March 11, 2005

Celebration in Indian sports suffer in proportion, defy logic

H Natarajan

Memories rewind to 1971. Flashback, as a schoolboy, captures scenes of the unprecedented welcome accorded to Ajit Wadekar’s team after on arrival home after beating England 1-0 in England. It was roses, roses all the way – literally and figuratively - from the time they stepped out of the aircraft that flew them back from Ole Blighty.

The London-Bombay A-I flight was diverted to Delhi to enable Mrs Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister, greet the team immediately on arriving home. The heroes left the following day for Bombay where, to quote captain Wadekar, “no foreign dignitary or politician” ever received the kind of ovation his team got – right from the time the red carpet was rolled out on Bombay’s terra firma.

The Mayor of Bombay and the State Minister for Sport led the reception party at the Santa Cruz airport, chock-a-block with fans restless to greet their heroes. An impressive line-up of swank, open-roofed cars awaited the players outside the airport to showcase them on an unforgettable motorcade. Rose petals and gulal rained on the motorcade carrying the heroes through the 20-km route from the airport to the Cricket Club of India. The sea of humanity – Wadekar reckons its was well over 1.5 million – along the route was awesome. The public reception that followed was just one of the many that followed in a tidal wave.

In 1983, when Kapil Dev’s team returned with the Prudential World Cup, I was there at the airport to cover the event for The Indian Express. What Kapil’s squad had achieved, in my opinion, was the greatest team triumph – even to this date - in Indian sports history. A fiction writer would have been accused of mindless exaggeration had he scripted Indian team winning the World Cup. Yet the seemingly impossible happened - against crazy odds.

By 1983, cricket in India had escalated to a much higher profile than it was in 1971, but paradoxically the ovation that the World Cup champions received was not a patch on what the 1971 heroes got. And, as some cynics still point out, the 1971 series may well have been drawn or even won by England. It was one incredible session of play that Bhagwat Chandrasekar’s produced his magic to destroy England.

The paradox of 1971 and 1983 is not a stray example.

India is now in the grip of Sania Mania. It was creditable of Sania to reach the third round of a Grand Slam – something no Indian woman has achieved. She did well to put up a fight in one set against the formidable Serena Williams. But at the end of it all it was still it was a loss, a straight-set one and in just the third round. Did it warrant such hype? I doubt if even Mark Spitz got such a reception after winning a record seven Olympic gold medals on his return home from the 1972 Munich Olympics.

In 1993 the India Davis Cup team beat France in France to make the semi-finals. Such were the odds against India, that the win must rank among the finest in Indian team sports history. India had in its ranks an ageing Ramesh Krishnan and a tyro Leander Paes. Both players – if memory serves right – were ranked outside the 200 of the ATP rankings. India were playing on clay – a surface on which Ramesh and Paes, like most Indian players, were as comfortable as an Eskimo in Sahara Desert. Most importantly, they were up against top players in world tennis, had the advantage of playing in front of their home crowd and on their favourite surface. Pundits predicted a 5-0 whipping for India, with almost all the matches settled in straight sets. Yet, Ramesh and Paes were like David Blaine and David Copperfield – pure magicians. India won 3-2.

But the Frejus heroes hardly got any attention on coming home compared to the frenzy surrounding Sania since her return from Australia.

I’m an admirer of Sania’s talents, work ethics and her achievements. With Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi in the twilight of their marvelous careers, Sania has emerged as the jewel on India’s tennis crown. She has gone where no woman has in a Grand Slam and has since become the first Indian woman to win a WTA title and cracked the top 100 in the world. Still, there is no justification in the way the nation has gone bonkers over her.

A rare talent for a country like India should not go the Anna Kournikova way; her tennis, and not her looks, should capture our imagination. Let us - the fans, the media and the corporates – give her all the help and encouragement she deserves, but without raising the kind of unreal expectations that the kid may find difficult to cope up.

Let’s hope her immediate family and advisors enlighten her about the fickle nature of Indian fans. Everything can change in a flash. A few bad performances – something that’s part and parcel of any sportsperson’s career – and she could find the swords out. Sania needs to be told what happened in 1974 to Ajit Wadekar’s team that lost in England. Just four years after that historical reception, public reaction swung to the deplorable other extreme – a huge bat that symbolized India’s 1971 triumph, was painted with tar, the captain’s house stoned and many of the players abused. Sadly, Wadekar’s international career ended prematurely and India lost a valuable player who had still much to offer.

It’s time we showed some appreciation for other high achievers. How many of us know that India have another teenager in our midst who won the IBSF World Snooker Championship? Does the name Pankaj Advani ring a bell? How many of us are aware of the precocious Koneru Humpy has won just about every age-group world chess title?

Spare a thought for the likes of the Advanis and Humpys.

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