The Atheist Who Wasn’t

That’s me, Tugga. For someone who considers himself a rational atheist, not given to the diktats of organized religion or of other dogmas, hero worship does not or SHOULD NOT come naturally; at least if he doesn’t wish to render himself open to accusations of double standards. But from the winter of 1985 to the spring of 2004, I had been just that. A hero-worshipper, a fan-boy as bad as any of the Apple variety, so much so, that I often use his nickname for myself. I do not remember what exactly drew a boy of six to Stephen Rodgers Waugh in that series India played in Australia in 1985, but whatever it was, it led me to pronounce, in 1986, that SR Waugh had overtaken Sunil Gavaskar as my favorite cricketer and one that was destined for greatness.

In those two years India faced off against Australia a fair few times and I often found myself in the unenviable position that Cardus famously found himself in with regard to Victor Trumper, hoping for a Steve Waugh MoM, with India winning the game. Of course, in those days, ODIs felt far more interesting (it was the 80s with its dud pitches and rubbish draws, plus as a 6-7 year old, I had the attention span of a Maninder Singh innings) and the way Waugh first appealed to me was as a brilliant ODI all-rounder who would bowl wonderful slower balls. The 1987 World Cup on the sub-continent just reinforced this; the Iceman was born, leading Allan Border to proclaim that here was a cricketer destined for greatness. From then to 1991, I would check the sports section of the ToI daily, just hoping to see his name in the news or in the scorecards; mostly to be disappointed, with the exception of the 1989 Ashes in England. 1991 brought together India, Australia and the West Indies in a WSC in which the WI were woeful, the Indians good in parts and Australia practically all conquering. In the first final, I remember celebrating when Peter Taylor took a blinder to dismiss Srikkanth off Steve’s bowling; looking back, it was an innocuous delivery and it was more Peter Taylor’s athleticism than anything else, but the one-eyed fan in me probably thought it was the ball of the century. My dad thought it was pathetic, my clutching to isolated moments of glory to “argue” Waugh’s greatness in the fashion of Bill O’Reilly (definitely not the Bill O’Reilly who didn’t like Bradman, but the Bill O’Reilly of FNC who doesn’t like Keith Olbermann of MSNBC) and he used every Waugh failure to rub it in and rile me.

It was finally his watershed 1995 series in the Carribean that averted a possible crisis of faith that often afflicts people of religious persuasion. Believers often need miracles to re-inforce their faith in their saints, angels and gods, and this was mine. (No surprise then, that 14 years on, in 2009, when my wife gifted me his 1995 tour diary, I treasured it like a southerner treasures his Bibles.) Then on, it was smooth sailing; by then, he was a complete test batsman, piling on the runs against Pakistan, Sri Lanka and England at home. Typically back to wall innings of 60-odd at the Kotla in 1996 and twin centuries (oh, such mastery!) at Old Trafford in 1997 just contributed to his growing legend as the toughest cricketer on the planet. I remember a few friends of mine came up with the sobriquet “Chipku” for him. Truth be told however, (and I guess, only 7 years of retirement from your idol can really give you the objectivity to see the truth) I sometimes wonder if it was more legend than reality. Sure, he was seriously tough, but after 1997, the only ones that really stand out in my memory are the 110 at Kolkata, the 120 in the 1999 WC and perhaps, the career prolonging 102 he got against the Poms in Sydney in 2003. Perhaps, though, it was a blessing that this objectivity did not come to me while I was tiding over some of the toughest phases of my academics and career, because he remained an inspiration to fight and give it all I had to the task at hand. Things have changed and much like the devout believer, who turns atheist to find that his greatest strength and his greatest hope lie within himself, so it is with me now. I remain his greatest fan, while taking away what is probably the most important lesson of his career, have faith and belief in yourself, take pride in your efforts and you will be at peace with yourself.