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A tennis tour to India more than 80 years ago sowed the seeds of true friendship

While Australia and India battle it out on the cricket field this season, it is obvious every batsmen wants to reach a Test century. For us mere mortals, the closest thing we can aspire to is to celebrate a 100th birthday. William Stevens (‘Chum’) reaches that milestone on Tuesday 13 January.

Outside of cricket, Chum, who lives in the Perth suburb of Woodlands, was one of the first West Australians to visit India to play high level sport. Tennis was his talent and he was one of the state’s, in fact one of the nation’s, top players in his time. He was just 18 when he was selected to join a touring group of players where he would get to visit India on what was as much an ambassadorial visit as a sporting one. The youngster was obviously excited about the prospect when he first heard of the possibility.

“There were rumours of an invitation being received by West Australian Tennis coming from India suggesting the possible visit of a team of four players. During October 1933 the team was chosen. On the 27th of November we sailed from Fremantle,” Chum said.

There was no quick flight across the Indian Ocean in those days. Passenger airlines only flew domestically so the team of four tennis players boarded the 21,000 tonne SS Mooltan for Sri Lanka en route to Calcutta.

Asian oceanic tourist cruises certainly weren’t a big industry. The ship had room for 700 but only 40 were on board. It took nine days to reach Colombo where Chum and his team mates played a few exhibition matches before disembarking to the smaller British India vessel the Dumana and sailed on to India.

You can only imagine what it was like for the young Chum landing on Asian shores for the first time. Snake charmers, elephants, festivals, the Ganges, even some of the locals managing to transport a piano on their heads are all recorded in his memoirs! Quite different from the sleepy suburbs of Perth. There was certainly not the cultural connectedness we see now. Not much was known about India by Australians and vice versa.

“They speak such good English,” said Mr Mookerji, the club secretary of the South Calcutta Tennis Club, referring to the touring Australians and their surprising mastery over the English language.

At the South Calcutta club tournament, Chum did well individually, winning almost all his singles and taking out the mixed doubles championship. His still treasured trophy was presented by the Viceroy’s wife, Lady Willingdon, whose palace the players had toured earlier. After the tournament they commenced some more exhibition matches where India defeated the West Australian Team fairly convincingly.

After Calcutta, where Chum celebrated his 19th birthday, Chum and his teammates travelled the 1000 miles to Madras by train. Admiring the simple but fascinating villages and the timeless agriculture practices from his carriage window, he arrived in Madras on 3 January, 1934. The Aussie tennis team was treated like royalty, by royalty. They were driven by the Raja of Pita Poran in his Rolls Royce to their many games and functions.

The Madras tournament went for over a week, but Chum exited the tournament early in both the mixed doubles and singles. He must have had an off day. The overall winner of the men’s singles was the player (Islam Ahmed) whom Chum had defeated in Calcutta.  It was a different game back then and it would be understandable to have a bad day. With no ball boys they ‘foxed’ their own balls. The sporting uniform was also modest – full length trousers for the men and long dresses for the ladies were the standard playing attire. The advent of shorts in the game didn’t eventuate until the late 1930s.

Chum’s mixed doubles partner Miss Parrott

“It wasn’t a problem,” commented Chum. “It was all we knew back then.” Still, it must have made for a long, hot game and the top players would have been in excellent shape.

Mid-tour, the opportunity of a tour extension was offered to the team manager by the Indian Association but it was turned down. One of the West Australian players couldn’t get any more time off work and feared he might lose his job back home. Under management orders the team was not going to be split and the offer was declined. It’s unclear whether Chum was pleased or not. It was suggested that if they had taken up the offer they were to be taken on a Panther hunt on the backs of elephants!

The long tour continued as originally planned and they went on to Bezawada, north of Madras, and Trichinopoly visiting Srirangam’s famous temples where the temple jewels, accumulated over centuries were displayed. The touring party returned to Perth again via Sri Lanka. After nine days at sea and over two months away the team returned home.

The team received letters of correspondence from the tennis clubs they had visited thanking the players for their friendship and courtesy. They made lifelong friendships overseas and amongst themselves and met yearly after the Indian tour for another 50 years.

Chum acted as a great ambassador for his country and state and it is visits like these, separate from politics and boundaries, that helped cultivate the seeds of true friendship that exist today between Australia and India. They say behind every great champion is another half. Chum and his wife Lillian will be remarkably celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary in 2016, but for now happy 100th birthday to a true Australian icon.