Back in 1993, playing cricket for me meant hitting a plastic ball with a plastic bat. I was all of 4 then. Over the next three years, I played cricket with a rubber ball and a wooden bat while trying to emulate Sachin Tendulkar, much like most other Indian kids at the time. These were my first memories of cricket and Sachin was the only cricketer I knew.
Then came the 1996 World Cup, the year I turned 7 years old and put up a poster of Sachin from Sportstar magazine in my room. This was also my last act as a fan of Indian cricket.
During the 1996 World Cup, all I could understand was that Sri Lanka had gone on to win the World Cup and it was a big deal. But the thing that stood out from the tournament was watching these chaps in yellow kits play. Guys who played differently.
I enjoyed watching them play in spite of not knowing why. I experienced disappointment as a cricket fan for the first time when Damien Fleming dropped Asanka Gurusinha off Mark Waugh's bowling in the finals and the second time when Paul Reiffel dropped Aravinda DeSilva in the same game.
The World Cup was lost but since then I always wanted to watch the Aussies play. Cricket for me was not just about Sachin or playing with my friends anymore. It was about the guys in yellow who stood out for some reason for a 7-year-old kid from Chennai.
Before I knew it, I had become an Aussie fan. Eventually, I realised why I had become one. These guys were tough competitors. They never gave up. They were quicker and stronger than most other teams. They produced some of the best pacers the game has ever seen and pace bowling is still my favourite facet of this lovely sport.
Their leg spinner was a legend in the making. Over the next three years I had a Shane Warne poster, an autographed photo of Warnie, a picture of the Waugh brothers and one of Ian Healy, alongside my poster of Sachin.
By the time the 1999 World Cup started, I knew that the Aussies were a special team. They played a different brand of cricket. Brash, competitive, energetic, taking charge of the game, converting ones to twos, taking blinding catches, converting half chances and most importantly they did it all with aggression!
I started playing sport like them, only to become an outcast in South India where humility is a characteristic one is expected to possess even in a boxing bout. The times when I served an ace in a game of tennis and followed it up with a smirk or engaged opponents in banter on the basketball court, I knew it was only adding to my 'bad boy' image. But I didn't care much like my heroes who played cricket for Australia.
Despite being the bad guys, they were winning by stamping their authority on the sport. Though I wasn't much of a sporting success, I believed their approach was one that lets you take charge of things. Hook the bouncers, take them on, dive to take a catch, go for the direct hits and trust your teammates to back up your throw. And when you have the cherry in your hand, hit them with bouncers, say things that would put them off and get them out. Once the game is over, invite the opposition for a beer to your team's dressing room. This was the 'Aussie way'. The 'in your face' approach was working for them.
Between 1997 and 2007, some of the most exciting cricketers to have played for Australia emerged. Steve Waugh, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Ricky Ponting, Brett Lee, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Andrew Symonds to name a few. These 10 years were also my formative years (from the age of 8 to 18) - a period during which I copped a lot of criticism because I was an Aussie fan. Be it at school, playgrounds or anywhere I went, I would always gloat when Australia won a game and rub it in the faces of those (pretty much everyone around me) who were cheering for India. After games, some Indian fans would go on to condemn the very players they had put on a pedestal before the game and in some parts of the country, fans would even resort to vandalism.
But I stood by my team (the Aussies) through thick and thin because every Aussie fan was certain that their team would bounce back soon after a defeat. While India was bleeding blue I was bleeding yellow. I had been labelled an anti-national much before it became mainstream. I would root for Leander Paes at the Chennai Open as he, like the Aussies, was possessed with a never-say-die spirit. People who could not differentiate between sport and patriotism were asking me to go to Australia. I never really gave two hoots and continued being an Aussie fan, come what may!
Even when I heard people from earlier generations talk about cricketing greats from yesteryears, the stories about Lillie (Dennis Lillee) and Thommo (Jeff Thomson) always had something about them that was missing in the narrative about the great Windies or that of Gavaskar standing up to defend a bouncer and make the ball fall in front of his feet. It was the chutzpah that was missing! It took me 11 years to understand why these guys in yellow stood out, back in 1996. Good old chutzpah!
During their decade of dominance from 1997 to 2007, they lost an Ashes series in 2005, a couple of series’ against India and weren't dominating the T20 format but there was no doubt that they were the best team of the decade. They won three consecutive World Cups during this time.
From 2007 onwards however, I had my fair share of disappointments. Teams had proved that the Aussies were no longer invincible and could be beaten. They were not the same formidable force anymore. But I was still an Aussie fan. I did not give up on my favourite cricket team.
In 2011, India beat Australia in the World Cup quarter-finals. That was perhaps one of the worst days of my life. Friends from school, college, my neighbourhood, colleagues vented out years of pent up frustration of having to listen to me sledge them every time Australia beat India. It was my turn to cop some and I did it just the way the Aussies would. I answered every phone call and replied to every text saying 'wait till 2015'. I did not shy away from it.
Even though 2011-2013 saw an up and down patch, I still did not give up supporting the Kangaroos. Then came Mitchell Johnson in 2013 and along with Michael Clarke's batting prowess, I was back to my obnoxious best. And in the 2015 World Cup semi-finals, Australia beat India and went on to win the tournament and it felt like normalcy had been restored.
There were many controversies the Australians found themselves mired in. There were allegations that they sledged, they were bullies, they don't walk (well no batsman ever did except Gilchrist) and I would defend them tooth and nail because I did not see anything wrong with bouncing a batsman or getting in his face and claiming a wicket.
It was fine, they played tough and it worked for them. In 2003, Warne failed a dope test and I was sure that it was not to gain an unfair advantage. Ponting claimed a catch that hit the ground in 2007 and still I believed that they were not trying to cheat. Australians wouldn't cheat. They will bounce you, sledge you, bully you, stare and glare at umpires but wouldn't cheat. The belief was so strong that when Indian cricket was recovering from a match fixing scandal in 2001, the likes of Sachin, Dravid, Kumble and Sourav said what Indian cricket needed the most at that time was a series against Australia to restore the faith of Indian cricket fans. They needed to play a side that respected the sport and would give every game their all. A side that you know wouldn't think of losing at any cost. And most of all a side that loved the game of cricket.
And boy, what a series that was! Indian cricket fans believed in their team once again. Yes they belonged to the other camp but I was happy for them. This is what I loved about the way Aussies played cricket. More than two decades of Australian cricket has been a part of my life and remains an influence on me, the way I looked at things, the way I faced situations head-on, the “never-say-die” attitude that was instilled in me during my formative years.
But today I feel let down. I have nothing to say. I still can't believe what has happened. It still hasn't sunk in. An Australian team tampering with the ball. They cheated and they planned to do it. I feel sick in my stomach. I am swamped with thoughts of how the Aussie greats would be feeling. The guys who were my childhood heroes. Gilly, Warnie, Brett Lee, Steve Waugh. Guys I idolised. I wanted to live my life the way they played cricket. It's more than just being a fan or guzzling a few beers after winning an Ashes series. The way the Aussies played cricket, established a way of life for me. Brash? Yes. Obnoxious? Maybe. Arrogant? Perhaps. Tough? Definitely. Cheat? Never!
Today Smith and his team have sinned. This is not something an Aussie side can ever do. Smith described his first reckless on-field mistake as a ’brain fade’ in Bengaluru last year and I felt uneasy then but still chose to believe, it was an error while using a relatively new provision in the game.
But today it's carved in stone. An Australian team cheated and I will never forgive those involved for tainting, what was a way of life for me. For taking away from me my favourite retort to those who asked me, "Aren't you being a bit too aggressive/harsh/arrogant/