March 3, 2017

Of autograph hunting blues and second chances

Prakul Chandra
Much like cricket, autograph-hunting is a sport. A fan arms himself with a pen and paper, two decades apart
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Whose autograph do you covet? © Getty Images

Prologue
January 1994

The Indian cricket team has had a disastrous run at the 1992 World Cup. It takes two back-to-back spectacular wins en route to lifting the Hero Cup the following year to rekindle a 12-year-old's interest in renewing his apprenticeship in cricket. So, naturally, he is tickled to his cricketing fanboy core when he finds out that the Indian team is coming to his home town of Lucknow to play a Test match against Sri Lanka. An autograph book bought for a fraction of his last month's pocket money could be an invaluable investment and his ticket to eternal bragging rights.

The morning before the start of the Test match, I arrive at the hotel where both the teams are staying. The lobby is teeming with the exuberance of fellow autograph seekers. Deployed at critical vantage points and covering all possible exits, this collective is a tightly woven, tenacious net determined not to let any cricketer slip through. After some deep deliberation, I position myself next to the elevators. Eyes secured on its door and ears standing in attention to pick up any ambient clamour.

Between the small talk and the animated discussions about Sachin Tendulkar's inability to get to three figures in ODIs, it becomes quite evident that almost all of us are here for the holy trinity: Mohammad Azharuddin, Kapil Dev and, of course, the Little Master. Half an hour of patient vigil is soon rewarded with Kapil and Ajit Wadekar obliging us with their John Hancocks'. Thrilled at the prospect of more icons that could potentially walk through those doors, my dogged determination tries to harness my nervous energy.

A few minutes later, a collective gasp from around the corner has a lot of people from our group divorce themselves from us in an attempt to scurry towards the commotion. I decide not to relinquish my vantage. The ones that stay back exchange nervous glances. Second guessing ourselves, we find ourselves slowly sinking in a quagmire of pessimistic uncertainty. When some of them finally make their way back, they tell us in feverish exhilaration - and with an obvious air of cockiness - about how they managed to get Azhar's and Tendulkar's autograph as they were leaving from that exit.

The disconsolate look on my face is perhaps an accurate reflection of the bleak emptiness in my aching heart. It gets progressively worse as they recount how both of them patiently took the time to sign each and every one's books. I had doubled down on the wrong hand. I would have cursed Murphy's Law, had I known of its existence.

Once it is confirmed that Azhar and Sachin have indeed left the hotel, the crowd thins out considerably. Marinating in self-pity, I also amble towards the main doors. Blissfully unaware of the acne that would rampage my face the following summer, I angrily promise myself to get my book completely filled with autographs of cricket superstars and to leave no proverbial stones unturned in my devotion to this singular cause. In a rare moment of weakness, a 12-year-old atheist invokes the cricket gods and beseeches their magnanimity.

From the corner of my eye, I see three men standing next to a flight of stairs. Sri Lankan cricketers, from their appearance. People that I couldn't recognise. Nobody could, because nobody was flocking to them. The shortest of the three saw me looking at them and motions me to come over. I am in no mood to commit sacrilege by getting a nobody's signature in this book that I have such grand plans for. As I walk towards them I cannot help but feel I am steadfastly painting myself in a corner. As I hand him the autograph book, I effectively relinquish any wiggle room that I may have had. Tearing off those sheets is still a viable option in my head. The short guy with the thick curly hair finds an empty page and signs across it. His benevolence unaware of my less than lukewarm enthusiasm. The other two take turns and sign the book.

The memory of me thanking them escapes me. Till date, I have often wondered if I extended them that courtesy. What I do remember is that the Test got over in four days with India winning handsomely. I remember looking at the scorecard in the newspaper to see if I could figure out the identity of those cricketers through their partially legible scribbles. Attempting to decipher the pattern of letters, I went back and forth between the short guy's crooked cursive and the names of Lankan cricketers on the scorecard. When I finally found what I concluded to be a perfect match, I remember thinking his performance wasn't too shabby. The scorecard confirmed that Muttiah Muralitharan had five wickets to his name in the Test.

Epilogue
November 2015

Twenty years and more than 750 Test wickets later, I am no longer in the business of judging people. Unless, of course, you cannot pronounce Nietzsche to my liking. The Cricket All Stars, featuring the likes of Tendulkar, Shane Warne, Brian Lara and a host of other stars of the cricketing galaxy, are coming to America. And, for a fistful of dollars, you could rub shoulders with the elite of the game. Gala dinner ticket for one is purchased. Dressed in the niftiest dinner jacket in my wardrobe and armed with a new autograph book, I am ready to fulfill a promise I had made to myself many solstices ago. This time, the cricket gods come through for me. Photo opportunities are availed of, casual conversations are struck up, and ever-lasting memories are made.

I take a printout of a picture of Murali celebrating his 800th Test wicket for him to sign. Same man. Completely different situation. Now I have to wade through a sea of jostling elbows to get his autograph. I somehow manage to and, as I hand him the photograph, a smile escapes his lips. He recognises the landmark moment. I want to tell him about that morning 20 years ago. I want to tell him that when I went back home last year, I searched desperately for that autograph book but could not find it. There is no time; I am being impolitely pushed aside from behind. As I recede into the crowd, I remember to say "thank you".

Prakul Chandra is a doctor settled in the USA. His dream is to be a cricket commentator some day. His nightmare is fielding at forward short leg.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Prakul_Chandra on March 11, 2017, 22:52 GMT

    Thank you Whistle2CSK. Whistlepodu.. :)

  • whistle2csk on March 10, 2017, 15:54 GMT

    Lovely writing thanks for sharing this.

  • Prakul_Chandra on March 10, 2017, 11:51 GMT

    Saranksrk: great story. Thanks for sharing. Fan_of_test-cricket: Haha..Phenomenal knock by GE in that semi final. Makes that autograph a little more special!

  • Fan_of_test_cricket on March 9, 2017, 13:47 GMT

    Great story! The only autograph I possess was not even acquired by me. My father got me an autograph of Grant Elliott during the 2009 Champions Trophy, and I remember having never heard of the player before. Not quite the same as this story, but something to brag about after that 2015 WC semi-final.

  • sarangsrk on March 7, 2017, 15:21 GMT

    I was in Melbourne when the Asia 11 played against Rest of the world 11 as a Tsunami relief match (to support victims of 2004 Tsunami in South east Asia). My friend and me went to the hotel where the teams stayed and waited. Got to meet Dravid as he was returning (on foot) from MCG after a practice session. Shook hands, took pictures and thanked him. What a gentleman. Then, we saw Vettori, Fleming and Cairns walking into the hotel. Followed them and asked for autographs. Cairns signalled me to follow him when he was on escalators. I duly followed and he almost forgot about me. I was a huge fan of Cairns and asked Vettori if he could call Cairns back so that I can take a picture of him. Vettori did that (was so kind of him) and Cairns obliged. later I just laughed at myself. Amongst all this, I forgot to ask Vettori for his autograph. A fan moment.

  • Prakul_Chandra on March 7, 2017, 2:04 GMT

    Kazi: Thank you very much. Yes he has remained quite humble throughout his career. Will keep praying :) Guru_N: Nice anecdote.Thanks for sharing. Donovanew: Thank you much. The other two cricketers were Pramodya Wickramasinghe and (I think) Riviera Pushpakumara. AnthonyMD: Thank you. Wow great story !!! Cric_Writer_Anindya: Thank you. And Thank you for sharing this post on your website Cricket Writer. Amotu: Thanks! It felt great to see all these stars back in action.

  • LAYERROADBOY on March 6, 2017, 21:46 GMT

    When I got Gary Sobers' autograph (at Chelmsford) I was absolutely dumbstruck .. just held out pen and book .. (felt a right idiot) ..

  • Kazi on March 6, 2017, 19:17 GMT

    Wonderful article, doc!! I fancy Murali was probably a little keen to give you the autograph back in '92. He remained just as humble and gentle (unless you were facing him from 22 yards away!!) all through his career!! Keep praying to the crickets gods and your wish of becoming a commentator might come true!! Keep writing in the meantime! Greetings from Dallas, TX.

  • guru_n on March 6, 2017, 15:27 GMT

    The last time India and Australia played a test match in Bangalore, I went to the ground on day 1. Tendulkar batted on all the remaining 4 days, and raised his bat on each day for some reason or the other. Anyway, one day 1, when Australia was batting, a young Australian fast bowler came very close to were we were sitting (may be on his way to gym). We thought he should be a player, but didn't know his name. So we asked him, "Are you playing in this match?", he was very polite, and said, "yes". So, I gave him a book and asked for his autograph, he signed, but I couldn't recognize his name from that. So, I asked him, "what is your name?". He said "Peter George". I wished him good luck. He picked Tendulkar's wicket in that test. I was hoping he would one day become a legend, so that i could write an article like this one in cricinfo. The rest is history.

  • DonovanEW on March 6, 2017, 14:13 GMT

    Beautifully crafted story Dr. Prakul Chandra, thank you for sharing. Please tell us though, who were the other two Sri Lankan cricketers who signed your book with Muralitharan?

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