If you were woken up in the dead of night and asked to name the Prime Minister of Australia, would you be up for the challenge? You’d be a brave man to reply in the affirmative. Ditto Australia’s smaller neighbour, New Zealand. Except in the case of the latter, their much admired Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hit the headlines, becoming the first leader of the free world to give birth while in harness. Otherwise, the political leadership of the Antipodes is a closed book to me.
My attention was drawn to this ignorant lapse on my part when, tucked away in an inside page of my daily, I came across a report of a change of guard at the helm in Australia, and that one Scott Morrison has taken over as the new Prime Minister. As to who Mr. Morrison was succeeding, I was clueless. One tends to blush bashfully at this lack of knowledge about one of the world’s largest and loveliest continents. I am aware that a former Aussie PM, Harold Holt, disappeared while swimming in 1967, but that’s it. Talk about the United States, United Kingdom and many of the European nations, and we can reel off the names of most of their political bigwigs without breaking a sweat. So why this mental block about the wondrous Down Under?
Here’s the irony. Ask most Indians the names of the Australian or New Zealand cricket teams over the last several decades, and they will rattle them off in precise batting order, and recite them backwards. Everyone knows Don Bradman, but we are also familiar with Benaud, Harvey, Lindwall, Miller, Lawry, Simpson, Border, Lillee, Thompson, Warne and all the present day stars. Cricket fanatics around the world loved to hate the Aussies. They were brash and shamelessly won most of the time. If pressed, batting and bowling records of the likes of Bradman and Warne can also be trotted out from memory. The same applies to New Zealand. We love Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe who, sadly, passed away a few years ago. Stephen Fleming, Daniel Vettori and Brendon McCullum are household names because of their IPL exploits. We also loved the Kiwis because, unlike their uppity neighbours, they took defeat sportingly. Despite all this, we in India will never learn who the Defence or Home Minister of Australia and New Zealand are.
It’s not just cricket. We are equally enamoured of the great tradition of Australian tennis, now on a seemingly precipitous freefall. Laver, Fraser, Rosewall, Stolle, Newcombe, Roche, Cash, Rafter, Hewitt, Court and Goolagong. We all realise that both Australia and New Zealand have great sporting traditions. So our familiarity with sporting heroes from these countries is not surprising. To that list I can add film stars from Down Under who hit the big time in Hollywood. Russell Crowe, Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Jackman and Errol Flynn would occupy any honours board.
Being among the most peripatetic people in the world, Indians are extremely familiar with the delights that Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, Hobart, Christchurch, Auckland and Dunedin offer. Not just for their wonderful touristy delights, but again, for a cricket crazy nation like India, we can discuss the peculiar pitch conditions at the WACA in Perth vis-à-vis Brisbane’s Gabba with the authority of a pundit. Where Indians are concerned, it always comes down to cricket. Of course, if India happens to be playing in Australia, then air travel, hotel reservations and tickets for the games will be going at a sky high premium.
The larger point one is trying to make is that we Indians are at once extremely familiar with Australia and New Zealand and yet, completely blank when it comes to most other facets of these countries. Things are changing. There are more Indians living and working there than hitherto. Indians are avidly sought after for jobs in Australia and New Zealand, though immigration laws are still stringent. This has resulted in more Indian families travelling to the Antipodes, and acquiring greater knowledge of their political and social mores, and not confined merely to cricket, tennis and tourism.
I allow that there are many countries with whom we may have sporting and cultural links but whose political set-up is a shroud. The West Indies, which is a conglomeration of island nations, come together mainly to represent a strong, but declining, force in world cricket. Strangely, this does not apply to other sports like athletics, where countries like Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and Antigua, wear their own national colours at the Olympic Games and other international events. Nevertheless, I wonder how many of us can name the national leaders of these Caribbean countries.
South Africa is another prime example. A country with a robust sporting history, excelling in pretty much any branch of sport. Again, we in India are hugely taken up with their outstanding cricketers, many of whom are household names here. That said, other than Nelson Mandela can we name any of the prominent South African leaders who presently guide the political destiny of the rainbow nation? I rest my case. Incidentally, I speak in general terms in case some bright spark, the nasty exception that mugs these things up for quiz shows, confronts me with a ‘How dare you, you jumped-up ignoramus, I can name check the entire South African cabinet of ministers’. To such a one, I humbly prostrate. Come to that, beyond India’s own Prime Minister and a few cabinet ministers, most of us would be hard pressed to name the Minister in Charge of Urban Development and Social Welfare. If indeed, such a ministry exists.
If you, dear reader, would like to know more about Australia in a digestible and hugely amusing tome, you need look no further than Bill Bryson’s Down Under, a book informed by the author’s sensitive and razor sharp wit. If there’s a similar treatise on New Zealand, I haven’t come across it.
(The author is a brand consultant with an interest in music, cricket, humour and satire)...