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It ain't cricket

  • Friday, February 08 2013 @ 07:24 am ACDT
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Over the last few years we've had numerous articles chronicling the rebirth of Australian football in India, but recently AFL India drew our attention to a great article by Glen Cullen on the Australia Unlimited website that very nicely put the whole journey together in one story.  With permission we reproduce it below.  Original article is here: It ain't cricket

One per cent of India’s population is roughly half Australia’s population. So a significant fan base could emerge from converting a small percentage of that country’s bat and ball fanatics to a brand new game.

A young man who wanted to direct Bollywood films; a tour operator stationed in Mumbai; and a UK-based educator – yes, it sounds like the start of a joke. But for Sudip Chakraborty, Lincoln Harris and Rick Shrowder the sport of Aussie Rules is more than just a lark. This triumvirate, very different backgrounds and interests notwithstanding, is passionate about India and also about Australia’s native football code.

Until the end of 2012 the three worked mainly independently of one another, but in December they met at the first Indian national Australian Rules Championships in the southern state of Kerala. 

In India, as we all know, cricket is more than just a game. It’s the game. Up to 80 per cent of the country’s 1.2 billion inhabitants are thought to watch or play it in some fashion. Almost 68 million Indians tuned in to watch their side win the 2011 World Cup. The major international series – the Indian Premier League – has a market value estimated at $US3billion.

Getting traction in India with big global sports is hard enough, but Australian Rules Football? It’s little known and little played outside Australia – except by mad ex-pats set on world domination by their sport.

The plan for Kerala was to formulate something of a roadmap for the future of the sport that already has around 500 registered players and a presence in four of India’s 28 states.

In many ways Chakraborty has been the glue in this equation. He’s the local who has effectively dedicated his work, sporting and social life to a sport he knew nothing about until seven years ago.

Unsurprisingly it was a cricketer – former Australian captain Ricky Ponting – who stoked the flames of Chakraborty’s interest in the code when the Australian was cross-promoting AFL in 2008, during a stint in the Indian Premier League with the Kolkata Knight Riders.

Already playing a loose version of the game in Kolkata, Chakraborty was lured by the promise that a team from India would feature in an international Aussie Rules tournament to be played in Melbourne (the heartland of AFL passion) and Victorian regional cities Geelong and Warrnambool later that year.  It was an irresistible challenge for the teenager, who put his studies on hold to dedicate himself to the sport as he sought to make the team.

The International Cup of 2008 would yield no results for the raw Indian squad, but getting to watch some of the game’s greatest players in action in the AFL was enough to convince Chakraborty he would embrace the code and encourage others in his homeland to play the foreign game.

“I got to see (Hawthorn’s) Buddy (Lance) Franklin kick his 100th goal. It was crazy, it was overwhelming and the experience just made me love life,” Chakraborty recalls.

But there was to be no immediate fairytale for the sport in India. After initial enthusiasm the code’s peak body there disbanded. Chakraborty was left to pick up the pieces and form a new board.


Things moved slowly, but the new Australian Football League – India gradually took off, and the body saw teams playing in Mumbai, Calicut and Madurai. Funds were always tight and pushing the value of such a minor sport was sometimes tough, but a visit from former Sydney Swans captain Brett Kirk at the start of 2011 as part of his worldwide tour to promote the game left its mark.

“The two weeks I spent with Brett Kirk were absolutely life changing for me,” Chakraborty says. “He kept talking about my passion but what I saw in him inspired me more. I was doing my graduation in mass media and was looking forward to becoming a Bollywood director but he changed everything for me. I thought, ‘I need to do sport management and take things more seriously’. And that’s when footy became my life.”

Chakraborty would go on to become president of AFL India and captain the national team to its first win at the International Cup in 2011 against East Timor. He’s now looking at taking up a formal position with the AFL in Australia in 2013.

For Lincoln Harris, who started taking small groups of tourists to India 10 years ago and now runs the award-winning Mumbai-based business India Unbound, the AFL push is less about the sport and more about the connections that Indians from all walks of life can make by playing Aussie Rules. He loves the game, to be sure, but when he suggested kicking a ball around instead of playing a semi-regular game of cricket with some friends and locals a few years back it was initially just to try something different. He soon realised it could be a chance to kick more important goals.

“Everyone was keen on the game as something different to cricket,” he says. “And to teach people something new is a powerful thing because that levels the playing field. Everyone comes in with the same skill or lack of it. They forget their background. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what your physical attributes might be, you are starting from square one. Often in India people’s backgrounds weigh quite heavily on what they do, who they associate with and the networks they have. For me the idea was to start connecting people from different communities.”

And that’s exactly what started to happen. The Wednesday training and Sunday games played at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park (where the cricket connection also runs deep – one of the world’s greats, Sachin Tendulkar, began his career playing here) quickly became a melting pot of university students, the middle classes as well as those not so well off, all of whom found the new game addictive.

With the help of non-government organisations, the Australian Trade Commission, as well as some of his own hard-earned cash, Harris found himself running a half-decent local competition. A subsequent contact with Chakraborty opened up more doors and also ensured Mumbai’s two teams – the Mahim Cats and Matunga Tigers ­– would get to travel to Kerala for the national championship.

Cricket’s legacy, it seems, is both a blessing and a curse. Harris believes there are plenty of Indians who are a bit over the ubiquitous national game, and ready to take on another sport. But the shadow cricket casts means it can be difficult for other sports to find their place in the sun. Money and influence for Aussie Rules, and indeed most other codes, is hard to come by in India.

“If you had a bit of organisation behind you, you could get thousands of people playing in a short period of time,” says Harris.

Enter the AFL’s Richmond Football Club. The Tigers began establishing links with Australia’s Indian population in 2010. In a multi-tiered strategy the Melbourne club thought it could build a few bridges when the city’s reputation took something of a beating in India after several international students were attacked in the Victorian capital. There was also the opportunity to grow their own fan base and begin to engage with Indians in India – where the tiger is also revered.

The cricket connection was again ever-present with legendary Indian batsman Rahul Dravid coming on board as patron for the 300-member strong Indian Tigers supporters’ group. The club also hosted the Indian national team in 2011, Indian kids for little league games and has established the Masala Football Club in Melbourne.

That’s an Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Australian Rules team that will play in Melbourne’s amateur competition for the first time in 2013. There are also plans afoot for a pre-season AFL game, potentially against Greater Western Sydney, to be played in Mumbai in the next two years.

Business, sport and social cohesion are all worthy drivers for Australian Rules in India but UK-based Rick Shrowder has yet another: education. The former Adelaide local has lived in northern England for the past 13 years where he set up a sports-based educational program called Global Community Sports, delivering programs to primary and secondary schools and young offender institutes in the region. Australian Rules is his sporting tool of choice. After seeing a television show on aid in India, Shrowder thought it would be a worthwhile exercise expanding his program to the sub continent.

He set off in 2007 to do just that.

The project has gone on to become education with a unique twist. Shrowder gets his UK students to put together manuals with words and pictures to explain in their own way how the sport works and what they have learned during their six-week program. Since 2010 the manuals have been used to introduce more than 500 people to the sport in Madurai, in southern India.

“Teaching them Australian football, they are learning about a lot of issues,” Shrowder says. “You can talk about community cohesion, diversity and an introduction to the country of Australia.”

He can see the code growing to become a more substantial national league and with the right assistance a part of a wider education program in Indian schools.

“Sport is a great way to engage with young people. For literacy, numeracy and greater learning. The bigger it gets, the more people will have value in involvement from administrators to coaches or umpires.”

Just how big Aussie Rules can become in India is anyone’s guess. While it will never challenge cricket and is unlikely to go head-to-head with big global sports such as Formula One and soccer, the key players feel it can significantly grow its niche. And with passionate proponents such as Chakraborty – whose ultimate aim is to organise a match between India and Pakistan to bring the countries together – the game’s potential suddenly seems very big indeed.

Editorial note:  We've published this as it's a great summary of the return to footy in India, but it's worth noting here that to the best of our knowledge the connection between Richmond and the Masala FC is a little overstated.  Whilst Richmond has been instrumental in helping Masala FC to gain entry into the VAFA and to get AFL Victoria approval, Masala FC is independent of Richmond and its formation over the past 12 months was driven by passionate individuals such as Trevor Banerjee, Fevin Mascarenhas, William Fernandes and Ash Nugent.  But as we said earlier, overall a great summary of India's footy journey so far.