Over the next fortnight, a nation will turn its moist eyes towards its most loved sporting hero. The Sachin Tendulkar Farewell Tour is upon us, as are the tributes, platitudes and shows of emotion that wouldn’t be out of place in a soap opera. At the same time, another Indian sporting titan, three years older, will be contesting a world championship on home soil, perhaps the only time he’ll do so in a game generally not kind to those in their 40s.
One legend’s last hurrah will be watched by millions, and be splashed across the front pages in a dozen languages. Unless you live in a cave, you’ll know what the second Test against West Indies signifies. Contrast that with the chess world championship, and the lukewarm interest from mainstream media.
Viswanathan Anand, undisputed champion since 2007, takes on Magnus Carlsen, the 22-year-old Norwegian who wasn’t even born when he became a Grandmaster at the age of 18. Carlsen isn’t just the World No. 1. Last February, his Elo rating reached 2872 points, 21 more than the legendary Garry Kasparov managed. Anand’s highest rating was 2817, nearly three years ago.
Carlsen is “The Mozart of Chess”, a sobriquet that The Guardian’s recent in-depth profile explained thus: “It’s not so much to do with his mercurial gifts — such as his ability to memorise thousands of games, or to beat 10 strong players simultaneously, blindfolded — but his style of play. He makes his moves more by intuition than analysis, feeling for them rather than thinking them through. And there is harmony in his moves — music, you might say.”
And what of Anand, who was acknowledged as a prodigy in his field long before most had even heard of Tendulkar? How many will follow these games, which the chess world is anticipating as it once did the Karpov-Kasparov clashes of the 1980s? If Anand overcomes the vigour of youth, the front page might be his for a day. If he doesn’t, he will continue to be an afterthought, as he has been for a quarter-century in a country besotted with its cricket team. Chess doesn’t lend itself to Mexican waves, or hyperbolic commentary. Anand’s favourite e4 opening will never be subject to the sort of analysis that accompanies a Tendulkar back-foot punch through extra-cover.
Few will know either that he has won his world titles at venues as far apart as Teheran, Mexico, Bonn, Sofia and Moscow.
In a sense, Anand’s story is the tale of all other Indian sport since 1983. When the going is good — the hockey team came within a minute of the semifinals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 — we rally behind the flag.
When it’s not — India’s footballers qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup through the AFC Challenge Cup, a competition for weaker sides, and then conceded 13 goals in three games — no one can better us at mockery, never mind that the abysmal state of sports administration in this country means it’s a miracle that our teams compete against better sides, leave alone win.
Remember the 4x400m women’s relay quartet that became our darling after winning gold at the Commonwealth and Asian Games in 2010?
After all four were found guilty of doping offences a year later, we airbrushed them from memory. By then, we had a cricket World Cup win to celebrate. Athletics? What’s that?
Greatest Indian sportsperson
Given that his years as a champion have come so late in his career, there’s certainly a case to be made for Anand being the greatest sportsperson India has ever produced.
He didn’t just succeed in a country where the chess culture is threadbare compared to the former Soviet republics, he also outduelled a generation of peers and those significantly younger.
Gata Kamsky, who beat him in a quarterfinal 17 years ago, is 39. Vladimir Kramnik and Vesselin Topalov, who held the title before him, were both born in 1975. Even as we marvel at Tendulkar’s longevity and wonder if we shall ever see his like again, spare a minute’s thought for Anand.
A golden boy long before Tendulkar, he found a second wind that even Kasparov could not.
He is as much a national treasure. Hopefully, over the next month, a one-sport nation will remember that.