We’ve all seen him: the Ashok Chakra painted on the nose over a thick coat of white paint, saffron on the forehead and green on the chin; a bald head with a patch of hair shaped like the Indian map with the tricolours. Sudhir Gautam is the man we see during every cricket match India plays at home, tirelessly waving the Indian flag.
Gautam, 33, was shell-shocked when a friend told him that the master blaster had called it a day.
“I was in Rajkot for the Twenty20 game, and I couldn’t believe my ears. I thought it was a joke,” he told dna during the ODI at Jaipur on October 16, where he continued to play the conch shell and wave the Indian flag for each one of 39 boundaries and 11 sixes the young Indian top order smashed to cruise to a historic victory. While Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli ensured the fans did not miss the legendary trio of Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, Gautam’s wiry frame painted with ‘Miss U Tendulkar 10’ ensured no one forgot the master blaster.
So you’ve prefixed a “miss-u” to TENDULKAR 10 on your painted body…
I’ve always done that when Sachin sir is not playing. But after the 200th Test (when Sachin Tendulkar will retire), it will read like this.
When did you first meet Tendulkar?
It was on October 28, 2003, in Mumbai. He was walking out of the Trident Hotel at Nariman Point with Anjali bhabhi. I ran up to him and touched his feet. He then invited me home. The next morning, I went to La Mer in Bandra (the Tendulkars used to live in this building before they moved to the much talked about, sprawling Perry Cross Road bungalow) with a bouquet. India was playing Australia at the Wankhede Stadium on November 1 and sir gave me a pass for the game. For several years, he continued to give me passes for games. But of late, it is Mane kaka (Ramesh Mane, the Indian team’s masseur), who ensures I am in the stadium.
So you’ve watched many India games?
I’ve watched 40 Tests, 206 ODIs, 18 T20 Internationals and 53 IPL/Champions League T20 matches.
When did you decide to take the plunge and attend all India matches?
I have always been a huge fan of Sachin sir. I played at the college level, but I was never picked for any major tournaments. So, I gave up all that and cycled from Bihar to Mumbai to meet Sachin sir.
And I never stopped.
Do you remember watching the first match?
India lost to Australia that day (On November 1, 2003. The fourth match of the TVS Cup that was played at the Wankhede Stadium). It was a tri-series (ODI). We then lost to New Zealand in Cuttack on November 6 (New Zealand won by 4 wickets), lost again to Australia in Bangalore on November 12 (Australia won by 61 runs) before thrashing New Zealand in Hyderabad on November 15 (India won by 145 runs. Sachin and Virendra Sehwag opened the Indian innings;
Sachin smashed a 91 ball 102 and Sehwag scored 130). I got into trouble on two occasions during this series. In Cuttack, I ran across the field to touch Sachin sir’s feet. He didn’t appreciate it, but was kind enough to tell the cops not to beat me up. But in Hyderabad, I did the same because he scored a hundred. This time, too, sir requested the cops to let me go but they took me to Secunderabad police station and beat me black and blue. I was so badly hurt that I could not cycle my way to Kolkata for the final against Australia on November 18 (that India lost by 37 runs).
You cycle the length and breadth of the country…
Largely. I have cycled from Bihar to Bangladesh thrice. I have also gone to Pakistan. But nowadays I take the train. It’s faster.
Your cycle journeys take days, sometimes weeks. How do you survive?
I have friends in every city. I usually stay with my painter. Some of them charge me Rs200 for the body paint. But I don’t let anyone paint my face or head. I use water colour. In some cities, like Rajkot and Chandigarh, the painters don’t charge me a penny. I’ve made friends everywhere – even across the border in Dhaka, Chittagong, Sialkot, Lahore, Karachi. Even the Barmy Army (a group of English cricket fans that follow the team on tours) knows me. In Pakistan, I stayed with ‘Pakistan chacha’ (Chaudhry Abdul Jalil, a fan of the Pakistan team, who is sponsored by the Pakistan Cricket Board to travel with the team).
People say you seldom purchase a ticket…
That used to be the case. I used to get a platform ticket and sneak into the train. Whenever the ticket inspector came for his rounds, I used to show him my photographs with players and he’d let me go. Ever since Sachin sir allowed me to lift the World Cup on April 2, 2011, I’ve changed. I can’t embarrass him by breaking the law. He took me into the dressing room and we posed together with the Cup.
How is your relationship with the other players?
They all care for me. Bhajji, Dhoni, Raina –– everyone is ready to help. But I don’t take any money from anyone. A few months ago, I took litchis to Dhoni’s home in Ranchi. Dhoni was on a break and we watched the India vs Zimbabwe match. Later, he, Sakshi bhabhi and I had lunch together.
Then I asked Dhoni about his Hellcat (the Confederate X132 Hell Cat muscle bike that reportedly cost Dhoni Rs60 lakh). He took me to his garage and there were nine super bikes. He has seven more in his Vasant Kunj home in Delhi and two in Chennai. Do you know Sachin sir has dropped me to the station in his BMW? I can walk into his house any time. On one occasion, I went to his place at 4.30 am. He was kind enough to let me in. Dhoni keeps asking for my bank account number, but I refuse to give it to him.
How do you feel when the media and public criticise Tendulkar?
When he was batting poorly in England and Australia, my friends used to grumble and taunt me. I beat up some of them. Now, I have stopped fighting. I just walk away when they say something against Sachin sir.
Do you think you will suffer from an identity crisis after Sachin retires? Once people stop seeing Tendulkar on TV, how relevant will his biggest fan be?
Jab tak hum is prithvi par hain, tab tak hum yehi karenge. Har boundary, har six aur har vipakshi wicket par shank bajayenge. (As long as I am on earth, I will keep doing this. I will blow the conch shell for every boundary, every six that the Indian teams hits and for every opposition team wicket they pick).
What are your pre- and post-match rituals?
You will always find me next to the team bus on the eve of the match and on match day. I welcome them and see them off. On match days, I wave the flag non-stop till the toss. I then take a short break before welcoming them onto the ground by continuously playing my conch shell. I don’t eat on days India loses.
What are your other interests?
I am not interested in anything but cricket. I don’t eat out, I don’t shop and I don’t go for movies.
Ever since I met Sachin sir, I haven’t had to buy clothes. Every Indian player gives me clothes. Be it the Test jersey, ODI jersey or practice wear, I have a cupboard full of clothes. But I try not to wear the ones with the player’s name on the back. People taunt me if I do.
What do you do in the off-season when the Indian team doesn’t play?
I do odd jobs. I get work at college festivals or I work at the stadiums. The cricketing fraternity helps me. I know a lot of people. Someone or the other gives me work. I make around Rs200 a day and I save most of the money. How else would I buy train tickets and food when the season begins? A senior journalist in Delhi is writing a book on me and she says the Railways will give me an all-India pass once the book is released. I don’t know when that will happen.
Someone is also making a documentary on you. When is it releasing?
Soon. In fact, I am flying to Mumbai on October 22. Shushrut Jain, the director, just sent me the tickets. Sachin sir knows I am flying down to Mumbai. I hope to meet him again. Just yesterday, the special armed forces vehicle guarding the Indian team gave me a lift. They wanted to hear Sachin sir’s voice. So I called him up, put him on speaker phone and spoke to him for two minutes, while they quietly heard our conversation. They were thrilled.
What are your plans for Wankhede?
I hope they allow me to wave my flag when the team gives Sachin sir a lap of honour. That’s all I want.