Why autographs score over selfies

Have selfies replaced autographs when it comes to bonding between sports persons and fans? I hope not, because autographs are as enduring as photographs. Autograph hunters even share autographs, sell autographs, but who would want your selfie?

Autograph-hunting is no easy business, unglamorous too. It takes guts to approach a mega star who may be in no mood to hold yet another pen and inscribe away on a very busy day or at an inappropriate time.

I know a few hunters who have been utterly disappointed at not being obliged, but amazingly, they don’t brood over it too much. Only recently, a fellow journalist and a huge football fan, sent across six photographs and a book on Pele to be signed through someone who was going to interact with the football great in Kolkata. Pele looked at the photographs, expressed his delight and kept them for himself while he returned the book unsigned. Some 0-6 defeat, that, for the football connoisseur. It could well have been 0-7 though, had the book been taken too.

A letter which Anil Karkhanis received from former England fast bowling great Alec Bedser
A letter which Anil Karkhanis received from former England fast bowling great Alec Bedser

In India, there has never been a method to the madness in getting autographs. Hunters are treated as pests by cricket authorities and security. And now, those seeking autographs can’t even get near the players. Thane-based Anil Karkhanis has been collecting autographs for the last 50 years. His collection includes signatures from the greatest of names starting with Sir Donald Bradman (procured through a letter of request), Sir Garfield Sobers (at Brabourne Stadium in 1966-67) too but not Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Karkhanis just can’t get near India’s limited overs skipper.

Cricket fans in England are most meticulous and disciplined when it comes to getting their inscriptions. Many of them are allowed to land up in the lead-up to a Test match and wait patiently for the players to head to the practice nets. Their thriving time is when the players return from training and it’s amazing to see the material they carry — Wisden Cricketer Almanacks, scoresheets, cricketer cards and thick autograph books. It was interesting to speak to a collector who parked himself at the Nursery End at Lord’s before the 2011 India vs England Test. This old man came all the way from Scotland and thrived on an opportunity to get then Team India cricket manager Chandu Borde’s autograph that he had missed when Borde was in England as part of MAK Pataudi’s team in 1967.

The photographs batting legend Sunil Gavaskar signed for Poorti Kulkarni
The photographs batting legend Sunil Gavaskar signed for Poorti Kulkarni

In Australia, they are bold and beautiful. There have been instances of players being asked to sign on the front of a woman’s shirt or her chest, and players like Shane Warne duly obliged.

There is this apocryphal story about an Indian bowler who, more than once, wrote down his hotel room number below his signature for a female fan. And Jeff Thomson used to say, “never refuse a kid an autograph because he may have a pretty older sister”. Sir Garry Sobers, I hear, hates granting autographs at this age, while I’ve seen Sunil Gavaskar refuse to sign on currency notes and rightly so. And those who wanted Sachin Tendulkar to sign on their books before heading out for a net session, they were politely told that he’ll do it after his practice session.

The late BCCI president and supreme raconteur Raj Singh Dungarpur never tired of telling the story about an Indian fan whose entry into Bradman’s residential compound at Adelaide frightened the great Australian no end — he feared for his life, when all the man from India wanted was his autograph. He was obliged.

A letter and autograph from former West Indies batsman-wicketkeeper Clyde Walcott to autograph hunter Anil Karkhanis
A letter and autograph from former West Indies batsman-wicketkeeper Clyde Walcott to autograph hunter Anil Karkhanis

Poorti Kulkarni is an autograph buff, who has a large collection of signatures from celebrities across professions. She remembers how Sanjay Manjrekar managed to get her first autograph book filled with star members of the Mumbai and Baroda teams during a Ranji Trophy game at Thane in 1988. The earlier day, when the 10-year-old Poorti met Manjrekar and wondered how she would be let in through the stadium gates, Manjrekar suggested she tell the security guard that she was his cousin. It worked.

Poorti’s collection began to grow after statistician Sudhir Vaidya, a fellow Thane resident then, came home from his scoring assignment on the 1986 tour of England with a few autographs of English cricketers for her.

In 2001, she decided to carry all her 350-odd autographs to Nairobi where she could show her Kenya-based cousin her entire collection. On her way back to India, via Dubai, the bag containing all that ‘wealth’ was lost by the airline. Steffi Graf, Michael Stich, Jim Courier, Gavaskar, Tendulkar... all gone. Gavaskar sent a letter consoling her, and Poorti had to start all over again. A year and 17 days later, the airline called to say they found her bag which travelled to Yemen because of a goof-up. Come to think of it, Poorti could have sued for the anguish she suffered, but she was smiling again and her only regret is not having a letter signed by Bradman. Collectors usually get what they are missing finally, and if anyone deserves to get a Bradman signature without paying a heavy price for it, it is Poorti.

Clayton Murzello is mid-day’s Group Sports Editor

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