly back to Delhi. By the fourth day, the series was tied 1-1. We were in Dharamsala when India clinched it.
— Kris Swales (@KrisSwales) September 21, 2017
The ‘we’ is myself and Rakhi, my Bengali better half who’d never been to her home ground of Eden Gardens. Australia arrived for the second match of the 2017 ODI series already demoralised, having been crushed in Chennai four days earlier.
Flights from Delhi were duly booked. I had low expectations of proceedings on the pitch, but high hopes off it. I’d hatched a cunning plan. Once the match was over, I was going to propose.
While the cricket unfolded as expected (Australia restricted India to a below-par 252, then duly fell apart thanks to a Kuldeep Yadav hat-trick), events in the grandstand proved a little trickier to negotiate.
Wearing the only canary yellow shirt in an ocean of light blue makes you a focal point for bored locals. On a good day, you might get mobbed by schoolgirls wanting a selfie. On this occasion, I was embroiled in a sledging controversy.
My crime? Churlishly not applauding a 50 from Virat Kohli, who I’d still yet to reconcile with after his churlish antics in response to our team’s churlish antics in the Test series earlier that year.
An older local gentleman a couple of rows down spotted my transgression and, urged on in Bengali by his peers, unleashed on me and Australian cricket in general for the ensuing six hours.
With the match dawdling to a close, my new best mate took advantage of the now vacant seat in front of us. He nudged my knee. “This is a terrible Australian team,” he assured me. I bit my tongue. “Without Starc and Hazlewood, they’re hopeless,” he continued, poking and prodding, again and again and again.
He got his bite. I, ahem, politely suggested he shouldn’t touch me again. Rakhi waved him away. Satisfied, he strutted back to his seat, job done.
It was 20 minutes until I was supposed to propose to my girlfriend and my mind was instead weighing up whether to fight or flight. Somehow, I fought through the adrenalin rush; brushed aside the disappointment of witnessing another defeat.
And as we joined the masses exiting Eden Gardens, she said Yes.
— Kris Swales (@KrisSwales) March 27, 2017
Eighteen months later, another contractually obliged ODI series beckons. Which Australian cricket team will arrive in Delhi for the series finale on March 13, I wonder – the unlikely heroes of 1987 and 2004, or the homesick husks of every other campaign?
We’ll be in the Kotla stands, of course, in our contrasting canary yellow and blue. And if Australia again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, at least Roarers will know who’s to blame.