The obsession began because of the Mystery of the Missing Striker. Sometime in late autumn in 1983, at a garage sale in northern England, I stumbled across the Panini sticker album for Euro 1980. A year earlier, the Brazilian side captained by Socrates had entranced me. They may not have won the 1982 World Cup but, for millions, the beauty of their football lit a flame that burns to this day.
Soon after, I had started reading up on the game’s history. One of the books dealt with the history of the Nations Cup, as the Uefa European Championship was known in its infancy. I had read about the 1980 edition just weeks before coming across the album. The Germans had won the final in Rome against Belgium, with two goals from Horst Hrubesch.
It was not just that Hrubesch’s sticker wasn’t in the album; he didn’t even merit a mention. With no Google to find out why, I eventually gave up the search, deciding to be content with the fact that my album had a sticker of the coolest man in football. The country was called Ceskoslovensko back then, and the highlight of the page was Antonín Panenka and that handlebar moustache. I wouldn’t watch video footage of his iconic penalty till years later, but if you were a boy who kicked a football around back then, you knew what a Panenka was—the almost casual chipped penalty down the middle of the goal—even if you couldn’t dream of pulling it off.
I never forgot Hrubesch though. Once I got access to the Internet two decades ago, long after the album had been lost while moving across continents, it was one of the first things I keyed into the Altavista search. It took me a while to find out that Hrubesch had been called up as a replacement for Klaus Fischer, who had broken his leg.
A few months after stumbling across the album with the missing striker, I came across the cricket trading cards that would eventually lead me to my current job. Growing up in football country—Anfield and Old Trafford were half an hour’s drive away—cricket was on the periphery of my life.
My grandfather’s letters in the winter of 1983 were full of updates from India’s home series against West Indies, the mighty side they had upset in such dramatic circumstances in a World Cup final at Lord’s the previous June. He wrote admiringly of Sunil Gavaskar’s batsmanship, but the sense of awe jumped off the page when he mentioned the fast bowling of Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding, who combined for 63 wickets in six Tests.
In May 1984, my father came home with a set of picture collecting cards he had got from the Texaco petrol station. The oil company sponsored the One Day International (ODI) series held in England for 15 seasons from 1984, and the cards were part of their inaugural offering to draw in fans.
Holding was in that first set. Over the course of the summer, I collected the rest. The West Indies were represented by caricatures of Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Joel Garner and Marshall. The six Englishmen were Ian Botham, David Gower, Allan Lamb, Bob Willis, Chris Tavaré and Derek Randall.
Till then, I had not seen the West Indies play. The baptism came in May 1984, an ODI at Old Trafford. Having feigned illness and skipped school to watch, I felt cheated as they slipped to 166 for 9. But Richards, who had come out with typical gum-chewing swagger, had other plans. He and Holding added 106 for the final wicket—Holding’s share a mere 12—as he smashed an unbeaten 189. In the space of 3 hours, cricket, and Caribbean cricket in particular, won a fan for life.
In the years since, I’ve had an hour-long conversation with Richards in a deserted airport departure lounge. Holding has written for me, and given me lifts to venues in England. I’ve visited Marshall’s grave in Barbados, and faced Garner’s bowling—admittedly off five paces—on a beach. Without those cards that came into my life when I was 10, and which were lost years ago, I doubt any of that would have happened.
Last December, I attended an auction of cricket memorabilia and collectibles organized by Kathiwada Arts & Sports (under the Kathiwada Foundation) on the eve of the Mumbai Test match against England. Far more expensive items went under the hammer, but what really caught my eye were two caricatures. Over four decades in the late 1800s and early 20th century, Leslie Ward drew his Spy series for Vanity Fair. The two caricatures on sale in Mumbai were of W.G. Grace (1877) and Ranjitsinhji (1897). Both sold for Rs14,000 each. The Grace caricature was probably worth a whole lot more, especially if you consider the history of such cards.
It was only in 1868, with the US in thrall to baseball, that Peck & Snyder, a sports store in New York, started giving away baseball-themed cards. Within a couple of decades, tobacco companies had also cottoned on to the promotional value of such giveaways.
Not everyone was enamoured of such sales strategies. In 1911, Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates forced the American Tobacco Co. to withdraw the cards bearing his likeness. Less than 200 such cards had found their way to the public in the previous two years, and the Wagner quickly became a cherished collectors’ item. By the time Ken Kendrick, owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, bought one such card in 2007, it was worth $2.8 million (around Rs19 crore now).
At the Kathiwada auction, it wasn’t memorabilia from an Indian player that sold for the highest price. One of Sachin Tendulkar’s jerseys from the 2003 World Cup—where he was top scorer—fetched Rs3.3 lakh. But at Rs3.4 lakh, it was Wasim Akram’s jumper from the 1992 World Cup that was the most coveted item.
Memorabilia doesn’t just provide a nostalgic link to the sporting past. It offers us a reminder of how sports have evolved over the years. In Durban, a decade ago, a friend was allowed to examine the bat used by Barry Richards, the great South African opener who played just four Tests before apartheid-era isolation. Next to the piece of wood used by M.S. Dhoni, it looked like a twig.
In the museum at Lord’s and at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia, you can see custom-made leather boots favoured by fast bowlers of the past, many of them with a hole cut out for the big toe. They weigh twice or thrice what their modern-day equivalents do.
The old batting gloves were puny affairs, with players often using pieces of raw steak inside them to cushion the impact of blows. As for the footballs used in the old days, they could masquerade as medicine balls now, and you wonder how players ever headed them without suffering permanent concussion.
Many former athletes don’t realize the value of things they’ve just thrown into an attic somewhere. Digvijay Kathiwada, who organized the Mumbai auction, told me some of his experiences while visiting former cricketers. “The entire storeroom would be covered in layers of dust,” he said. “Some would expect you to clean it up for them, and let you take something you retrieved in return.”
Even photographs from a time before digital technology made them so easily accessible can be priceless, but most of those found on the walls of sportspersons’ homes are losing the battle to mildew.
In late January, Boria Majumdar, a sports historian who collaborated with Tendulkar on his autobiography, opened the Fanattic Sports Museum in Kolkata. As a Rhodes scholar at Oxford at the turn of the millennium, Majumdar had spent a lot of time in the MCC Library at Lord’s. What he found there made him wonder why there was nothing of a similar nature in India.
His first acquisitions for what would eventually become the museum were signed first editions of W.G. Grace’s Cricket (1891) and Ranjitsinhji’s The Jubilee Book Of Cricket (1897). He had to fork out three months’ stipend for them—“I wondered what I’d do for food and clothing,” he told me.
According to Majumdar, it’s only in the past few years that people have begun to realize the value of sporting memorabilia, even if there is “still no preservation culture”.
Of the various items that found their way to the museum, three are especially close to his heart: The gloves Abhinav Bindra wore while winning the shooting gold in Beijing (2008), the gloves Sachin Tendulkar had on while making his 100th international hundred—“He had promised he would give them to me the same night”—and ticket stubs from seven of the eight Olympic finals in which India’s hockey team won gold. “Only Amsterdam 1928 is missing,” says Majumdar.
You can buy a Hrubesch sticker on eBay for a little over a dollar now. Only, it’s from the 1982 World Cup in Spain. In that tournament, he would score against Austria—one of the most notorious World Cup games in history, as both teams colluded to keep Algeria out of the second round—and tuck away the decisive penalty in the semi-final shootout win over France.
But you will not find a Hrubesch sticker or card in conjunction with Euro 1980, his finest hour. Decades from now, the album from the tournament could set you back a nice little nest egg. But however much you spend, it will not feature the main man, who remains the great memorabilia mystery.
Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief, Wisden India.