An occasion to cherish

The awards were followed by a dinner, where all the young ones made a beeline for the cricketers.

Dungarpur drapes a ponnadai around the 'Legend of Indian Sport' awardee, Milkha Singh as The Sportstar Sportsperson of the Year (1997), Sourav Ganguly looks on.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Even as the Contessa was making its way to the Park Sheraton, Sourav Ganguly, the winner of The Sportstar Sportsperson of the Year Award, quietly enquired, "Who are the previous winners?." When informed that it was Sachin Tendulkar, Viswanathan Anand and Leander Paes in that order, the man from Bengal remarked, "then it must be big."

The previous day, a broad smile had lit his face when told that the entire Indian cricket team would be present to see him being honoured.

And to make the occasion more special, Sourav's wife Dona had flown in from Calcutta. Indeed, the award and the award function have become an integral part of the sports calendar. As Bobby Simpson, consultant, Indian cricket team, put it, "more than anything else, a sportsman wants recognition for his achievements."

The award from The Sportstar, India's leading sports magazine, had done just that - recognising Sourav's astonishing run in 1997, when even the law of averages could not quite catch up with him.

Sourav, described by Raj Singh Dungarpur, President, BCCI, and the chief guest at the function, as " one of the two best left-handers in world cricket today," was in roaring form in '97, scoring runs in the Emerald Isles, Toronto, Pakistan and then in India.

He put his bowling skills to good use too, emerging as the leading wicket- taker in Toronto. Importantly, he has not looked back in 1998. Rahul Dravid, who made his Test debut along with Sourav at Lord's in '96, was a happy man at the function.

Sourav made a hundred in the match, Dravid missed his by a whisker, and the two were associated in a vital partnership. Both the young men have come a long way since that beginning.

Said Dravid with that shy smile lighting up his face, "Sourav richly deserves the award. He's a tremendous cricketer and a good friend. It's nice since we started our Test career together."

Well, at the tastefully decorated hall, the photographers took vantage points and the television cameras began to whir. There was a mood of celebration all around, and the city's glitterati, that included some very eminent names from all fields, added life and colour to the proceedings.

The young ones had a field day too seeing their stars in flesh and blood.

Naturally, they had their autograph books ready. "I've been waiting for this day for weeks," said a little one, whose heroes were Tendulkar and Ganguly.

It was a rather special evening in Chennai as the present brushed shoulder with the past. Yes, The Flying Sikh Milkha Singh was honoured with the Legend of the Indian Sports award. There is a timeless quality about some sportsmen and that is certainly true about Milkha.

Rajiv Mishra, who played such a key role in India winning the silver medal in the junior World Cup at Milton Keynes and Koneru Humpy, the winner of the under-10 World chess title were also present to receive the Young Achievers award.

Sourav, much like his fluid batting, was a picture of elegance in his suit, while Milkha Singh looked stunningly fit for a man well into his 60s. And despite the presence of the cricketers, Milkha was quite the cynosure.

N. Ram, Editor, The Sportstar, set the ball rolling with his welcome address.

In his speech, Simpson, the international guest of honour at the function said, "Ganguly is a man who is undoubtedly going to play a big role in the World Cup. I think I can add a little more to his game and a little more to his character. Certainly, he is a magnificent cricketer and he will be a better cricketer in the future. But in some ways, given the longevity of the game, he is still a baby learning. When you say things to him, at first, he goes back a yard, then comes for- ward and listens again."

Simpson, whose enthusiasm for the game has only increased with years, revealed how much he enjoyed contributing to The Sportstar as a columnist. "This is something I have really liked," admitted the redoubtable Aussie.

The wizened Raj Singh, as articulate and as immaculate as ever, said,"Ganguly is attractive, authoritarian and effortless. One can never forget that hundred in Lord's. The innings will remain framed in my memory. I consider it my personal privilege to have been there. Mohammed Azharuddin was at the gate of the long room to welcome Sourav into the dressing room. Now, Sourav is in the business of winning Man of the Match awards against Pakistan."

Raj Singh, who has contributed immensely to Indian cricket as an administrator, added: "I can close my eyes and see Ganguly bowl as a first change bowler in the month of May in England. He can create one more place in the Indian team if he can bowl those 10 overs. And that one extra place created could make all the difference." The BCCI President urged Ganguly to take his bowling more seriously. Coming to the often thorny issue of Indian captaincy, he complimented both Mohammed Azharuddin and Sachin Tendulkar for the smooth transition, and added the year 1998- 99 could be the most important one in the history of Indian cricket.

Raj Singh remembered Sport ; Pastime, the forerunner to The Sportstar, and acknowledged the role played by The Hindu and The Sportstar in promoting all sports, cricket in particular.

He said he was honoured to be in the presence of two legends, Milkha Singh (on the dais) and tennis ace Ramanathan Krishnan (among the audience) and recalled the contribu- tions of two famous cricketing sons of Tamil Nadu - Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan and Krishnamachari Srikkanth.

In his brief reply, Ganguly, who received a citation, a silver salver, and a cash award of Rs 1 lakh, thanked The Sportstar for its support and wished the Indian team the best of luck in its future campaigns (he too will be an integral part of it). He acknowledged the role of his wife and parents who have been a " pillar of strength to him during the tough times."

From the present to the past. But then, Milkha Singh's record in the 400m set in Rome Olympics in 1960 is yet to be bettered by an Indian ath- lete. The Sardar broke the Olympic mark, but rather excruciatingly, finished fourth.

Joginder Saini, famed athletic coach and Dronacharya award-winner, chronicled Milkha Singh's career beautifully - from the day he hid among corpses in a train which carried him to India from Pakistan to that famous race in Rome.

"Man was killing man, and man had become a beast," said Saini recalling the troubled times of the partition. And Milkha, who lost his parents in the communal carnage, survived the horrors of partition, and as Saini put it, it was a " rags to rich- es" story for him.

Age has not managed to wean that sparkle away from Milkha's visage. The proud Sardar, who was presented with a citation and a cash award of Rs one lakh, spoke from the heart.

It was a passionate speech and one that revealed the sense of hurt in the man. The audience was spellbound as the legendary Sikh gave vent to his feelings in a fiery manner.

"Even after 40 years, no Indian has broken my record. We should be ashamed, really ashamed of it. I am often asked to coach the youngsters and I ask them 'Now, who among you would go on to break my record.

Everyone lifts their hands but nothing happens. We should be ashamed of ourselves. We have as many as 27,000 coaches in the country and have spent thousands of crores, but nothing has happened.

"A Milkha Singh, who ran barefoot, did not know about shoes or track-suits, did not benefit from sophisticated training, still holds the Indian record.

Actually, we have been producing only coaches and not athletes. We used to dominate in the Asian Games, but look what happened last time. We did not win a single gold. P.T. Usha did not win and we drew a blank. What a sorry state of affairs.

Countries like China have stolen a march over us.

"I speak the truth and truth hurts. The authorities in India hate sportspersons. Forgive me if I am harsh but I speak bluntly to politicians too. Unless we love our sportsmen how can we expect to produce results. I can take you to Punjab and show you so many Asian gold medallists who are now facing starvation. Meets like the National Games have become mere exhibitions. Things open with music and dance at the opening ceremony, then the VVIPs go home and the sportspersons are totally forgotten. They could as well be thrown into a well."

Milkha revealed how he had clashed with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on the issue of former sportspersons being denied tickets during the Asian Games in 1982.

The Sardar attributed his success to his training under the Police force and stressed on the importance of discipline if India were to regain lost glory. He urged the authorities to follow the Chinese method.

There was a glint in his eyes as he spoke about the role played by the Sport ; Pastime in projecting his achievements and said he still had a clipping of a picture in which he was shaking hands with the then Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru.

Fittingly, the Flying Sikh was given a standing ovation. Legends never really die. They live on.

Muneer Sait, former Indian Olympian, stressed on Rajiv Mishra's fine qualities as a player. Mishra, who is now nursing an injury thanked The Sportstar and hoped to make a speedy recovery.

Manuel Aaron, India's first International Master, dwelt on Koneru Humpy's attacking instincts at the chess board. Humpy had a surprise in store for her as The Sportstar made an on-the-spot decision to present her with a computer. Both Rajiv and Humpy also received citations and cash awards of Rs 50,000 each.

S. Krishnan, Associate Editor, The Hindu (sports), and The Sportstar pre- sented the framed citations. Sumanth Raman, a well known television presenter, compered the show.

The awards were followed by a dinner, where all the young ones made a beeline for the cricketers.

In many ways, it was an unforgettable evening!

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