THIS IS a personal recollection of how I saw the year 2017 through the lens of sport. Thus, it is bound to have a bias towards events I was intricately tied with or teams and sportspersons I follow. But as the purpose of this blog is to chronicle how the sporting world ties up to my life, that is the only appropriate way in which I can present a sporting review of 2017 to you.
Pilgrimages, in a religious context or otherwise, are about centering yourself. A ritualistic alignment with a physical place that you have shared a metaphysical connection with. I was at Lord’s for the Women’s World Cup final, I ambled around the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, I walked in through the Shankly Gates into Anfield – a trinity of experiences that were the culmination of a lifetime of devotion to a sport (cricket), a tournament (Wimbledon) and a team (Liverpool). Those three instances were the highlight of 2017 for this sporting pilgrim. But beyond that, 2017 was about discovering more about the fans who make sport what it is.
It began with Roger Federer’s triumph at the Australian Open, a Grand Slam title 5 years in the making for anxious Fed fans, among whom I was one. I egged Federer on in the final and as a tense third set made it look like things were slipping from him, my mom casually walked by saying ‘Faraday will win’ and proceeding to her afternoon nap. A couple of hours later, he miraculously had. She doesn’t have an investment in Roger’s win, but she knows that I want him to win. I know this because she knows this.
The first rule of fandom is, everyone counts.
Later in the year, I would be pumping fists with random Roger fans at an outdoor screening near Kings Cross, and at one point walk into a pub just to catch the closing moments of Federer’s Wimbledon semi. I was at the India-Australia test match at Bengaluru, a riveting encounter where over three tumultuous days I had company ranging from twice my age to half my age. On Day 2, as Australia seemed ascendant, the elderly old school cricket fan gent who had accompanied me wondered out aloud if Clive Lloyd, who he watched in action here at the Chinnaswamy in the 70s, would be able to clout Ravichandran Ashwin for a six out of this ground. On the day the match ended I had for company a friend almost half my age, the two of us revelling in making predictions for when the next wicket would fall and marvelling when the darts we threw mostly blindfolded landed right on target. Meanwhile, behind us, a huge group from a school for children with special needs were enjoying their day out and cheering wildly for the approaching Indian victory.
The second rule of fandom is, everyone counts.
The previous evening before India’s sensational win over Australia, I show up at an event featuring a cricket writer. I run into acquaintances from Twitter. Their offline personas just as passionate about sport as their online ones. One of them tells me about the North Stand Gang at Wankhede and I get a whole new perspective on obsessive fandom. That it doesn’t have to be petty or annoyingly partisan. That it can be by itself a force for good.
The third rule of fandom is, the net effect should always be positive.
The summer was about location, location, location. I felt like I was in the epicentre of my sporting dreams showing up at Wimbledon one day, heading to Liverpool that weekend and enjoying a World Cup Final at Lord’s the next. I found an outdoor screening and watched Federer win his quarterfinal there, accompanied by two Swiss guys, huge fans of Roger from his hometown Basel. I impressed them predicting what Fed would do with his serve and they were amazed that someone from India would keep such a close eye on Federer’s game. On hearing the result and where I was a colleague and a Fed fan back in India issues the edict that I should watch the remaining Federer matches at the exact same spot for good luck, or there would be consequences. That Sunday I have lunch with a Kimi Raikkonen fan who does not watch the races because she can’t bring herself to bear the tension.
The fourth rule of fandom is, no belief is irrational, no act of faith not worth the effort.
I showed up at Wimbledon the next day, the day of the ladies singles semi finals. The place overwhelms me; watching the hallowed grounds of the tournament for a good 30 years on TV weren’t enough to take the novelty away. Being in the buzz inside the Club is something else. I catch a legends game in one of the outer courts featuring Goran Ivanisevich. It is not Goran of his prime, but there are enough antics of his to keep us entertained. He is pairing up with Wayne Ferreira and he does a variety of clownish things, from asking for a review when the opponent’s serve was called for a fault, to sitting on the net during an ongoing rally to jumping over to the other side and playing a winner past Ferraira and asking the umpire that his team should get the point because he hit the winner. There are three teens sitting beside me and they notice I am carrying a Chelsea F.C. bag from my visit to Stamford Bridge earlier that morning. They ask if I am a Chelsea fan. I say that no actually I picked things up for my friends who are. They say good thing you aren’t a fan because no one likes Chelsea. It is great banter and fun but otherwise Wimbledon is serious business. You politely wait in line before walking in and sitting on your seat because a rally is going on or a game needs to finish. As I wait to enter the next court, an elderly gentleman walks out the same way. He is so tall, I barely register his face. He sees my Chelsea F.C. bag, lowers his head, and whispers Great team and pats me on the back as he walks away. I am left confused for a moment but then things start to come into focus. Maybe I am getting a better idea of the demographics of certain fandoms, one stranger encounter and one anecdote at a time? Towards the afternoon I settle down near Henman Hill to watch the ladies semi between Venus Williams and the Brit Jo Konta on the big screen outside Court 1. I am eating strawberries and cream. And so are another 4 women, all in their 50s, on the bench opposite to me. One of them asks her friend for an update on the match. She logs on to the wifi through her smartphone but there are no updates forthcoming. Her friend gets impatient and demands to know if she is secretly googling Roger Federer pics instead of checking on the semifinal score. Meanwhile one of the stewards on Court 18 is out on her break and she sits beside me as she eats her sandwich. She asks me for an update. I tell her how Konta had been playing well but hadn’t capitalised on her chances and now Venus was dominating the proceedings. She seems crestfallen. I know that look of national heartbreak. I had seen it three years ago when I had told my South Korean classmate at University that Yuna Kim (the legendary Korean skater) had failed to win gold at the figure skating in Sochi. She tells me she is ending her break early and heading back to her post on Court 18. My football podcast buddies and I would face a similar predicament a few months later when Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia. For a couple of days we were almost in mourning, disinterested in anythingbto do with football.
The fifth rule of fandom is, it’s ok to switch on and off.
I land a cheap Court 1 ticket in place of people who have left for the day and late in the evening get to catch one of my sporting heroes, Martina Navratilova, in a legends doubles match. She loves the crowd here and the crowd loves her back, once an icon, always an icon. That’s the power of Wimbledon. Anfield is two days later. It’s a cloudy Saturday and from the moment I get off the train at Liverpool Lime Street, I only have one goal – to head to Anfield. The centerpiece of my football dream theater for the past 20 years. A storied venue. I walk the 4.5 miles more briskly than I have walked any 4.5 miles in my life before and on Anfield Road the Shankly Gates come into view. I imagine what it would be like on a match day. We take a tour of the stadium. In the group are two best friends, aged about 70, one an Everton fan, the other of Manchester United. The tour guide gives us a warm reception and a heartfelt walkthrough laced with humor and banter aimed squarely at the likes of Everton and United. It all goes down in good spirit. The United fan is delighted to learn I have come all the way from India. He tells me he drove through Europe, then Iran, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and then India on his Land Rover once. Simpler times. I see fans of all ages, a girl as young as 3 seems to pause and read every name on the memorial for the Hillsborough 96. Sport, when the game is on, is partisan. Sport, in the bigger picture, is a unifier. It’s Sunday morning and I am at Lord’s for a World Cup final. Even as I type this I still find it surreal. I pick my ticket up at the counter where The kindly lady sends me off with a ‘Here you go, love. Enjoy the day’s play’. Classical British politeness. And a venue that harks back to the ideal of the gentleman’s game. I am here to watch the ladies, though. When I booked the ticket three weeks ago I imagined watching England take on Australia in the Women’s World Cup final. But I was delighted to end up with England v India and the foresight to have bought the ticket before the final sold out. I am among the first ones to walk on to my stand to look for my seat. The steward who says he has been working here since the 70s greets me with a ‘Good morning, sir.’ And then he adds ‘Hope the rain stays away and we have a good day’s cricket. Enjoy the day’s play.’ This is just a £10 ticket on the mound stand but I feel like a VIP, like a fan who actually exists. You don’t usually get treated that way at most sporting venues. As the game begins, I fiddle with my commemorative scorecard filling details in. The lady who takes the seat next to me asks to see it. That breaks the ice and we chat cricket – I work in cricket media, she in cricket administration. But our wondrous affection for the game is the same.
We are treated to a tense, narrative packed final. I enjoy soaking the atmosphere in and picking up nuances in the field of play. England seem tense as India are 40 odd runs away. They uncharacteristically miss fielding opportunities. Their body language suggests anxiousness bordering on panic. At that moment I think how close I am to watching India win a World Cup at Lord’s. And I suddenly feel frozen. It’s clearly a contagion effect because soon India seem to be the team panicking. And in a roller coaster of a see-saw final few overs, contrive to lose. The Indian expat couple sitting next to me who had come from Bromley and their teenaged son are distraught. Loyalties are weird that way. I troop off finally, obviously dejected. But this was my first visit to Lord’s. The Home of Cricket. The feeling then hits me in its enormity. My lifetime of cricket obsession, for better or for worse, finds its center here.
The sixth rule of fandom is, it is always and forever. There is no going back for a true fan.
Towards the end of December I catch up with a bunch of fellow sporting nuts in Mumbai. They work for sports media companies but that’s not our commonality. Our commonality is the joy derived from sport because we know it is capable of providing it. Even if it is the hilariously bad and godawful T10 League in Sharjah that we end up hate watching over dinner and drinks. Communities thrive on common frames of reference and in my lifetime I haven’t found a frame of reference more conducive to that than sports. I meet an author in London who is an Arsenal fan. We are chatting outside the restaurant we had dinner in and he sees a man in an Arsenal jacket walk past. He says ‘Now there’s a man with good footballing taste!’ The guy turns back and smiles at us and then carries on. At the Bengaluru Literature Fest, we are treated to listening to Anil Kumble one evening and Rahul Dravid the next morning. Everyone listens in rapt attention and the reactions come as spontaneous as they are rapturous. Half of the people I know on most social media is through that shared sports space. I follow a Buffalo Bills fan whose enthusiasm is so infectious that I find myself worried about the team’s fate in the NFL even though I had no emotional investment in them just a season ago. Another is a new Liverpool fan who is so eager to learn about the club that I gladly spend hours on stringing together threads on Liverpool’s history. Some of it moves other fans so much that they drop in to say how they had goosebumps reading my recollection of the night at Istanbul or Steven Gerrard’s career. I would be lying if I said I don’t live for moments like this. Sport is one of my spiritual dimensions. And if 2017 has taught me anything as a sports tragic, it is that this spiritual dimension doesn’t always need a physical center, it is centered around the earnest fan both new and old.
The seventh rule of fandom is, never underestimate yourself.
Happy New Year sports fans. You are da real MVP. Always.