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India's sport of call:Two gems, one ratna
Dhyan Chand's legend is immutable
How can any Indian think of any sportsperson - dead or alive - other than Dhyan Chand to be the first recipient of a Bharat Ratna? It has been a while coming, and taken a perspective shift in a nation's collective consciousness, but now it seems sportspersons may soon be eligible for the country's highest civilian award. The award is given for "exceptional service towards advancement of art, literature and science and is in recognition of public service of the highest order". While no mention of sport is made, there is bound to be only admiration if sportspersons who transcended their craft to become social phenomenon, inspiring folkore along the way, are recognised as rightful candidates.
It is a fair bet that even those who laid down these qualification norms believed that India first achieved recognition worldwide as a sporting nation in the 1920s and 1930s because of one man: Dhyan Chand. In sport, the Olympic Games constitute the loftiest stage for athletic performance, and it is there that Dhyan Chand unveiled his unique magic wand - a hockey stick - to help undivided India win three gold medals. Amsterdam 1928, Los Angeles 1932 and Berlin 1936 are moments etched in time as Dhyan Chand chose to imprint his genius on the masses, before World War II erupted and international sporting activity ground to a halt.
That is when hockey came to be known as the national sport of India, a symbol of hope and defiance offering glimpses of a nascent nation's immense prowess. To one humble soldier from Jhansi goes the credit for placing the sport on such high pedestal. Ask a man called Adolf Hitler, who, from a special box at the Berlin Olympics, saw his Germans being hopelessly overrun in the gold medal match by an Indian team. To rub salt into the racist Fuhrer's wounds, Dhyan Chand and his forwards even found the time to make 'monkeys' of the Germans in the second half of the final. "Thora bandar banaa ke bataen (let us make monkeys of them and show them), " he is reported to have said.
As a tribute, his admirers raised a statue of Dhyan Chand in Vienna, depicting him with four arms. His magic with the stick earned him the sobriquet of the "wizard of hockey". That sobriquet has not been bequeathed since to any other player, from anywhere.
In some parts of the country, Dhyan Chand is a mythical figure, still inspiring countless tales of courage not unlike the heroic Rani of Jhansi. If service to the arts, or exceptional public service, are qualifications for the Bharat Ratna, Dhyan Chand should pass both tests.
It was the ability to elevate hockey to an art form, with a simple stick in his hands, that first gave birth to Dhyan Chand's legend. Those who wrote the statute for the Bharat Ratna in 1954 were not immune either. "Kya hockey khelta tha (what hockey he played), " you could hear them, and the admirers included the first President Rajendra Prasad, who during his tenure at Rashtrapati Bhavan in the 1950s showed a special affinity for sport.
In the early years of the awards, a fitting tribute was paid by the Adivasi member of Parliament Jaipal Singh, captain of India's team to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, who started a tournament in honour of Dhyan Chand. It was played at Delhi's National Stadium, now named after the wizard. Jaipal accorded Dhyan Chand the honour of the inaugural 'bully', since hockey games in those days began with 'bully-offs'.
In those early years of the tournament, Dhyan Chand would come all the way from Meerut in his Punjab Regiment bus to play. Because of advancing years he would retire after about 15 minutes, during which he would show glimpses of his genius with measured passes for forwards and deft dribbles. Watching on in awe in the stands would be politicians cutting across party lines, including, if memory serves one right, even the Prime Minister and the President. Even then, Dhyan Chand was the magnet, and he continued to be one till his death in December 1979. Even generations later, his birthday, August 29, is celebrated as National Sports Day.
The late Gian Singh, revered Olympic umpire and author, has described Dhyan Chand's hockey as "art out of this world". It was not about goals alone, but about passes that created the openings for his fellow forwards. As for the goals he scored, they were more placements which foxed goalkeepers rather than shots of brute force.
Tales abound of Dhyan Chand's exhilarating devotion to his craft. He was so fanatical about training at his regimental ground that he would forget to turn up for the mandatory evening parade. When the matter was reported to his British commander, the colonel himself set off to find out the reason for the absence. He was hypnotised by the sight of Dhyan Chand training all by himself in the twilight, and ordered that the sepoy be excused from evening attendance.
Preserved with great care in the Punjab Regiment records room in Ramgarh is the original document mentioning the date when Dhyan Singh (yes, that is the correct name, though how it mutated into Dhyan Chand is another story altogether), son of Subedar Someshwar Datt Singh, joined the regiment in 1922 as a 16-year-old. The army, it need not be said, is always proud of soldiers who have made their 'paltans' proud with their deeds both on and off the field of battle.
In those days, most of Dhyan Singh's meagre earnings would go towards helping to keep the kitchen fires burning in his large extended family home in Jhansi. But even penury couldn't keep him away from developing his skills. There are other Bharat Ratnas who have gone through hard times while developing their art, and Lata Mangeshkar immediately comes to mind.
Like Oscar Wilde's famous comment to an American customs official, Dhyan Chand too could have said, after having risen to the rank of Major, that he had "nothing to declare" except his genius. Ever humble and modest, the proud Bains Rajput soldier always kept his complaints to himself when he went back to his Jhansi home, which had no electricity till 1961, with the women in the family wiping the mud floors walls clean with cow dung paste.
Dhyan Chand, then, was one of those rare gifts the nation bestowed on the world. In Indian sport, he is a gem beyond compare and controversy. No one should complain if he wins the Bharat Ratna.
(Note: The original Bharat Ratna statute of 1954 did not make allowance for the award to be conferred posthumously. That provision was made a year later in 1955).
Tendulkar is exceptional in every way
SUMIT MUKHERJEE, TNN
There have been only a handful of sportspersons, across time and borders, who can lay claim to having possessed a nation in the manner Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar has. In India, certainly, he has no peers. So a Bharat Ratna for the most precious gem in Indian cricket's treasure chest? It sounds like a teaser from tautology. Simply put, it is about time Tendulkar was decorated with the country's highest civilian honour for inspiring millions through exceptional service to his craft.
It's a no-brainer, really. In a country where cricket is a way of life, Sachin resides in the heart of every Indian, most of whom have applauded every run he has scored, shared his heartbreaks and rejoiced at his fabulous feats for over two decades. They are convinced our leaders can rise above petty politics and salute a man who has been God's gift to cricket. Who better to argue the case than a few prominent voices, from past and present, who can lay claim to having grasped the essence of Tendulkar?
Former India opener Syed Mushtaq Ali, who passed away in 2005, had just one regret, that he couldn't live to see Sachin get the Bharat Ratna. Six months before he breathed his last, the grand old man of Indian cricket had shared a special wish. Speaking over telephone from his Indore residence, Mushtaq had said: "My only wish is to see a sportsperson get the prestigious Bharat Ratna award. And there is none more deserving than Sachin Tendulkar. Not just because he has scored thousands of runs, but because he is special in every sense - the way he plays, the way he carries himself on and off the field. " With the Home ministry recommending to the PMO that sports be made a category for Bharat Ratna consideration, it may be just a matter of time before
Mushtaq saheb's wish comes true.
Of course, he is not the only one who feels Tendulkar's impact has transcended his sport. Even Australian batting great Greg Chappell, a hate figure in India best known for his tumultuous relations with players when he was Team India coach, marvels at the manner in which the Little Master has carried the burden of expectations. The souring of relations between him and Tendulkar takes a backseat when Chappell starts talking.
"All his life he has lived in a glass bowl and has had to cope with huge expectations from his countrymen from a very early age, " Chappell said from Melbourne, "He has steered clear of controversies and been an excellent role model for young cricketers. It will be a wonderful honour for one of the game's finest ambassadors if he gets it. "
There is more to Tendulkar than just a genius with bat in hand. In every way, he has been a pathbreaker: as a role-model par excellence, as a worthy son, a doting father and an ideal husband. In the harsh glare of the public eye, Tendulkar is yet to put a foot wrong.
No wonder everybody in India wants a piece of him. He has been the country's favourite son right from the tender age of 16, when he made his Test debut in Karachi in 1989. To his senior teammates he was "chhotu (the little one)" and they were so very protective of him. He has come a long way since, though surprisingly, at 38 and now an elder statesman of the game, Tendulkar still retains the passion and excitement of his youth when it comes to the game.
"Sachin is the best advertisement for Test cricket, " says Arjuna Ranatunga, Sri Lanka's only World Cupwinning captain. "Test cricket needs him to do well and I hope Sachin continues to play the longer version for a few more years. He remains one among only a handful of players worldwide I would still pay to watch. "
Ranatunga has a strong plea for Indian fans. "For heaven's sake, stop pressurising him. Test cricket has its own pressures and Sachin can certainly do without 1. 2 billion people getting restless about his 100th international hundred. He is human, not Robocop. He has tried to live up to expectations all his life. I wonder how many more runs he would have scored had he not been under pressure all the time, " he added.
Ranatunga feels no award can be too high for Sachin. "He is the last of the gentleman cricketers. He loves the game today as much as he did when he started off. And having watched him bat recently, I feel he has magically got better with age. "
India's best-known footballer Baichung Bhutia too feels there is no Indian sportsperson more deserving. "I don't know why sports is not one of the categories for Bharat Ratna nominations, but I'm glad it will be set right soon so that sportspersons too can get their due, " Bhutia said from his hometown in Sikkim. "I will be very happy if Sachin gets the honour. He has been a marvellous cricketer and a great champion. He has been an inspiration to all of us. "
It is perhaps apt that the final word on Sachin should come from Lata Mangeshkar, who was decorated with the Bharat Ratna in 2001. "For me, he is the real Bharat Ratna. Whatever he has done for the country, very few people can. He deserves this honour. He has made all of us proud, " the Nightingale of India said after Sachin had logged his 50th Test century.
Hopefully, it's just a matter of time for India and Tendulkar.
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