IT’S DIFFICULT to understand die-hard fans and what drives them to travel the world to support their favorite team. One of those who made the journey Down Under is 57-year-old Bhavishan Rai, known as Babs, from Bedford, outside London.
As India prepares to face England in the T20 World Cup semi-final in Adelaide, Rai will watch with his fingers crossed. But he has enough experience cheering on the Men in Blue. After all, it will be his 635th game watching from the stands.
Rai’s grandfather moved from Jalandhar to England in the 1960s and has lived there all his life. The Indian diaspora in Britain are known for their almost fanatical support for the team, but Rai holds a special distinction among them. He has seen India win the 1983 World Cup in England, the 2007 ICC World T20 in South Africa and the 2011 World Cup on the subcontinent. He also witnessed India’s early exit from the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean.
Rai fell in love with the game at the age of 17 when he watched Kapil Dev’s iconic 175 against Zimbabwe at Tunbridge Wells, after India had been cut to 17/5. But he regards India’s Test series victory in England in 1986 as his proudest moment as a fan.
“I was one of the thousands of fans who raced at Lord’s when India defeated the West Indies to clinch their first World Cup. I saw Kapil’s 175 in desert terrain with only a few fans. However, for Indians living in England, the proudest moment was when India defeated England in 1986. It was more than winning the World Cup for them, especially as many of them had suffered from many personal attacks,” he said. .
Rai is an IT professional who says he has earned enough to enjoy the rest of his life. He is passionate about the game, not the cricketers. He doesn’t take selfies, the only time he took an autograph was from Maninder Singh, who wrote in all caps. He only travels to watch the games in India and part of his earnings is reserved for this purpose. The only souvenir he carries with him is a cap given to him by Sachin Tendulkar after India lost to Australia in the 2003 World Cup final in Johannesburg.
“Sachin was upset and was walking back after the presentation ceremony. I told him ‘Hard Luck Sachin, you did the best you could’. After a while, he came back and gave me his cap which I have worn till date. I think he knows me now,” Rai recalled.
The time has changed
There was a time when cricketers used to join the fans to drink or eat after a game. Rai says he helped 19-year-old Harbhajan Singh find Indian food. At the 2007 ICC World T20, he dined with Virender Sehwag on the eve of the final against Pakistan, as he was injured and unable to play. In 2009, he guided VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar to a fine restaurant in Napier, New Zealand.
“I remember the three of us sat down and watched the Singapore Grand Prix. In 1998, in Hamilton, a game was canceled due to rain. I was the only Indian in the stadium and I had a box. I had the chance to have dinner with the Indian team, which can’t happen now.”
Rai can go to any length to fuel her fashion. He once failed to get a room for an India-Australia game at Mohali in 2008. Tendulkar came close to beating Brian Lara’s tally for most Test runs. He emailed hotel staff to book a room posing as a senior cricket official whose identity could not be revealed.
“I asked them for a room. They said the hotel was full, but then I pretended to be one of the key officials, who was on a very important assignment for this game. In the next mail, they confirmed my reservation”, he joked.
On one of his tours of India 14 years ago, Rai wore tricolor pants and was heckled on the streets of Mumbai. He has followed the game closely for decades, from Indian players looking for Indian families in England who can provide Indian food to seeing them in five-star accommodation. The other day, he met Mohinder Amarnath walking near Lord’s.
“I recognized it. His wife suddenly started clapping because she felt like no one knew her husband anymore,” she laughed.