Every Sunday, a group of youngsters gather at Shivaji Park cricket’s hub to play a sport that appears to be a mish-mash of basketball, volleyball, rugby, sprinting, and football.
Curious onlookers fail to guess the name of the sport in three chances. Most believe it is rugby. However, some get it right once a hint is thrown that it was invented in Australia 155 years ago and is the most popular sport there.
If you have guessed it as Australian Rules football, you are correct. More popularly known as Footy, it was introduced to Australian cricketers to keep themselves fit during the off season. If cricket binds India, Footy does the same Down Under and is their national sport.
Well, it’s no coincidence that it took a legendary cricketer to introduce the sport in India. It was none other than Ricky Ponting, who introduced the sport to his Kolkata Knight Riders teammates during the inaugural edition of the IPL.
However, the sport was introduced in Mumbai by a much-lesser known Australian named Lincoln Harris, who owns a travel company called ‘India Unbound’.
The sponsorship for the sport in the city comes from India Unbound and a charity Australian Football club named ‘Reclink Football Club’, of which Lincoln’s brother Rhan Harris is an ambassador in Australia.
Footy is being kicked around in more than 50 countries now, including India. An International Cup is held every three years in Australia, where 18 countries participate.
Playing the most crucial role in the development and growth of the sport in the country has been Sudip Chakraborty, the secretary general of Australian Rules Football Association in India and operating as the official contact in India for the governing body of the Australian Football League (AFL), which has its headquarters in Melbourne.
Talking about the scene in the city, Sudip says, “Mumbai has always been welcoming to any new sport. What works in our favour is footy brings people from any sporting background together.
“The major chunk of AFL players in Mumbai come from Mahim, Matunga and Dadar and a few from Nerul. Their age group varies from 10-22 yrs.”
Sudip was a Mumbai University student, when he first represented India in 2008 and later went on to lead India to its first international victory against East Timor in the International Cup held in Melbourne in 2011.
The game has spread mostly through word-of-mouth, explains Sudip, “That’s why most of our players are from areas closer to Shivaji Park.
“Also, youngsters talk about the sport in their schools and colleges. This spreads awareness about the sport,” Sudip adds.
Mumbai had two teams fighting for top honours last season Mahim Cats and Matunga Tigers. The lads were divided into three age groups U-14, U-18 and an open age group, to fight it out in a best of three format.
The Mahim Cats emerged victorious in the U-14 and open-age encounters while the Matunga Tigers ran away with the U-18 honours. This season sees the introduction of the Dadar Lions, who hope to upset the two heavyweights.
Sumesh Sawant, 18, handles the operations of the sport across the state, and along with Lincoln is responsible for giving the sport the little reach it has in the city.
“I got the belief in the sport knowing that there’s a national team and a captain who is interested in giving the sport the exposure it so badly needs,” says Sawant.
“The best part of the sport is that it can be played at any sporting ground. So in a city like Mumbai where space is such a big issue, playing Footy can never be a problem,” he adds.
Both Sumesh and Sudeep believe that as youngsters nowadays are open to try out something new, something international, Footy has every chance to grow.
“We hope the sport reaches the level here it sees in other countries. The signs have been positive so far and the numbers turning up every weekend at Shivaji Park has been impressive,” said Sudeep.
First National Championship: November 2012 in Kozhikode
2013 National Championship: to be held in Goa from November 15-17
Playing area of pitch: 150 metres (or more) long goal to goal and 135 metres (or more) wide boundary line
Team strength: 18 players (4 rolling subs, squad of 22)
Length of game: four quarters of 20 minutes each
Scoring and Play
The game starts like a basketball game (jump ball), one runs with the ball like in rugby, you have to pass the ball (can pass forward unlike rugby) like you serve in volleyball (underpass). One can also kick the ball
The game involves scoring between two sets of four poles on sides of the circular pitch, two tall ones and two short. If one kicks between the two tall posts, six points. And between the tall and short, one point
The ball bears a striking resemblance to the one used in rugby but it is more rounded and more swelled up, helping players kick the ball a further distance.