By Will Hunter
As far as footy recruits go, Murrumbeena’s Poorni Ghanta is as raw as they come.
This year’s inaugural season of the SFNL Women’s Football Competition has given many women and girls their first experiences in the game of Aussie Rules. Even the elite-level AFLW featured several sport-swapping female athletes participating in an organised football competition for the very first time.
But even by this measure, Poorni’s story is a unique one, and further highlights the capacity of Australia’s indigenous sporting code to unite Australians of all racial, cultural and religious backgrounds.
Undeterred by a complete lack of knowledge of the game, the Indian native has completely embraced her new chosen sport.
Speaking on the eve of this weekend’s SFNL Multicultural Round, Ghanta explained that she took up the sport as a way of embracing the Australian culture and way of life.
“Footy was never on my to do list for sure,” Ghanta admitted.
“(But) one thing I always believed, because I always lived and travelled quite a bit, I’ve been on the move for the last 10 or 15 years, so I always liked living like the way the locals do.
“I think that gives you more of an experience, rather than trying to recreate India here. You can’t expect it, it’s a different country and you should be open to new things.”
Ghanta knows a thing or two about new cultural experiences, having lived and travelled extensively before moving to Australia in December 2011. Originally hailing from the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, Ghanta spent several years living in the United States and the United Kingdom before finally settling in Melbourne with her husband Narendhar.
Her initial observations upon her arrival were the prevalent and vibrant multiculturalism that exists in Melbourne, which far surpasses anything that she had previously experienced in the US, the UK or India.
And it was soon after her arrival in the sports-mad city that is Melbourne that she came to know about the Australia’s unique sporting pursuit.
“From 2012 to 2014 I used to live in the city, and I was next to Etihad Stadium, so I have been to a few matches. It sort of interested me, the game itself,” Ghanta explained.
“I liked it, and I always saw those little kids with the jerseys and I wanted to know why they are so into the game and why it is so fascinating. So as a family we went to games in the stadium and MCG.
“So I knew the game, but I never thought I would play.”
But life is full of twists and turns, and her journey from passive spectator – North Melbourne is her team of choice – to player was certainly an unconventional one.
Fast forward a few years and Ghanta, an architect by profession, was looking to re-enter the workforce after taking a five-year break to raise her first child.
During one of her job interviews, a prospective employer out of the blue asked her whether she would ever like to play footy. It was a completely unexpected question and it had Ghanta taken aback.
“I don’t know why he asked me that question in a professional interview, but I said, ‘why not? If it’s a game, I would like to try’,” a somewhat bemused Ghanta confessed.
“So that was it, the interview was finished and it kept me thinking (about it).”
These thoughts resurfaced earlier this year when Ghanta moved into Murrumbeena, right across the road from the Beena Arena. When taking her four-year-old son to the park, she saw the Murrumbeena women’s team being put through their paces. By sheer coincidence, she met the Beena’s senior men’s captain, Mitch Walder, who told her about the club’s brand new women’s football program and encouraged her to consider giving it ago.
Ghanta had played sports before – throwball was one she had previously tried her hand at back in India – but Indian culture back when she was growing up was such that, despite her talents and physical attributes, she was encouraged to go down the academic path and take full advantage of her intellectual promise, rather than follow her sporting ambitions.
But living in a sports-mad city and keen to involve herself in the local customs, she decided after a couple of weeks of deliberation that this was a great opportunity and decided to give this foreign game a go.
Ghanta joined the club some six weeks ago, and has been pleasantly surprised by the level of support she has received from her teammates, club volunteers and coach Emrys Lloyd-Griffiths.
However, it hasn’t been an easy initiation given her complete lack of knowledge of the game.
“I remember my Day 1 here, I could hardly hold the footy properly, I didn’t know anything! I just came, and it was like a new toy for me,” Ghanta recalled.
Aside from coming to terms with a totally foreign set of physical skills, the likes of which are vastly different to the overwhelming majority or sports, it’s been the language barrier that has proved one of the biggest hurdles to overcome.
As any person who has ever played footy at any level will attest, communication is key. Not only is English not Ghanta’s first language – a difficulty in itself – but understanding the intricacies of footy terminology has also been challenging.
“Getting used to the lingo and understanding (was difficult) because in the first initial weeks when people were talking, it just felt like French, you know, I didn’t understand anything,” she said.
“Now I think I understand when they are training, though I can’t do what they are saying. Maybe I can’t kick the right way, they say, but I can still understand what they are instructing the girls to do.”
From a skills perspective, Ghanta has made massive improvements in such a short period of time. She still has some way to go before she perfects her skills, but her appetite to learn and enthusiasm for training has been one of the catalysts for her rapid development.
She is also incredible grateful to the club for their time they have invested in her development, and particularly the efforts of Lloyd-Griffiths and Bobby Spaulding, which has made her footy experience so far enjoyable.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with Bobby for my one-on-one (skills training) and he’s been very, very encouraging... (and) he’s not sick of me. ‘Oh my god, how many times I should tell this girl!’ – I never see that from him, he’s very patient,” Ghanta said.
“He understands the challenges that come, you know, (I’m a) 34-year-old, new to the game, I think he always remembers that. And I never saw him not smiling!
“Emrys knew these things as well, I’m not the quickest in the team, I’m new to the game, but still, I don’t know why, they are not giving up on me. They have been very encouraging.
“And the girls have been cooperative, they see I’m struggling and they help me out.”
Unfortunately, there have been very few players of Indian descent playing high-level football, despite a very large Indian migrant population in Australia, but it is something Ghanta hopes will change soon. She is a firm believer that players of Indian origin having a visible presence in the big league will do wonders for helping spread the gospel of AFL throughout the Indian community.
“I would love to see Indians playing in the big teams. If North Melbourne had an Indian player I will be so proud of it, I will be more eager to support the team,” she said.
“I mean, I know I am in Australia now, and I might be a citizen very soon, but still I grew up as an Indian so I can’t disconnect with it.
“So I think Indians playing in the big teams would be great. I think definitely that would help the game reach the (Indian) community better.”
Following the first ever AFL match for premiership points being played in China earlier this year, India has been earmarked as the next frontier for Australia’s national game, given the cultural and sporting ties that already exist between the two nations.
Essendon and Adelaide Crows have taken a lead in attempting to engage the Indian community – the two clubs will feature a distinct Indian-themed to their upcoming clash in Round 21 – and loom as potential candidates for an exhibition or JLT Series match in either Mumbai or Dehli.
Ghanta harbours some uncertainty about how the players will cope with the stifling heat and humidity of the sub-continent, but was in absolutely no doubt when asked whether the code will capture the hearts and minds of the local Indian population.
“Yes, definitely!” was her swift and emphatic response.
Ghanta’s enthusiasm and fondness for the game is infectious, despite her very limited exposure to it so far, and she is yet another shining example of the inclusive and multicultural nature of Australian Rules football.