The game changer

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2024

It was Ricky Ponting who opened a whole new world of sport to Sudip Chakraborty with Australian Rules Football. And now Sudip is playing it forward

Sudip Chakraborty had never seen an Australian football before when he was first introduced to the sport by none other than cricketing great Ricky Ponting in early 2008.

Ponting was holding a series of sports clinics promoting AFL in Chakraborty’s hometown Kolkata, while playing cricket for the Kolkata Knight Riders IPL team.

“It was a very new thing. I’d never heard of it, never tried it,” said the 24-year-old.

Now nearly seven years later, and Chakraborty has kicked aside his dreams of becoming a Bollywood director to spread the love of the game across India.

Chakraborty is Secretary General of Australian Rules Football Association of India (ARFAI), helps organise India’s AFL National Tournament and is even trying to get the sport officially registered with the Indian government.

“We need to get seven state associations under us to get registered with the Sports Authority of India (SAI). We are working towards that, and once we have done that we can call ourselves the Indian national team. For now we can call ourselves the team representing India — the Indian Tigers,” said Chakraborty, who completed a master’s in sport management at Loughborough University, in England.

India is not the first foreign land to have adopted the oval ball. AFL is currently played in more than 50 countries, with 18 participating in the International Cup, held every three years in Melbourne.

In every country, expat Australians make up a chunk of players – except for in India. “We are the only country where the game has been grown completely by locals,” Chakraborty said.

While AFL is currently being played in four Indian states, and will be introduced in another two this year, the players are almost entirely self-taught – studying YouTube clips of matches to pick up technique.

“During our national tournaments a lot of Aussies come down and that’s one point in the entire year that we get training directly from Australians,” Chakraborty said.

“All Australians who’ve ever seen us play or entered our tournaments have been really fascinated by the fact that; first thing they never knew it happened in India.

“Second thing is, we haven’t got training from any Australian source. So the level that we have developed is outstanding, if we’d actually got training we could have done much better.”

Australians have been helping out when it comes to funding, according to Chakraborty. A recent grant from the government will see AFL increase its spread from West Bengal, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala to Rajasthan and Jharkhand.

ARFAI also gets funding from the Perth-based company Oil and Gas Mining Institute (OGM) and the sale of signed football jumpers donated by Richmond, Essendon and GWS Giants football clubs — The West Coast Eagles is also an official supporter and the St Kilda Saints are in talks to come on board.

Chakraborty said the aim this year is to see at least 1000 kids in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Jharkhand get to play footy “at least once”.

The challenge is encouraging parents to let their children take up the rough and tumble game. “Indian parents don’t really want their kids to fight and get injured,” he said. “We are now trying to introduce a school program. So we’ve kept in mind that there’s no physical contact to start with.”

And of course there is also the difficulty of tearing them away from their beloved cricket.

But Chakraborty believes India’s passion for cricket is what makes the vast continent so well suited for AFL. “We already have cricket fields all around the country, and after all footy was first started as a game to keep the cricketers fit in the off season,” he said.

Despite the odds, footy is becoming more popular, according to Chakraborty. “In Mumbai we used to have 20 to 30 kids playing on the weekends. Now we have at least 150 players — they keep coming back and they keep playing,” he says.

The Mumbai team was started in early 2011 by Australian expatriate Lincoln Harris, who runs a travel company and has since left India to live in Singapore. Harris used to kick around a Sherrin with children from Mumbai’s Dharavi slum and local colony kids on weekends for fun, and the scratch matches snowballed.

Harris previously told how he realised the game was more than just fun for the kids – it kicked down India’s barriers of caste and class. “Once they’ve got their team tops, they do actually move beyond where they’re from. You lose any pretensions pretty quickly when you’re getting tackled,” he was quoted as saying in The Australian newspaper.

Now Chakraborty is helming the developing of AFL in India, he is determined to see the game grow. “I’ve got job offers from different companies but I really don’t want to go there because my effort [with AFL] for the last five years will go to waste if I shift now,” he says.

“Thanks to the [ASOP] grant we can sustain ourselves for the next 10 months and hopefully meanwhile we’ll get enough other sponsors that’ll keep us going another couple of years.”

This year’s International Cup will take place in Melbourne from 9 – 23 August.

Those who wish to get in touch with Sudip Chakraborty regarding sponsorship or information can email him at: sudip.chakraborty@aflindia.org

Published in The Indian Sun (Indian Australian Magazine)

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