The ‘very Indian’ guy from Guyana

As Carl Hooper, 51, gears up to visit India after nearly 16 years, this time as a radio commentator for the India-West Indies Test series, he gives in to nostalgia about the country he loves.

The West Indies skipper lofts Harbhajan Singh (not in picture) for a six in the second Test of the 2002 series against India at Chepauk.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

If you are Carl Llewellyn Hooper, India has got to be special.

After all, this is where the former West Indies captain made his Test debut in 1987. It is also where he had his last outing in whites, in 2002. By his own admission, India is a "cricket mad" nation, and it has been close to his heart for more reasons than one.

Growing up in Guyana, where most of his neighbours were of Indian descent, Hooper was surrounded by the smell of curries and spices, and he developed a taste for them.

As the 51-year-old gears up to visit the country after nearly 16 years, this time as a radio commentator for the India-West Indies Test series, he gives in to nostalgia about the country he “loves.”

“I have fond memories of India. When I played my 100th Test (in 2002), the then BCCI president (Jagmohan Dalmiya) gave me a beautiful trophy. It was wonderful," Hooper told Sportstar from his residence in Adelaide. The start of his love affair with India, however, was rocky. When he visited the country for the first time in 1987, he did not like it as much because in the early days of the tour he fell ill and could not savour Indian curries.

“Initially, I did not like it. In Guyana, 65-70 per cent of the population is Indian. We celebrated all Indian festivities like Diwali. I was very familiar with the culture. But on my first tour to India, I got sick.

“At that time, we had an Australian physio, Dennis Waight. He gave us do’s and don’ts and we were not supposed to have anything watery. Curries were out and we were given solid food,” he says.

After a couple of weeks of following the prescribed diet, Hooper fell ill. “I lost a lot of weight and there were blisters in my mouth and on the tongue. I could not eat anything, so I had to take liquids, and they had to be cold. I was sick for the first two weeks, and after I recovered, I decided to eat everything. I loved Indian food. After that, I was fine, and I enjoyed the tour.”

Every time he toured India, the excitement of fans bowled Hooper over. “You guys are cricket mad,” he laughs. “In India, the atmosphere has always been electric.”

He remembers the final of the Hero Cup at the Eden Gardens in 1993. “It was just crazy. Even when I scored my first Test century against India, I remember how the people would cheer. Maninder Singh was bowling and I turned him behind square for two to pick up my first Test century. That was an amazing feeling.”

But then, what makes India so special?

Hooper, who is considered one of the most graceful, and successful, West Indies batsmen, draws a cool analogy. “It is like going to Brazil and playing soccer. It is the No. 1 sport. In India, I have seen after arriving at airports and on my way to hotels huge billboards (that) would feature Sourav (Ganguly), Sachin (Tendulkar),” he says.

“It’s like if you are in New York City and you go to Times Square, you will see a film star on the billboard. But here it was Sachin, Ganguly, (Virender) Sehwag.” Hooper, who had a delectably languid run-up to the crease as an off-spinner, also remembers how fans would gather near the team hotel to catch a glimpse of the touring cricketers.

“I could step out of a hotel in Australia or elsewhere without a problem, but in India it was not possible. Here, I had to take security guards along. In cars, people would follow you. It is a different vibe. The expectations were always high.” As he prepares to travel to India for the Test series, Hooper is not too sure of West Indies’ chances. The reason is simple: The side is inexperienced and does not know the conditions well.

“If we had the likes of (Chris) Gayle, (Kieron) Pollard, Darren Bravo, they would not have been beaten easily. The current players are young and haven’t even played the IPL, with the exception of captain Jason Holder. These conditions will be alien to most of them.

“I don’t know what happened to Darren Bravo or (Marlon) Samuels. I thought issues with the WICB (the West Indies Cricket Board, now known as Cricket West Indies) were solved. But with (them not around), it is going to be very tough,” says Hooper.

He is also looking forward to meeting old friends in India, and cherishes memories of close friend Tendulkar.

“Let me tell you a story. Years ago, when India came to the West Indies, I had a friend who was also an Indian in Guyana. He idolised Sachin. I was the captain of West Indies at the time, and told Sachin, ‘I’ve got a friend who is celebrating his 50th birthday and I will pick you up from the hotel. You spend five minutes with him and I will drop you back.’ He said, ‘No problem.' And when he went to meet my friend, he spent two hours talking to him.”

During Hooper's last visit to India, Tendulkar invited him to his restaurant in Mumbai. While India has been a happy hunting ground for the cricketer Hooper, as a young man he also fell in love here once.

“The second serious relationship that I had was with an Indian girl from Visakhapatnam. She was a doctor. Nobody knew, and we would sit on a beach in Visakhapatnam and talk. Then, she would go back to her quarters and I would return to the hotel. We kept in touch for years and eventually lost touch. I was 21 then, but these are all fond memories I have of India," he says. Hooper is excited to visit the country again. “It’s always good to be back, maan!”