New wave

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Raj Kuver plays for the Caulfield Bears under-11 team and dreams of being drafted to the AFL. But it’s more than just a one boy’s dream—if Raj has any impact, it may mean that Aussie Rules football is the sport of choice for many other young Indians

If kids grow up in Australia they get exposed to football—which invariably is either Australian Rules or Rugby League—more so than soccer depending on where they live. For Raj Kuver from Melbourne’s south east, it was Aussie Rules, and like the pioneers of the game more than a century and a half ago, he has chosen the traditional combination of cricket in summer and Aussie Rules in winter.

And, he’s bringing his family along for the ride. His mum Prasheeta is now the Auskickco-ordinator for the Caulfield Bears and is the team manager for Raj’s team, the Under 11 Polars, while his father Atul and sisters are regular fixtures around the club.

In many ways, Raj is the first of the next wave, and with an expected population of more than a million people of Indian origin in Melbourne in the next 20 years that wave may be a tsunami. Most AFL clubs now have multi-cultural ambassadors with different ethnic origins including Indians, Pakistani and Somalians in addition to Indigenous Australians.

Raj’s beloved Essendon is one such club, and they do a lot with the Indian community including sponsoring the Bharat Bombers in the Unity Cup competition each year in Kensington. Additionally, every three years the AFL runs the International Cup, and there is always an Indian team (this one supported by the Richmond Tigers) in that too. Falling out the back of that competition in 2011 was the formation of the Masala team which plays in the VAFA out of Noble Park.

In the movie Aussie Rules The World, which was released last year, there is coverage of the game’s growth in India itself, which is a logical link given the game was invented for cricketers to keep fit in the off-season.

It is getting there.

For Raj though, he sees none of this, and to all intents and purposes he just sees a football and his mates. He does not see race or colour—that is something our parents teach us—he sees Caulfield Bears and the rest.

Still only 10 and playing for the Bears’ Under 11 Polarsteam, he dreams of being drafted to the AFL just like thousands of other boys playing this style of football in Melbourne.

“It started when my mum turned on the telly one day and there were people kicking a football and I didn’t know what was going on,” Raj explains. “Then I bought a football and started kicking it around and I loved it. I started playing at school and then when I got into grade 2 I started playing club footy.

“I love running with the ball in the mid-field. I love playing for the Bears, but not when we lose. I want to keep going and hope I get drafted one day.”

When Raj first arrived at the Bears three seasons ago, he jumped the fence for his first training session in an Essendon jumper that was so big it looked like a dress. He was small compared to most of the others kids—which is not always the case for Indian boys—but his skills were well in front of most of the first season players. His kicking technique was spot on, he could mark and handpass as well, and those three skills are at the core of playing Aussie Rules.

Then when the games started a month later, it was his courage and singular focus on the ball that quickly won him a place among the best in that team and a perennial crowd favourite.

When you talk to his mum, Prasheeta, it was his size that was the biggest issue for her, not race.

“He is totally obsessed, he absolutely loves it,” she says.

“When he started playing in the Under 9s there were seven and a half years olds that were bigger than him, and I was pretty terrified when he was always the one under the pack. But he loved it, he’d come out smiling with this huge grin. He’s had a few scratches and bruises, but that is it,” she says.

As for fitting into the ‘footy culture’, Prasheeta and her family have found that easy.

“Years and a years ago when I was growing up football had a whole different culture about it. It was very English-Australian and there weren’t many players with different coloured skins. At that time I didn’t really enjoy it, but since Raj has started to enjoy it we are getting into it too. The Bears really welcomed us and we never felt different,” she says.

“There are so many examples of Australia being so multi-cultural with Indians and Chinese and so many others, and that is what this sport is too. I hope that a lot Indians will now get into it. There’s so many of us around, it would be great,” she adds.

Prasheeta says Raj is slowly converting those around him. He’ll kick a soccer ball, but the footy is never too far away and he will eventually get them all playing with the right shaped ball.

“My grandad will kick the footy with me,” Raj says, “but not many other Indians will play straight away, but I eventually get them to kick with me.”

If Raj has any impact, it may eventually be that Aussie Rules football is the sport of choice for a brace on young Indians. It may be that Raj is drafted to an AFL team, but the chances are that in seven or eight years’ time when that happens, he may have been beaten to the punch by some of the other players making inroads from the sub-continent.

The writer was Raj’s first Aussie Rules coach three years ago at the Caulfield Bears. He has since coached with the PaksitanShaheens that beat India to the Dosti Cup last year in the AFL International Cup 2014 and continues an involvement with the Shaheens. In addition, he is a sport journalist and the current president of the Caulfield Bears Junior Football Club

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