Do you recall a first tennis racket? The first bat, the first clumsy pads? Do you have a sporting history? I remember entering Calcutta’s Gander and Co., buying hockey sticks that were then pitted by a divider and oiled, cork balls that cracked, heavy footballs whose only promise after the rains was concussion after a header. I had a scrapbook, with pictures of a balanced Sunny and a diving Solkar gummed across a page.

But memory dies and scrapbooks find their way into a kabadiwallah’s (scrap dealer’s) jute bag. So much fades. Not just our history, but more vitally the athletes. Their clippings, letters, jerseys, bats...it all becomes a precious past lost in a storeroom. Unless you reclaim it. Unless you start a museum, open a hall of fame. Unless you protect history.

Scrolling through the New York Mets’ website recently, by chance, I found a map of their museum. I kept looking. The US’ National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, in Cooperstown New York, celebrated its 15 millionth visitor in 2011 and has 38,000 artefacts and 500,000 photographs. The International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum in Newport, Rhode Island, has 16,000 objects and they’re digitizing their 2,700 hours of videotape. At Wimbledon’s museum, a “ghost" of John McEnroe speaks while standing in an old changing room; in the museum at the World Golf Hall of Fame, you can play the St Andrews Old Course on a simulator.

A statue of Fred Perry on the grounds of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. Photo: Mike Di Paolo/Bloomberg

Where can I see Milkha Singh’s spikes or P.T. Usha’s? Or watch Michael Ferreira’s billiards world record break? Or gaze at Ramanathan Krishnan’s wooden Maxplys from the 1950s-60s, of which son Ramesh says he has only a couple left? Or learn about wrestler K.D. Jadhav’s moves which won him Olympic bronze in 1952?

Nowhere? Not in one place? Not organized?

Not important?

Now there’s even irony. For the 2012 Olympics, all the tube stations in London have been renamed after athletes. There are three Indians: Dhyan Chand, Roop Singh and Leslie Claudius. The last named is 85, and alive, commemorated in London but not back home. So much is already being lost. The names Richard Allen, Richard Carr, Carlyle Tapsall, Pat Jansen, part of a unique slice of our history, the Anglo-Indian hockey player, is foreign to new generations. Let’s revive them.

In 1932, when the Indians arrived in Los Angeles for the Olympics, a headline apparently ran: Hockey Kings Arrive Today: They Will Be Accompanied By Their Many Wives: There are 2 Lions In The Team. If it exists, it deserves to be behind a glass window to wonder and grin at.

Else this is what will happen in 40 years. People will think Wilson Jones is the name of a shirt company. The lone stump that businessman/writer Mudar Patherya has from India’s first Test match in 1932 will be buried with him because he wants to leave it to a cricket museum but there isn’t an official one. As he laments: “Cricket is our religion, yet we have no mandir (temple)."

Patherya has a string of cricketer Amar Singh’s official tour ties; a thigh pad of Jack Hobbs, given by the Englishman to Prof. D.B. Deodhar; a blazer of Ghulam Ahmed’s. He’s not alone. There are private collections across India. One called Blades of Glory in Pune, apparently.

In 1991, says Patherya, he was offered Duleepsinhji’s collection, two trunks worth. The price was just a lakh then. Patherya couldn’t afford it, and he says the collection now lies with Sussex. Treasure gone. And still going.

Maybe history doesn’t matter to an emerging India looking to the future. Maybe we’re too busy to look back. Maybe we don’t, understandably, care for American-style selling of balls caught in the stands on eBay or setting a price on a half-eaten Tendulkar apple. But history isn’t junk either and it’s why I admire Ramachandra Guha because he, far beyond sport, provides us both conscience and education.

Blast from the past: The US’ National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in New York. Photo: Three Lions/ Getty images

History is sentiment but it also brings a sense of belonging. Half the time we don’t think we’re a sporting country of any note because we’ve forgotten most people of note. Me, too. History is footprints and to appreciate Saina Nehwal we need to know where Prakash Padukone walked first, and how. History is respect, it is celebration, it is connection. Even for athletes, who might view themselves in isolation, but stand on the shoulders of past warriors, who fought for money and rights and found excellence in harsher times.

History is just fun. Padukone told me last week that after nearly 30 years, he finally got footage of his 1980 All-England triumph. “The clarity isn’t good," he says, then laughs, “but you can tell who’s (Liem Swie) King and who’s Prakash." Next time I visit Bangalore, I’m going to ask him to show it to me. Michael Ferreira tells me he still has a billiards cue with which he won world titles. But it’s all going to vanish. Everything. Laxman’s bats, too, but that’s maybe because the Louvre has already asked for them. But the rest... what?

Not important?

I keep hearing there’s a Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) plan for a museum. I am also growing old. Cricket preens about its financial muscle, but history seems to scare the glitzy gang. Come on, fellows, grab one of those companies, find a space, hire a curator, source footage, get these tech whizz-kids to build interactive exhibits. OK, fine, we’ll even put the cheerleaders in, just next to Dada tearing off his shirt, a little ahead of Sunny doing his Melbourne walk-off, just before a video of Mohammed Nissar bowling, and one floor below a mini net where you can time how slow your inswinger is. If the BCCI has a heart, it should do a museum for all sport. People will thank them. Imagine that.

It won’t be easy. Because athletes are suspicious about government, hesitant about officials. They need to believe the museum will be credible and cared for; they need to believe that historic correspondence they hand over won’t just line a drawer and that famous rackets won’t disappear into Pappu’s son’s kitbag. But they’d love a museum. They love history because most, in some form, made it. And because if they played in older times, or in lesser sports, with no footage easily found on YouTube, they’re virtually anonymous.

Like Henry Rebello, the triple jumper. In February 1948, in India, so wrote Olympic historian Gulu Ezekiel, Rebello leapt 50ft, 2 inches. It was a national record. It was the Olympic year. It was also, across the planet, the best mark of the year. Yet, in the Olympic final (he qualified easily), on a damp, cold day, just 19 years old, he didn’t warm up, went flat out on his first jump and tore his hamstring. If he’d jumped as far as he did in India, he would have won bronze.

It’s a tragic story, it’s a forgotten story and it’s an Indian story. Maybe his family has his spikes, a picture of him on a stretcher, a grainy video in an Olympic archive. Would you like to see it in a museum?

Or is it just not important?

Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.

Write to Rohit at gametheory@livemint.com

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Also Read |Rohit’s previous Lounge columns

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