Fandom is a strange thing

Sportsmen begin as fanboys. So too do sportswriters. The best remain connected to the fanboy.

When are you writing your book? Viswanathan Anand, probably the most articulate and intelligent sportsman India has produced, said he was working on one and would be done soon.   -  PTI

What is the collective word for a group of top sportsmen and sportswomen? A nostalgia of sportspeople, perhaps. Or a warmth. Maybe even a banter of sportsmen. Remember that tour of the West Indies in 1971 when in a first-class game the wicketkeeper was gathering the ball above his shoulders? You don’t? Well, Sunil Gavaskar does. And he is happy to share the anecdote.

The great Indian opener was at the centre of two fabulous sports gatherings over three days. First, he threw a surprise birthday party for Gundappa Viswanath in Bengaluru, walking about with unconcealed excitement while awaiting the arrival of his friend. The look on Vishy’s face when the gathering screamed “happy birthday” as he got off the elevator was priceless.

Then, in his role as chairman of the jury at the Sportstar Aces Awards function in Mumbai, Gavaskar made a simple statement. Prakash Padukone, he said, was the greatest Indian sportsman ever. But this was not an evening of comparisons. Viswanathan Anand was there too, and it struck me I had known both these great sportsmen before they became world champions. And they have remained the same gentle, thoughtful, caring people they were when they were just beginning to make a name for themselves. Both are heroes who also happen to be role models, just as Viswanath was. It is a rare combination.

Gavaskar and Viswanath, India’s two best batsmen divided the country in a strange way in their playing days. I remember hours of anger and argument with friends in school, and college. The “Gavaskarians” versus the “Vishyites” (they didn’t call themselves that!). Gavaskar took up the story from here. “If you were a Vishy man,” he explained, “it was not enough if Viswanath scored a century. Gavaskar had to make zero.” Fandom is a strange thing.

The wonderful thing about nostalgia is that new stories must be told alongside repetitions of the old. Remember when Vishy was leg before first ball, was not given out and went on to make 162 against Mumbai in the Ranji semifinal? Everybody remembered — nine of Karnataka’s XI from that match were present, after all — and Gavaskar thought it was a magnificent innings even if it did lead to Mumbai’s defeat.

I often ask top performers: when are you writing your book? Anand, probably the most articulate and intelligent sportsman India has produced — and in my book, the greatest — said he was working on one and would be done soon. As the man who led a revolution in his sport (as did Prakash in his), Anand will have fascinating things to say. It is part of his legacy that we have two of the top four youngest grandmasters ever, anointed at 12 and 13!

Virtually everybody present at the Sportstar function recalled how in their early years they keenly awaited the arrival of the magazine for its posters. Sportsmen begin as fanboys. So too do sportswriters. The best remain connected to the fanboy — this was the message over those two magical days.