Rivals on the playing field, strong ties off

Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra rode a motorbike and sang an ode to friendship in Sholay. Virender Sehwag and Ashish Nehra have done it in real life. As two youngsters from Delhi were playing national cricket in the late 90s, Sehwag and Nehra traveled to Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium on Sehwag’s two-wheeler. During the trip, Nehra, who wasn’t a morning person, would catch a nap by resting her head on her boyfriend’s big bag. “Viru stayed in Najafgarh, while I was living in Delhi Cant (quartering), so he would pick me up,” the former Indian fast bowler and Gujarat Titans coach once said. Breakfast with champions, a YouTube show hosted by sports presenter Gaurav Kapur. “Going to the ground, he was riding and I was sleeping. On the way back, I went upstairs, he slept.

In today’s complex world, a series of factors have affected friendships. Beyond a certain point, it’s every man for himself. Friendships are secondary to priorities – career, growth, family and helpful networks. This is seen as a way of being adult and honest, rather than clinging to sentimental feelings. chhodenge dum magar, tera saath na chhodenge Notions. Additionally, people are more immersed in their lives online. And our stance on politics and sensitive issues affects our friendships more than ever before.

In the case of athletes, given their high-pressure public lives, these complexities are even more pronounced. With everyone around them clicking on smartphones, they prefer to connect with their friends at home. Cricketers Smriti Mandhana and Jemimah Rodrigues, for example, share humorous videos of themselves, sometimes performing songs from movies. Likewise with Shikhar Dhawan and Prithvi Shaw, both Indian selections. It’s a more convenient way to enjoy their friendship than going out for a meal or a movie. In the process, the goals of reaching fans and monetizing their social media presence are also achieved.

Imran Khan with Sunil Gavaskar

In the past, athletes didn’t have to think so much. They could meet their friends wherever they wanted. They were recognized and harassed even then, but there were no abusive smartphones or trolls.

Friendship has two key ingredients. One is proximity. The other is fun. We have people in our lives that we can confide in, but we don’t necessarily laugh a lot with them. Likewise, we can have people in our lives who are great fun to be with, but we can’t call them at 4 a.m. The two races, however, are considered friends. That’s why the warm relations between some Indian and Pakistani players can be called friendships, even though each side always knew they couldn’t be each other’s friend.

It was Imran who, over lunch in London, persuaded Gavaskar to extend his career for a few months so they could play one last set against each other.

Pulling legs, eating out and inviting each other home are a given when Indian and Pakistani players meet. When the Neighbors visited India in 1986-87, both teams played Holi in the hotel pool during the Bangalore test. The two legends on either side, Imran Khan and Sunil Gavaskar, had a lot of respect for each other. About a year before the 1986-87 tour, it was Imran who, over lunch in London, persuaded Gavaskar to extend his career for a few months so the two could play one last set against each other. . But there is a fine line to be walked in Indo-Pakistani friendships, as Navjot Singh Sidhu discovered. Sidhu was lambasted when he chose to attend Prime Minister Imran’s swearing-in ceremony on the cremation of Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi
Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi Photo: Getty Images

Friendship, in the full sense of the word, is perhaps what Sachin Tendulkar shared with Vinod Kambli. Much may have been written about this. They may have had a falling out (they’re cordial again). But it’s still worth remembering for the authenticity of their bond and their Tom Sawyer-Huckleberry Finn type of antics. One of the duo’s completely random pranks was on Sourav Ganguly, when they were 14-15 and in training camp. While Ganguly was taking a nap, Tendulkar and Kambli flooded her room with buckets full of water. Ganguly woke up surrounded by a puddle of water and floating luggage. Tendulkar and Ganguly also became good friends over the next few years. Fame or locker room pulls and pressures haven’t hurt their relationship. They recently celebrated Ganguly’s 50th birthday in London, wives in tow.

Another great Indian sports friendship was Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. It started with noble intentions and resulted in momentous achievements for India, including the Wimbledon men’s doubles crown in 1999. Paes arrived on the international tennis tour ahead of Bhupathi. But the individual sport, and one with constant travel, is a lonely existence, unless you’re a wealthy superstar who can afford to take your entourage everywhere. When Bhupathi arrived, Paes was happy. An emotional man who came from a broken home, he now had company on the road. Additionally, Paes felt that they could both win major tournaments if they teamed up. So he took Bhupathi under his wing.

They found success quickly, that too at the highest level. Glamor and money poured in. For a few years, everything was fine. And then, for various reasons, including an outrageous one, they had an acrimonious breakup. A little truce prevails now. But, despite living within minutes of each other in Bandra, Mumbai, Paes and Bhupathi, who once shared hotel rooms and dreams, have not set foot in the current homes of the other.

Champions!  Luz Long and Jesse Owens.
Champions! Luz Long and Jesse Owens. Photo: Getty Images

Another tennis duo, the “Indo-Pak Express” of Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, have become ambassadors of peace wherever they have played. “Stop the war, start the tennis” was their slogan. Viv Richards and Ian Botham symbolized racial harmony through their friendship, like Jesse Owens and Luz Long. In the 1980s, Botham rejected a lucrative offer to play a few games in apartheid-era South Africa, saying he wouldn’t have been able to “look Viv in the eye” if he had play.

The ultimate story of friendship in sports history, a story with Mahabharata nuances, is one that many of us learned in school. They are Long and Owens, rivals in the long jump at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in Hitler’s Germany. Owens, from the United States, and Long, from the home country, were both around 23 years old. The similarities ended there. Owens was black, and although he was already a great athlete, he was an outcast in his own nation, let alone in foreign countries. Long was the quintessential Aryan, blond and blond. The thousands of Germans in the 100,000 seat stadium, Hitler included, wanted him to win.

One day, find my son… tell him how things can be between men on this Earth. Luz Long In a letter from the trenches to Owens, during World War II

Owens missed his first attempts to qualify for the final and only had one jump to go. Long, despite being an adversary, despite being a white German, gave Owens a helpful suggestion. He asked him to mark a line before the foul line on his next jump, so he wouldn’t overshoot. Owens followed the tip, qualified and beat Long for the gold. The veracity of the advice story has been questioned on several occasions, if not the kinship between Owens and Long. According npr.orgTom Ecker, author of Olympic facts and fables, had asked Owens in 1965 for the details. “Jesse Owens admitted to us that he didn’t meet Luz Long until after the competition was over,” Ecker said.

Due to racism in the United States, Owens led a life of struggle and humiliation even after winning four gold medals in Berlin. Later he became a public speaker and perhaps practical reasons compelled him to stick to the popular version of the Luz Long saga. What is not in dispute, however, is that Long and Owens kissed in front of Hitler. It was in itself a noble and courageous act.

Just seven years after Berlin, Long, just 30, died fighting in World War II. He sent Owens a letter from the trenches. Among other things, he wrote: “Someday find my son… tell him how things can be between men on this Earth. Owens did. And many years after his passing, the Owens and Long families have stayed in touch. At the 2009 World Championships in Athletics in Berlin, Luz Long’s son Kai and Owens’ granddaughter Marlene Dortch were among the special guests. They also visited an exhibit on Owens at the Sports Museum in Berlin.

Such can be the powerful legacy of sport and friendship.

(This appeared in the print edition as “Beyond the Arena”)

Garland K. Long