Akshay sent me a detailed questionnaire some months ago while gathering material for this article. You might want to read the questions and my answers too: see below.
1. Where did you grow up in India? What sports did you follow when in India? Who were your idols?
I grew up mostly in Bombay, though I also lived in Delhi and then went to college in Pilani in Rajasthan. I followed cricket, tennis and hockey a lot, played the first two pretty regularly. In cricket I was a fan of Vishy, Chandra, Andy Roberts and Eknath Solkar (for his electrifying fielding -- I wanted to field like that). Tennis, McEnroe, Connors and Amritraj. Hockey, probably Aslam Sher Khan and Ajitpal Singh.
2. What events/games did you watch live at the stadium when in India?
I remember going to the Brabourne Stadium for a day of the Test against NZ in 1969. I was 9 years old, and it was nearly 36 years before I watched my second day of Test cricket in a stadium! (Bangalore Test against Pakistan, March 2005).
3. What age did you go to the US? Which city?
I went at 21, in 1981, to Providence, Rhode Island, to attend Brown University.
4. Could you talk about your early days in the US vis-a-vis sport? What did you miss about the Indian sports scene? Did you go to comical/dramatic lengths to get a fix of Indian sports news/telecasts?
I went in the days long before widespread internet and TV channels. There was American sport, and that's it. No mention of cricket or hockey anywhere. So while I missed it a lot initially, I simply got used to the idea of not knowing about happenings in cricket for much of the 1980s (while I lived in the US). That whole period is like a gap in my life -- I know that there were various Test series that took place, but only in hazy retrospect.
The exception was the 1983 World Cup triumph -- an Indian friend got me clippings about it all from Indian newspapers and sent them to me, so I pored over the reports of the final victory. I still have them somewhere.
Quite early, I started attending university football and ice hockey games, and later following pro and college basketball too. I never really grew to like baseball.
I should say though that in my time at Brown, several of us (Indians, Pakistanis, West Indians, a few English guys) got together and started playing cricket. We imported some equipment and played regular matches. (Yes, with real cricket balls). I was also then an impoverished student, and I had no money to repair my glasses whose arms had fallen off 2-3 days before one of our matches. So I played that whole game of cricket -- even pounding in to bowl fast -- with the glasses taped to my nose with scotch-tape.
That was how much I wanted to play cricket.
Incidentally, this club we formed has endured, and now plays as the Rhode Island Cricket Club in a weekend cricket league in New England.
5. How did you start liking the American sport of your choice? Can you describe the moment when you realised, "Hey, I think I like this"?
Basketball was probably my favourite American sport, purely because of the sheer tempo and athleticism of the game. I started watching pro basketball (NBA) in the early '80s, the heyday of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Truly, watching them got me started liking the game. I particularly liked the way Bird played -- no great showmanship like Magic and later Jordan had, but an uncanny awareness of the court and his teammates, a completely unselfish game founded above all on playing hard all the time. I liked that because it's the way I always wanted to approach the games I played -- tennis, and later basketball too.
I also enjoyed football, because I found it fascinating how these teams would try to run these intricately patterned plays on the field, as if they were to be done with mechanical toys. Yet these were not toys, but big hefty athletes in frenetic action, going after each other! So the pretty patterns would invariably end in huge piles of humanity. And yet out of all that, I grew to understand that there was indeed strategy and guile and subtlety in the game.
6. What attracted you to the sports of your choice? Once you liked it, did you consciously educate yourself about it? Did you start spending more time on the sports section of American publications?
As I said, it was the skill of Larry Bird that first got me hooked to basketball. Later I also began following college basketball, where passion and school spirit feed into the mixture. The March college tournament (the NCAAs, also referred to as "March Madness") is one of the great spectacles of American sport, where invariably one or two unknown teams will score upsets over some fancied team and make a run.
I did start following the sports sections closely. But I probably learned most about basketball (in particular), and liking it even more, when I started playing it seriously. That's when the manouevres on court -- the "pick-and-roll", for example -- made sense to me, and then I started identifying them in the games I saw on TV.
7. Who were your favourite American sport analysts?
Probably John McEnroe and Mary Carillo in tennis. Mainly because both had played the game at the highest level and bring that understanding to their commentary.
8. When was the first time you watched a game live in the US? What stood out about the experience?
I think my first live game was probably a Brown football game, sometime in October of 1981. I barely understood the game, but what I remember is the whole college atmosphere -- the cheering students and alumni, the college band. Especially because the Brown Band is traditionally scruffy and disorganized, but plays beautifully coordinated music all the same. I also remember with wonder that each time Brown scored, the male cheerleaders would flop on their fronts and do as many pushups as Brown's score was.
And of course what also stood out were the (female) cheerleaders -- pert, pretty girls in little dresses doing impossible-seeming feats to get the crowd excited about the game.
9. What did you like to eat and drink at the stadium?
Usually a Coke and a hotdog. I have never been a beer drinker.
10. Was it possible to hear snatches of Hindi or any other Indian language at a hardcore American sports venue?
Only between me and any Indian mates who were along!
11. What was your favourite team and why?
In the college games, Brown. Of course because I attended Brown, but also because it is a small university with mostly weak teams that struggle to stay afloat against most others. Yet as a result they often fight hard and make games closer than they should be.
In the pro ranks, I liked the Boston Celtics in basketball, purely because of Larry Bird. In football, I liked the Washington Redskins, perhaps because they won the first Super Bowl I really paid attention to, in 1983. And they won it with a spectacular performance by John Riggins, a character in his own right. He once got drunk and fell asleep under a table at a formal Washington party, and when he woke up, he told the Supreme Court Judge Sandra Day O'Connor: "Loosen up, Sandie baby!" Gotta love the man and the team that he played for.
12. Who were your favourite players and why? Now that you are back in India, do they still remain some kind of role models?
Again, I'd choose Larry Bird. Because of his intelligence about basketball, his fabulous court sense and his unflinching work ethic about the game. For those things, of course he remains a role model. John McEnroe is up there too, for his court sense in tennis.
13. Did you have parties at home during Super Bowl or other major events? What was the food and drink menu on such days? What was the agenda?
I don't recall a party at home, but I did go to other friends' places for parties around games, Super Bowl or otherwise. Food was usually pizza and chips, with plenty of beer and Coke available too. The agenda? Not so much the game, just hanging out with pals.
One of my favourite memories from the States is about one such party, around an inconsequential college football game. I had just moved to Austin, in Texas, and had no friends there. An Indian friend from Brown told me about an Indian friend she knew in Austin and suggested I call him. So one Saturday morning, I did. He said he and some pals were going to be at home watching the University of Texas playing Baylor University that afternoon, did I want to join in? So I went. Turned out they were all UT students, fervent supporters of UT. Since I didn't much care about either team, I decided to support Baylor. As it happened Baylor just hammered UT that day. (Which is a very rare happening). So I ended up cheering a lot. That got me many dirty and angry looks. I was never invited back; in fact I never met any of those guys again.
14. Did you reach a point where you enjoyed American sport more than cricket?
Yes, I'd say I probably enjoyed basketball and tennis more than cricket. But probably because I played those sports regularly and with some seriousness, and got fairly good at them.
For a while in Austin, I played basketball competitively. Though our team had two superb players (I'll call them X and Y), collectively we were not much good. But two incidents stand out for me from that time.
Once, a friend from out of town came to play with us. He was now out of shape, but had played basketball seriously for years. He was a tough, skillful player, and though I was taller than him, I found it very hard to play against him, score over him. That evening, we met for dinner, and got chatting about the game. He asked me, who do you think your best player is? I named X, one of the two guys I mentioned above. He shook his head and pointed to me. You're the best player, he said. Because you play hard all the time.
I was floored, but it felt good. The Larry Bird influence, I thought.
The other time, we played a pickup game against the UT women's team, then nationally ranked. Again, it was hard going -- these girls were tough as nails, quick and smooth on the court. I thought they didn't think much of our capabilities, certainly not mine.
But the next day, I was sitting in my office working and noticed that the same UT women's team had come to my company on some kind of promotional tour. Watching them through my large window, their best player suddenly saw me too -- and suddenly broke into a huge smile, waved and told her teammates, who smiled and waved too. Somehow I got the sense that she had appreciated the game the previous day, appreciated playing against me and my mates.
A good feeling, again. Larry Bird, again.
15. In your initial days, did you feel intimidated at rowdy venues?
16. What technical aspects of your favourite American sport did you take time to comprehend? Did this result in some amusing faux pas/ incidents?
Even though I played basketball a fair amount, I never did get the hang of the various rules for fouls and shooting. In particular, there's a rule about how your foot must not cross the line while shooting a free throw.
There was one game I played with my team in which we were (again) getting routinely thrashed. On the dot of halftime, I got fouled going up for a basket, and had to make the free throw. Since the buzzer had sounded, both teams went to their benches to sit while I shot the FT. The ref gave me the ball, I looked up at the basket, took a breath and threw it up. Swish -- nothing but basket! I felt great -- it was a nice shot, and we had at least narrowed the gap on our opponents by one point.
Then I heard the ref's whistle, and looked over to see him waving his hands. No basket, he shouted, pointing at my feet. I had stepped clear across the line. I tried arguing, saying the ball had left my hand before I stepped across -- I felt sure about that -- but he would not listen.
Apparently the feet need to stay behind until after the throw is made, not just till it leaves the shooter's hand. Or I think so. To this day, I'm not sure of the rule.
And to this day, my teammates have not forgiven me, even though that one point would have made no difference to the outcome of the game.