I would like to begin this article with a story.

This story begins in Islampur, a small village in Sangli district in Maharashtra, with an apparently friendly wrestling match between the pampered son of a village headman and a twelve-year-old boy. Stunningly, the twelve-year-old wins and his reward is death threats from the villagers, who treat this as an insult to their headman. This forces the twelve-year-old to flee the village straight from the wrestling ring, hopping on to a goods truck with nothing but his winning purse, the then princely sum of Rs 12. Without his parents’ knowledge, he is now in Pune and joins the Indian army, where he takes up boxing and plays competitively, being seen as a rising sports star in the army. A few years down the line, he requests a posting in Kashmir and, soon after, he is part of a regiment staving off enemy fire. He is the target of seven bullets in the 1965 war, being hit on the skull, spine, cheek and thighs, and then having a jeep run over him to add to it all. He also loses his memory and forgets his own name. One day, he falls off his hospital bed and hits his head on the floor. This helps him regain his memory. It is only six years later that his family traces him and comes to visit. Looking at his condition, they refuse to take him back, seeing him as an unmanageable burden. This turn of events motivates the young man to come up with a fancy plan to kill himself. As he lies in wait to execute his plan, he plays a game with his hospital attendant and wins Rs 40,000. This causes a change of heart. He checks himself out of hospital, and takes up competitive sport again. Vijay Merchant hears his story, sponsors his training and Murlikant Petkar goes on to win swimming gold for India at the 1972 Paralympic Games in Heidelberg, Germany, breaking the world record of the time. This was India’s first Paralympic gold medal! Murlikant had also participated in three other events at the Games, including the javelin throw, making the finals in all, having also represented the country in table tennis.

Know Your Legend: Before Abhinav Bindra and Devendra Jhajharia, there was Murlikant Petkar

When I first read this story in the book Courage beyond Compare by Sanjay and Medini Sharma, I could barely comprehend that journey. I promise you I didn’t make it up. Murlikant’s story is truly unique and without parallel. The journeys and stories of all our nation’s sporting achievers fascinate me.

I am humbled when I realize the obstacles and challenges that need to be overcome. The context to the achievement cannot be forgotten either. All this is happening in an environment that may not always understand how to be supportive or why it is important to encourage athletic achievement. The athletes’ journeys, battles and victories may be their own, but to view this phenomenon as just their individual journeys is to lose an opportunity to build a legacy of sport in our country.

This is a subject I am deeply passionate about. As a ten-year-old, I remember being overwhelmed with emotion when Kapil Dev ran back to catch Viv Richards in the 1983 World Cup final. When he lifted the World Cup, I was overjoyed–in part, because I could feel something change within me, and in equal measure, I felt this came as a just reward to my cricket-crazy father who had invested so much emotion and time in this game he loved. So, on the one hand, it kicked off a new journey – mine – and was an important part of another, my father’s.

It might have been all too much for a ten-year-old to comprehend then, but knowing what I do now, I sometimes wonder what went through the heads of those eleven men during the lunch break as they went out to defend 183 in 60 overs against Clive Lloyd’s mighty West Indians. Were they perhaps, somewhere in the back of their minds, empowered with the knowledge that India, with her eight Olympic hockey medals, was capable of winning on the world stage? I would like to think the deeds of Dhyan Chand and those who followed him contributed in some way to the belief that victory was indeed possible.

A couple of decades later, there came a young boy from a small town. He achieved, he overachieved. He won everything there was. He made the country proud. En route to his accomplishments, he put his small town on the world map. Today, if people in Australia and West Indies know about Ranchi, I think it has a lot to do with MS Dhoni. Ranchi’s economy has grown at a rapid pace. A few years ago, I came across a research report and was amazed to find an economic phenomenon called ‘The Dhoni Effect’. It is very different from the ‘Dravid Effect’, which is cited when anyone scores at less than a run a ball these days. Rajgopal of Ernst & Young has this to say about the former:

The Dhoni Effect identifies a phenomenon where rapidly growing small towns of India are taking centre stage. This research highlights the growing affluence levels, increased awareness due to media penetration, improved physical connectivity, and significant changes in consumption patterns with high aspiration levels of small-town India that are compelling marketers to take notice.  

Today, there are more youngsters from small towns dreaming of and aspiring for great things in different walks of life. To me, this was a journey flagged off by the Dhyan Chands and the many other hockey players who gave us a sporting heritage to be proud of, kept alive by our Kapil Devs and their outrageous aspirations, and brought to their full potential by the likes of MS Dhoni.

I must also narrate the story from my days of playing U-19 cricket for India. I love sharing this one. We had two bowlers in the U-19 India team. One, a fast bowler from Uttar Pradesh–he spoke only Hindi. The other bowler–a spinner from Kerala–spoke only Malayalam. Neither of them knew any other language. This was all right while they were bowling–as captain, I used a lot of head-nodding, sign language and my limited Hindi to set their fields. But I will never forget the one game when they happened to come together at the crease while we were batting. In the dressing room, we were in splits, wondering how they were going to manage the business of partnership, calling for runs or sharing the strike. Neither man could understand a word of what the other was saying, and yet, they batted and batted, and put on a 100-run partnership for the last wicket. All the opposition sledging went over their heads and they just had a good time speaking the common language of sport, partnership and the aspiration to do well together.

Isn’t it amazing that sport can have such an impact on our nation and its people? When we see sporting magic happen, it is exhilarating and inspiring, and it must motivate us to use the full potential of sport in our nation-building exercise.

Go! India’s Sporting Transformation

Excerpted with permission from the essay ‘Connecting the Dots in India’s Sporting Legacy’, by Rahul Dravid, from the book Go! India’s Sporting Transformation, edited by Nandan Kamath and Aparna Ravichandran, and published by Penguin India.