By Venkataraman Ganesan
The swagger that had etched itself as an integral part of cricketing folklore was unmistakably there. The attitude of nonchalance accompanying every step bordered around being contagious. The dark shades on the broad face hid whatever message or meaning the eyes were intending to convey. As the almost imperial figure advanced towards an elevator manned by two young men wearing jackets with the word ‘Steward’ emblazoned upon them, I clumsily ran towards him and stretching a scrap book that was tightly clenched in my fist, asked in a quivering voice, “Sir! Can I have your autograph, please?”.
Much to my horror and disillusionment, the man with an attitude that could only be described as brazen, for the want of another appropriate word, refused to even acknowledge my mortal presence and with a cocky jerk of his bull neck calmly entered the elevator whose doors slowly closed upon my perplexed face. The man in question – the legendary Sir Issac Vivian Alexander Richards and the setting of my disappointment – the hallowed Lord’s Cricket Ground, the veritable Mecca of cricket.
Unfortunately the aforementioned experience was not an isolated incidence in disappointment for yours truly. I was lent the proverbial cold shoulder by a few more masters of this pristine game, the most notable amongst the culprits being Geoffrey Boycott. While I would have been thrilled to bits if the opening great had even scratched a page of my autograph book with a stick of his famous rhubarb, he was utterly disinclined to even give a peremptory look at the stationary. But unlike Sir Vivian Richards, who choose to be bereft of any words, Boycott executed the role of a consummate liar to suave perfection, when he said “I will sign for you when I come back after my media duties”. It would not have taken a genius to figure out that a patient and interminable wait for his return would only be an exercise in abject futility.
I must have taken on pallor of utter desolation after these refusals, for a fellow autograph seeker voluntarily made his way towards me and provided me with a few words of unsolicited but welcome consolation. The Good Samaritan incidentally had also been brushed aside in his quest for a signature by Boycott. He wryly proceeded to remark that there was a good probability that Sir Viv might have had breakfast with Boycott which resulted in the former assuming the same bearings as the latter! While this thought brought about a good laugh out of me, it also set me into thinking as to what might be a rational cause for a celebrity not obliging a signature seeking.
The practice of offering and obtaining autographs supposedly has its roots in the Greek tradition. The word autograph refers to a document transcribed in its entirety by the author. Thus the practice of collecting autographs from achievers is one that has been followed from times immemorial. The collection of autographs is also a hobby referred to as philography. The act of collecting an autograph epitomises the adulation and admiration which a genuine seeker possesses towards the author in question. Also the fact that the same can be preserved in the vein of a precious treasure even long after the earthly sojourn of both the giver and the receiver bestows upon a signature, a special distinction. It is almost as if the person signing on an ordinary piece of paper or on his/her photograph is leaving behind a lasting legacy in his/her wake.
An autograph is also not without its monetary benefits. It can be extraordinarily rewarding possessing unimaginable commercial value. As an illustration it is estimated that if any of the six original signatures of the immortal bard William Shakespeare were to come up for a miraculous auction, it would probably sell for in excess of $5 million. But would the Bard-of-Avon himself have had any qualms in the event of such an improbable occurrence?
A genuine collector of autographs in general would rarely bear to part with them, excepting under dire circumstances. The intangible value in the form of happiness, prestige and pride invariably overrides the tangible and monetary aspects attached to a precocious collection. And even if an autograph is sought in anticipation of a commercial sale in the distant or near future, any paranoia on the part of the giver is hard to fathom. In the current world of cricket, that is characterised by an explosion of innovation and where T20 games take precedence over Test Match cricket, it is hard to envisage a signature of Boycott being a ticket to generating unbridled wealth!
Although there have been instances of celebrities charging a ‘signing fee’ for putting pen to paper on the apprehension that the autograph seekers would be professional autograph traders selling the autographs for full profit, such instances have been sparse and scattered.
New York Yankees legend Joe Dimaggio was a notable proponent of such a practice. However, such a practice, in fact might have the invidious effect of putting off fans rather than accumulating admirers. No fan would like to see his hero donning the mantle of a sophisticated and civilised extortionist by putting a fat price on a signature. At least I would not touch a person who charges for his signature even with a 50-foot barge pole! A predominant motive in requesting a celebrity for an autograph is to capture in permanence a part of history. Nothing pleases an autograph seeker more than laying hands upon a document or an object that has been signed by a notable personality. It is not for nothing that fans brave despicable weather and embark on an interminable wait to just get a scrap of paper signed by their favourite celebrity.
While it is a personal choice on the part of a celebrity to either accommodate or abhor a request made by a fan for an autograph, more often than not, it is hard to digest a refusal. It almost signifies a form of betrayal for the ardent person making the request. It is as though the feelings of reverence, regard and respect that the fan possesses for his idol have gone unnoticed and unrecognised by the latter. At times, while it might be utterly impractical to satisfy the wishes of an autograph seeker (for example where the fan is part of a massive and teeming crowd), it might not be platitudinous to conclude that on more accommodating occasions, the fan would be well served to obtain that invaluable signature.
While I brook no hatred towards either Sir Vivian or Boycott or and will continue to be a staunch admirer of these two brilliant cricketing legends, and also while there is no doubting that at the next available opportunity (a possibility that seems both bleak and remote) I would not hesitate one jot before asking these two to sign their names for me, I would be deceiving myself if I were to conclude that I have not let been down by the whimsical attitude displayed by these greats.
But, as the adage goes, every rainbow invariably has a pot of gold. I found mine when the disappointments that were Boycott and Sir Viv were more than made up for by the euphoria that was Michael Holding. The “Whispering Death” not only obliged with his unique signature but also had an encouraging word or two to spare! It was a pure Rolls Royce moment!
(Venkataraman Ganesan is a Chartered Accountant by intent and a lawyer by accident. He has a maniacal penchant for books, more books, still more books and lot more books, when he is not watching cricket that is! He loves his Scotch and scribbles for fun. He blogs at www.the-venkyloquist.com)