I am not quite sure when I first fell in love with cricket but the Australians certainly had much to do with my early infatuation. Eknath Solkar was my first cricket hero, and victory in the 1971 series in West Indies and England in which Solkar (and my late father) were integral parts, was a starting point. But romance for the sport truly blossomed in 1974-75: that was the year when Clive Lloyd's West Indians came to India and played their cricket with a flair and effervescence that had a nine year old hooked and hungry for more. The Caribbean kings were one part of the love story; the other was when I would wake up early every morning to listen to Radio Australia and the crackle of a wondrous commentary team led by the redoubtable Alan Mcgilvray. That was the famous Lillee-Thomson series when two fiery men bowled like lightning to hustle and crush the terrified English into submission. Sitting in Mumbai, I conjured up mental images of macho cricketers with wavy hair, unbuttoned shirts and rippling muscles, of a unique Aussie brand of cricket that was aggressive and exciting. That year, the wall at home had posters of Lillee and Thommo, Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards (both of whom made their debut that year in India) and Mohammed Ali, my ultimate sports icon.
Ali passed away in 2016; the West Indians lost their cricketing mojo almost two decades ago now; only the Aussies were the last men standing. Yes, we'd heard of the 'ugly' Australians way back in the 1970s, of how they intimidated rivals with their constant on field sledging, of how under Ian Chappell's leadership in particular, a culture had been spawned where the game was played with unrelenting braggadocio.
Along the way, the Aussies committed several indiscretions but I forgave them each time: an enduring cricket affair is surely permitted the odd transgression? When the top Australian cricketers broke away to join Kerry Packer's cricket, the world saw them as 'rebels' but I viewed them as 'revolutionaries'. When the abuse and then patently biased umpiring forced Sunil Gavaskar to walk off the field in Melbourne, I chose to blame the Indian captain for losing his composure. When Greg Chappell forced his brother Trevor to bowl underarm to deny New Zealand a shot at victory, I saw it as a temporary act of madness. When years later, the Aussies were embroiled in 'Monkey-gate' with Sachin Tendulkar and Harbhajan Singh, I was again inclined to give them the benefit of doubt. Sore losers was my constant refrain to critics of the Australian way of cricket: after all, weren't the Aussies quite simply the best team of the modern generation, winners of four of the last five world cups, a team brimming with talent and character? Give me the Australian winning mentality rather than the timid English cricketing gents who spoke glowingly of the 'spirit of the game' and yet kept losing. That hunger to win was intrinsically linked to notions of Australian 'nationalism', a relatively young country with a limited and scarred history, where sports is a way of life, where the great outdoors were ideal for throwing up sporting heroes.
This Saturday night though, the love affair with Australian cricket came to a tragic, abrupt end. By wilfully tampering with the cricket ball, the Australians 'crossed the line', the fine line between 'winning' and 'winning at all costs' , between immorality and corruption, between gamesmanship and cheating. Bowling underarm may have been morally wrong but it was within the laws of the sport; slander and abuse may have been poor behaviour but it wasn't a 'crime'; however, choosing to use an external substance like sandpaper to 'tamper' with a cricket ball was just not about trying to get an unfair advantage, it is downright cheating. It has probably happened before, and other countries too may have attempted it, but that is no excuse. The Australians may appear contrite now, but the fact is, they were caught in the act and are now seeking forgiveness. They deserve none: a child caught copying once in an exam maybe forgiven because of a lack of maturity but not an adult cricket team trying to 'cheat' the system. Who is to now say that the Aussies haven't attempted this before, or that they would have probably done it again had they not been spotted by an alert cameraperson?
As captain of the ship, Steve Smith, a brilliant batsman but now a serial offender when it comes to 'brain fades' must go; as the coach of the team who seemed to have encouraged an unethical team culture, Darren Lehmann, must be sacked; Cameron Bancroft as a young man led up the wrong path could be temporarily suspended for a match or two; the rest of the team needs to be put on notice. As does the entire cricket fraternity: for much too long, cricketers have been permitted to get away for their failings by the insouciant and compromised authorities.
When Hansie Cronje was caught fixing matches, there seemed to be a general sense of disbelief, a wide eyed innocent reminiscing of the lost values of a 'gentleman's game' that was almost touching, even if deeply flawed. Surely, cricketers were meant to above the muck that encircles so much of society today. Sadly, they are not: from boorish behaviour to spot fixing, cricket has witnessed a sharp moral decline because those in charge of the sport have been hesitant to act. Cricket, like football, must have a system of red and yellow cards, of swift and exemplary punishment, of a sure footed clamping down on a 'star' culture that allows top cricketers to get away with arrogance and misbehaviour simply because they bring in the crowds and the money.
Maybe, when the anger subsides, I may even feel a bit sorry for Smith and co: modern competitive sport is unforgiving and no one likes to lose. For now, I can only feel sorry for myself: all those years spent romancing the Australian cricketers seem to have been such a waste of time and energy. Steve Smith, you just haven't damaged the sport, and dented your country's pride and your own reputation, you've also broken my heart. For that, I cannot ever forgive you.
Post-script: as Australian cricket seeks to pick up the pieces from the debris of Cape Town, I have a suggestion: why doesn't Cricket Australia approach Rahul Dravid to guide the team as coach and mentor. I can't think of anyone else at this crisis moment to provide Australian cricket what it so desperately needs: men of stature and conscience to lead it out of the abyss.