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Vol. XXXI No. 2, May 1-15, 2021

Meeting up with boyhood heroes

by Partab Ramchand

by Partab Ramchand

Sir Garfield Sobers. Picture Courtesy: The Hindu Archives.

Sir Garfield Sobers. Picture Courtesy: The Hindu Archives.

As a teenage sports fan in Madras in the 60s I had my boyhood heroes and as luck would have it they were all-time greats. I followed closely the feats of Gary Sobers, Rod Laver, Muhammad Ali and Pele on the radio and read about them in the magazines and newspapers. Like all young fans I longed to meet them but I was quick to realize that could well be an unfulfilled dream.

I did however have the good fortune of seeing Sobers in action in the Test between West Indies and India at Chepauk in January 1967. It was a sight never to be forgotten. The languid grace with which he emerged from the pavilion and walked to the crease, his silky strokeplay, his mesmeric bowling in two styles, fast and slow and his electrifying catching in close-in positions were all seen in abundant measure during the five days with the Test ending in a closely contested draw. In cold stats he scored 95 and 74 not out, took two wickets and four catches but his performance transcended figures for he actually played the rescue act to perfection on the final day batting through the final session of 90 minutes with Charlie Griffith after Bishen Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and BS Chandrasekhar threatened to script an Indian victory.

As regards the other three, I followed Pele’s exploits in two World Cups besides the other matches he played for Brazil. To me Laver was the greatest tennis player of all time winning the singles title at Wimbledon four times besides being the only player to complete the Grand Slam twice. As for Ali he transcended not just boxing but also sports. As a boxer he was already being hailed as “The Greatest” but it was his heroic stand against the Vietnam war when he refused the draft – an action that saw him stripped of his world heavyweight title – that made him the most recognizable sports personality of his time.

It was nice to be aware of all this but meeting up with these larger than life personalities had to remain a dream. Fortunately in 1968 I joined The Indian Express in Madras as a sports reporter but even as my profession brought me closer to eminent sports personalities a meet-up with the quartet looked out of the question. First of all they had to come to India, then come all the way to Madras. But then fate can be kind and it has to be this factor that helped me realise my childhood dream at least in three of the four sportsmen.

In January 1980, Ali arrived in Madras on a sponsored visit and I made sure I was with him from the moment he arrived at the airport till a couple of days later when he left the hotel for his departure. There was a press conference besides which I was fortunate to interview him for television, a couple of other engagements and an exhibition bout at the old Nehru stadium. Meeting up with his lovely wife Veronica was a bonus and she had her round of social engagements. Needless to say Ali lived up to his reputation as an extrovert as he played to the gallery and was a pressman’s dream, prepared to answer all questions.

So that was one down and three to go I counted. And five years later I was lucky again. The Amritraj brothers had started BAT, the programme to unearth future talent for Indian tennis and Vijay’s close ties with Laver saw the maestro at the MCC HS courts in 1985. There was an informal meeting with the press, a reception at a hotel and an exhibition match at the old Egmore tennis stadium involving Laver and the Amritraj brothers. Even at 47 the great left-hander displayed his skill and agility on court in no uncertain terms. Talking to Laver was a revelation as he came across as a man of humility with no airs about him which was a pleasant surprise considering his achievements.

In the late 90s Sobers landed in Madras for an assignment with the MAC Spin Foundation. The few days just flew by as Sobers regaled the audience at a reception held in his honour at the MCC with tales of yore and had the reporters in splits with jokes at an informal meeting with the press. A young reporter who absolutely hero worshiped him seemed to be always around wherever Sobers was present and on the last day just before leaving seeing the youngster he exclaimed “you again?’’ with a hearty laugh which the pressmen shared.

So that was three down and one to go. Unfortunately that’s the way it has stayed and four out of four is unlikely to happen with Pele now 80 and not exactly in the pink of health. The iconic footballer did make it to Calcutta on a couple of occasions but there has been little chance of him making it to this city so I guess that will remain an unfulfilled dream. I am not complaining though. Three out of four is something I have to be grateful for and I am.

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