Meeting Tom and delving into his passion for sport

There were two reasons I gave up the chance last Friday to listen to British climber Mick Fowler speak about four spectacular climbs in Tibet – Siguniang, Grosvenor, Kajaqiao, and Manamcho. First, my friend Tuhin Sinha was launching his book 22 Yards. And, I was keen to meet actor Tom Alter, who was to be the special guest at the Oxford Book store in busy Connaught Place.
I was exposed to Tuhin’s enthusiasm for the game around this time last year. We met in Mumbai and he told me he was writing a fictional account around cricket. We downed some cups of coffee and chatted about shared passion for cricket. And it was pleasing to hear from him about the launch that his publishers, Westland, had put together for him.
By the time my friend NP Singh and I reached Oxford Book Store, the book had been launched, Tom and Tuhin were winding up the conversation that had been having about the game, its players and the book itself. It made sense to buy our copies of the book and wait for the formal interaction to be completed.
Tuhin got busy talking to some mediapersons, his friend and well-wishers, signing autographs in the copies of the book that people had bought. There were a number of people wanting Tom’s autograph as well. The veteran answered questions from them patiently, never more when someone shuffled up to him and rifled dozens of questions.
As the man shot of question after question, it was clear that he did not know who Tom was or what he did for a living. Not for the first time in his life, Tom was being mistaken for an American who developed a passion for cricket – and life at large. The fact that the actor did not mind it all and answered all questions was a veritable lesson in humility.
It was amusing – and wonderful – to see him grill a TV reporter about the event Abhinav Bindra won the Olympic Games gold medal in. And about how wrestler Sushil Kumar was given a second chance to win an Olympic bronze. I can promise you it was not a very nice sight to see the reporter squirm and then try to hold his own against the seasoned Tom.
When you hear him speak about how Suresh Kalmadi had achieved precious little in his time as top honcho of Amateur Athletics Federation of India, you realise it is not the lament of the armchair critic who has picked up some wisdom by watching TV channels or reading newspapers reports. Indeed, his own novel, The Longest Race, has some criticism of the system in India.
When he speaks of badminton player Saina Nehwal’s emergence as the brightest star on the Indian women’s sports firmament, you know it is not an off the cuff remark by an arm-chair critic. “She has that something special,” he says, a few days before the Haryanvi-Hyderabadi girl went on to win her second Grand Prix title.
There was a twinkle in Tom’s eyes when NP spoke to him about some pieces that he had written in the weekly magazine Sportsweek all those years ago. “You remember those?” he said, in amazement. In the silence that enveloped the group for a few moments, you could see that he was dipping in nostalgia. “None of the 12 pieces was on a cricketer. Of the 12 sportspeople I had interviewed – actually spent several days with each one of them – just swimmer Anita Sood paid tributes to her coach, Sandeep Divgikar,” he said.
He recalled that middle-distance ace Bahadur Prasad allowed Gulab Chand to win a race in the inter-Railway championship just because it would help the younger runner to secure a promotion. And he also told us that he had named the central character in The Longest Race Bahadur in honour of the ace.
How could a conversation with Tom at a cricket book launch not focus on cricket?
He regards Sachin Tendulkar at his peak as the brightest Indian batsman of them all ahead of Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Rahul Dravid and all else. But the stress was on the words at his peak. “He was God then, Tom says.
And when he spoke of the change in Tendulkar’s approach to batsmanship, he recalled Steve Waugh comments that he saw fear in Tendulkar’s eyes for the first time on India’s tour of Australia in 1999-2000 and that the little big man was now playing the cricket ball off the pitch rather than off the bowler’s hand.
There was a lost look in his eyes when I raked up the issue of match fixing – some if it figures in 22 Yards. “I wrote then that the lights at the Wankhede Stadium were not only switched off but seemed to be hanging their heads in shame. It hasn’t been the same for me since then,” he says.
The other aspect of modern cricket that anguishes his soul is clearly IPL. “I didn’t watch a single IPL game. It was conceived on the twin tenets of greed and revenge and anything that is resting on such pillars cannot be good,” Tom says, making it apparent that, like some of us, he remains a stickler for Test cricket and its romance.
That is the reason he is hurt by India’s ODI captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s decision to not play the recent Test series in Sri Lanka. “Had Dhoni gone, we would not have lost the Test series,” he said. “See how well he played both Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan in the one-day games. He may have looked a bit ungainly in the process but he delivered results, did he not?”
Evening stretched into night. Cha Bar closed and its staff made their way home, leaving some of us parched when we looked for some tea. Happily, the book store staff waited patiently for us to leave, never even suggesting that we rise from the table that had become a vast canvas of our thoughts.