March 16, 2017

Paint my love

Susan Ninan
Sudhir Gautam, uber Tendulkar fan, is now rooting for a new sport
21

Play 02:33
"I will support whichever team Sachin sir is supporting"

Bathed in canary yellow, Sudhir Kumar Chaudhry, better known as Sudhir Gautam, leans forward, his kohl-lined eyes glued to the badminton match on the court below. A giant yellow flag rests beside him. As a smash lands wide, Sudhir jumps up. Grabbing his flag, he waves it fervently from side to side, blowing his conch shell. Spectators seated behind grimace, even attempt a meek protest. But Sudhir isn't listening. After all, he's only doing his job.

For easily the most recognisable sports fan in the country, associated with its most venerated sportsman - Sachin Tendulkar - this is fresh turf. A familiar presence in the stands at every cricket match featuring the Indian team for over a decade and half now, home or away, Sudhir found himself, at the start of the year, in freezing indoor stadiums for the first time. A new sport and team have been added to his itinerary. Tendulkar has willed it so.

In December last year, Tendulkar bought stakes in the Bengaluru Blasters franchise of the Premier Badminton League (PBL). During the first day of India's Test against England in Mumbai that month, Sudhir was summoned to Bengaluru for a PBL commercial. It was the first time he had missed a day's play in cricket in 16 years.

And so, with a formidable record under his belt - as of early January, when ESPN spoke to him, he had watched 278 ODIs, 49 T20Is and 58 Tests, numbers similar to the playing CV of cricketer Yuvraj Singh - Sudhir made his "debut" in another sport, although Tendulkar remains the connection.

"I'm supporting Sachin sir's team [Bengaluru Blasters] though he is not in the stadium. I have 'Tendulkar 10' written on my back, though this is not Team India. I'm very happy that Sachin sir is encouraging sports other than cricket.

"I said I wanted to continue to cheer for the team and carry his name on my body till I die"
Sudhir Gautam about Tendulkar, after the 2011 World Cup

"I have not asked him for anything till date, but whenever there's a match outside India, I request him for a pass. He's never said no. Somehow he arranges everything. He's my God," Sudhir says.

His bare upper body painted to resemble a human form of the national tricolour, Sudhir was accorded special status by Tendulkar and offered passes for all India matches, no matter in which part of the world they were being played, and turned into a willing unofficial mascot.

"When I first went to the stadium with 'Tendulkar 10' written on my back, he liked it. When Sachin sir asked me if I would like to watch more matches, I did not for once think about the graduation exam form that I had filled out. He asked me to appear for my exams first. I was adamant, though. I never expected that I'd watch all those matches."

****

Growing up, the closest Sudhir could get to his idol was a peeling poster in his tiny, dilapidated settlement in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Attempting the Tendulkar upper cut and straight drive, he would often end up being dismissed cheaply in college cricket matches. In 2002 he was picked for a state cricket tournament from his college. Around the same time a local journalist, aware of Sudhir's fandom, suggested he cycle down to watch the India-West Indies one-day series. Sudhir agreed. The first ODI was to take place in Jamshedpur, 519km away from his home town. As luck would have it, when Sudhir got there for the match, he heard Tendulkar had suffered a hamstring injury and was ruled out of the series. "I was very disappointed," he says, "That's when I decided that in 2003 I will travel to Mumbai on my cycle again."

The following year, Sudhir, then 22, cycled for 16 days, from Muzaffarpur to Mumbai, roughly 2000km away, where he finally caught a glimpse of his idol outside a five-star hotel in the south of the city. He threw his cycle to the ground to distract the security personnel before jostling past gathered fans to touch Tendulkar's feet. His life was never the same again.

Coats of arms: Sudhir Gautam, in the Bengaluru Blasters' colours, waves the team's flag at the PBL Arjun Kalra / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Not only was Sudhir invited home by Tendulkar and offered a match pass, but just when he was about to return to Muzaffarpur, content with his accomplishments, things took a different turn. After India lost the Wankhede ODI to Australia, Sudhir paid Tendulkar one last visit before heading home. "Aur match dekhoge, Sudhir? [Would you like to watch more matches, Sudhir?]," Tendulkar politely inquired.

Skipping his graduation exams, spurning any prospect of a full-time job and distancing himself from his family, Sudhir chose a life single-mindedly dedicated to cheering for Tendulkar and the Indian team across the world. Nearly 14 years later, he has no regrets. "I've left three jobs and haven't completed my graduation till date. But I'm happy."

His first job was that of a railway ticket collector in Hyderabad, following which he took up work at a dairy in Muzaffarpur. He left that job to travel abroad for an India match, digging into his last reserves - his provident fund - to acquire a passport.

His travels have taken him across the country and the world, whether by cycle to Pakistan, or as far away as Australia and New Zealand for the 2015 World Cup. "I have friends everywhere, Dubai, Bangladesh or Australia, with whom I stay with during matches. In Pakistan, for instance, I know I'm always welcome at [the famous Pakistani cricket mascot] Cricket Chacha's house."

Tendulkar not only offered Sudhir passes for the 2015 World Cup but also ensured that he had a comfortable stay. "Since it was my first time in Australia, Sachin sir booked a hotel room for me. If I happen to travel there again, I won't need to stay in a hotel, because there are Indians everywhere and everyone likes Sachin sir, so I can stay with them," he says.

"He's one of the most visible brands for sport in the country. People know him exclusively as a Tendulkar fan, so that creates a direct connection between him and the spectators"
Prasad Mangipudi, executive director of Sportzlive

The high point came in 2011, when India's won the 50-over World Cup on home soil. After the final, played in Mumbai, Tendulkar, who was making his last appearance in the tournament, asked Sudhir to join the team in the dressing room and then handed him the trophy. "That was an unforgettable moment for me."

Soon after the match, Sudhir poured his heart out to Tendulkar, telling him about the apprehensions he had about his future following his hero's impending retirement. "I said I wanted to continue to cheer for the team and carry his name on my body till I die." Tendulkar assured him of his support.

When Tendulkar retired in November 2013, that foreboding was brought home by a billboard for a job-search website. Alongside Sudhir's painted face, the words screamed: "Looking for a new job?" It was an inescapable truth.

Today, Sudhir says, people often try to coax him to wear the name of a current playing member of the Indian cricket team, the popular opinion favouring Virat Kohli, over that of Tendulkar, on his body. He shuts them up with little trouble, he says. Last year, when invited to cheer for Virender Sehwag's side, Gemini Arabians, at the Masters Champions League (MCL) in Dubai, it was suggested that he drop Tendulkar's name and paint "MCL" in its place. "I asked them to book my return tickets instead," Sudhir says. Realising that he wouldn't budge, the team organisers abandoned their request and asked him to stay on.

Back in the badminton arena, eyes cast earthwards, Sudhir patiently waits for the questions, hands resting on his knees. A gaggle of curious onlookers quickly gathers around us, mostly selfie-hunters. He obliges them with practised ease. He's wiry and strikingly bald, save for a pigtail and a small patch of hair in the centre of his head that is trimmed to resemble the physical contours of the map of India and painted in the colours of the national flag. The insignia of the Bengaluru badminton franchise is painted across his chest in red and he sports his idol's name on his back in sweeping, bold letters, along with the sacred jersey number: 10. Before this, Sudhir had never watched a badminton match.

Gautam with Tendulkar and the 2011 World Cup trophy © Getty Images

It took him a while to understand the game (which, in this tournament, is played with tweaked rules). "At first I just couldn't understand what was happening," he says. "I had no idea how the points system worked. I asked people why they were clapping. But after watching a few matches in Hyderabad, I started to get a clearer idea. Now I've begun liking it."

The water colours he uses to paint himself from head to waist for PBL matches can be applied and removed more quickly than the enamel paint he favours for cricket matches, because of its ability to weather longer hours and outdoor conditions. "I've been painting myself for 16 years now. Not once have I suffered from any skin infections or allergies," he says, before explaining why he took to painting his body. "I wanted Sachin sir to notice me. I thought to myself, much like some people paint their cheeks in the colours of the national flag during a match to show support, why don't I take it a step forward and paint my entire upper body?"

For his face, Sudhir usually uses water colours - 15ml bottles of orange, white and green, each of which lasts for close to eight matches. As he runs us through his regime with feverish detail, it's difficult not to wonder what he looks like sans his second skin.

''People, I think, know what I look like now unpainted,'' he says alluding to his popularity, "My hair and look are distinct." Enamel paint for his body, which he usually procures in half-litre batches for each series, takes close to six hours to apply, which often means having to give up sleep at night. "Lying down would mess up the paint. Whether I'm staying at a friend's place or in a hotel room, I sit through the night after my body is painted before a match."

Sudhir is a compelling figure in the Indian sporting landscape, says Prasad Mangipudi, executive director of Sportzlive, which owns the rights to the PBL. "He's one of the most visible brands for sport in the country. His distinct appearance makes for instant recall. People know him exclusively as a Tendulkar fan, so that creates a direct connection between him and the spectators. In the PBL matches that Tendulkar is not able to attend, it's almost like Sudhir is cheering on his behalf. He waves the flag, the crowd too joins in and cheers, which in turn spurs players, so if you look at it he can bring about a change in the stadium atmosphere by his presence."

"When Sachin sir asked me if I would like to watch more matches, I did not for once think about the graduation exam form that I had filled out"

The idea behind the PBL commercial - which shows Sudhir painting himself ahead of a match and Tendulkar referring to him as his "greatest fan" - was to create a flutter and make it memorable, Mangipudi says. Sudhir's presence in the stands has also set the organisers thinking about ways of enhancing the fan experience for future editions.

"We are mulling the prospect of having a fan icon for each team," Mangipudi says, "The idea is to engage fans to a greater extent, and we are looking into the possibility of running a contest to pick a fan who could maybe sit in the dugout with team members."

Sudhir is mindful of the identity he has carved for himself among sport fans in the country. Heartbroken after Tendulkar's retirement and probably unwilling to be weighed down by the baggage of memories, he gave up riding his cycle to matches.

Little else lights him up like seeing packed stands with cheering crowds. "I want more fans to show up. Today I'm there, but tomorrow I may not be around."

One of the few occasions when he looks up to make eye contact is when the topic of family is broached. "I don't answer calls from my family." He last paid a visit home after the Chennai Test in December 2016. "In case of an emergency, if someone in the family dies, I would have to leave a match and go, which I cannot. They know how involved I'm with the game."

Sudhir will turn 36 this year. Seemingly expecting the query, he dismisses the idea of marriage. "I have never thought about it and never will. As long as I'm breathing, I'll support team India. Marriage will only distract me. That's unacceptable."

Susan Ninan is a writer at ESPN.in

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • johnyjohny12 on March 17, 2017, 12:04 GMT

    A hardcore fan of Sachin Tendulkar, Sudhir flaunts his support to Sachin and Team India by painting his upper body with Tendulkar 10 is a great sight in Cricket stadia in the world and of course now in PBL Matches also. He dedicated his life to Cricket fandom and thoroughly enjoys it. We have seen such hardcore cricket fans around the world like "chacha" of Pakistan, "Lionel " of Srilanka. They all love the game so much but no one else painted their body like Sudhir Gautam. Other fans(fanatics) carried their country's Flag only. Barmy Army of English Fan is also classic example of fandom. Sudhir is a classic example of sacrifice of his life to the game is unheard of in Sports circle and the pains he has undertaken so far is unbelievable.

  • GrizzlyGraham on March 17, 2017, 10:57 GMT

    I bet he struggled in Leeds or Manchester with just paint to keep him warm.

  • AFanOfGoodCricket on March 16, 2017, 17:04 GMT

    Probably the most irritating fan ever. Can't stand his conch shell blowing on TV, no doubt people will get irritated in the stands. He has to realise that he is watching badminton not cricket where the players need the crowds help to concentrate. But who will explain this to him. Somebody needs to speak sense to him.

  • PadMarley on March 16, 2017, 11:55 GMT

    I think it is this yellow man's choice , and its ok to be fanatic . But does this story a worthy enough to be an article on cricinfo ?

  • Herath-UK on March 16, 2017, 11:25 GMT

    We all love cricket or for that matter any sport. However we have to be rational & sensible to behave as mature adults. Of course there are cheer leaders all over the world but what is revealed in the article as his life style demean human values. India is famous (or notorious) for man worshipping their sport heroes which does not happen in Sri Lanka & England , two countries I can vouch for.

  • shewag12 on March 16, 2017, 11:07 GMT

    To many hateful comments here this guy has done a lot for India cricket by supporting them through the bad years of play also.

  • TestCricRox on March 16, 2017, 9:46 GMT

    @ KARNAMGIRIDHAR ON MARCH 16, 2017, 5:53 GMT - Aus has Luke Sparrow - u'll catch him waving the aus flag and a bat in the other hand, - NZ has the flag man - i think his name is Sonny or something, another regular with NZ flag, the silver fern flag etc ... - South africa not so long ago had that Big Alec guy - Eng has the guy in the top hat -dunno his name, - BD have the tiger guy, WE also have the guy painted in india colors with 'dhoni' written on him.... Windies -ah here is where-cricket is so poor - their fan characters seemed to have dried up, not so long ago there was the 'gravy' guy who was funny....

  • cricfan16651685 on March 16, 2017, 9:45 GMT

    people calling Sudhir Pathetic needs some help not Sudhir, who are we to decide how his life should be, yes he does have an identity, i recognize him but not this commentor,in fact whole India and cricketing world knows him, at least he does passionately and sincerely what he loves and not fantasizing like many others. If every person would have been as passionate as this guy is, this world would be a lot better place

  • cricfan52707495 on March 16, 2017, 9:36 GMT

    this is his passion.. its ok as long as he is enjoying ... hope everyone will have such a fan..