Soccer city gets a taste of Aussie football

Is it rugby? Is it football? Is it handball?

By Rith Basu and Ayan Paul
  • Published 2.11.15
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Junior boys of Bengal Tigers and Maharashtra Giants in action during a group league encounter of Australian Rules Football National Championship 2015, in association with The Telegraph, at Gitanjali Stadium on Sunday. (Sayantan Ghosh)

Is it rugby? Is it football? Is it handball?

The spectators were not sure but they could not take their eyes off the show of skill, strength and speed on the Gitanjali Stadium pitch.

Calcutta got its first taste of a fast-paced sport that is a rage Down Under as the two-day Australian Rules Football National Championship, in association with The Telegraph, started at the stadium on the Kasba connector on Sunday.

This is the first time the tournament, in its fourth year, is being held in the city.

Almost every spectator at the stadium on Sunday was looking - make that gaping - at the game for the first time and all were impressed by the thrill-a-minute action even though they didn't know the rules much.

"There is not one boring moment in this game. At one moment someone is being grounded by a rough tackle, the next moment a long kick sends the ball to the other half of the field, the ball bounces off unpredictably because of its shape, the players throw themselves around to retrieve it... it's fantastic," exclaimed Nishan Agarwal, a Class IX student at Garden High School, who came to watch the action with friends Sourav and Nilabha.

The boys said they would love to play the game if it were introduced in school.

The game, immensely popular in Australia where it originated and played in 51 other countries, is a combination primarily of football and rugby but has elements of other sports as well.

Unlike rugby, players can't throw the ball. For short passes they have to hit the ball with their hand, like in volleyball. For long passes, they have to kick the ball like a football goalie. They are also supposed to bounce the ball every 15 metres like basketball.

It's played in oval-shaped fields like cricket grounds. There are four posts on either side - two long ones flanked by two short ones. If a team can kick the ball through the long posts in the middle, they earn six points. If they keep it within the short posts that are wider apart, they bag one point.

Teams from seven states are participating in the senior and junior categories, with Bengal and Jharkhand being the standout performers on day one.

Two-time defending champions Bengal Tigers (seniors) have booked a place in the final by winning both their group games by huge margins against Maharashtra Giants (34-13) and Odisha Swans (44-7). Junior champions Jharkhand Crows blanked the Swans (52-0) and the senior Jharkhand boys thumped Kerala Bombers (34-7).

The tournament continues on Monday, when the last three matches in the group stage and the finals of the senior and junior divisions will be played.

In Sunday's matches, Bengal forward Moidul Ali did the star turn with maximum six-point scores. "I was an avid footballer since childhood but I took an instant liking to Aussie rules football when I was introduced to the game in 2008," said the 21-year-old from Khardah, who was the man-of-the-tournament in the last two nationals.

Mahesh Tirkey of Jharkhand is another player who has made a mark recently. Having been introduced to the game less than two years ago, the 22-year-old fast picked up the skills and found a place in the 2014 Indian team for AFL International Cup in Australia.

On return, he trained boys at various schools and localities in Ranchi and put together both the junior and senior teams of the state. Last year, the Jharkhand juniors had won the nationals and the seniors finished second.

The game in India receives a shot in the arm during the national tournament as coaches and volunteers from Australia come over to train the state teams and officiate the matches.

Australian Football League legend Gavin Crosisca, who has played 246 matches from 1987 to 2000, was impressed with the energy and the enthusiasm of the boys.

"I am amazed to see how much the boys here have started loving the game. Some of them are playing really well too. Who knows, one day they can be selected to play for an AFL team."

The action on the field apart, some youngsters were having their first tryst with the Aussie rules ball, which is more conical and slightly larger than the rugby ball and with stitches visible on one side. "When we were at the ground for a practice session on Saturday, a group of local boys were playing cricket. I invited them to try their hand at Aussie rules. They loved it so much that they are back today," said Mick Talpot, an Aussie coach.