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When Baichung Bhutia challenged Martin Crowe

Baichung Bhutia © Yogen Shah
Baichung Bhutia made 107 appearances for India © Yogen Shah

New Delhi: Jul 24, 2014

The unbelievable catch Martin Crowe took to dismiss Dave Houghton and deny Zimbabwe a famous victory over New Zealand in the 1987 World Cup did not impress a young Baichung Bhutia who challenged at his teacher that he could easily do this and took two stunning catches.

India’s football star was then 11 years old and attending Sikkim’s best-known public school TNA in Gangtok after winning a football scholarship from Sports Authority of India (SAI). Bhutia’s biology teacher Leonard, popularly called Lenny sir, recalls, “It was October 10, 1987 and we were in the audio-visual room watching New Zealand play minnows Zimbabwe.”

Chasing New Zealand’s 242, Houghton waged a lone battle for Zimbabwe, to take his team close to a win. Six runs were needed off the last over, but Houghton’s terrific innings ended with the great catch by Crowe and Zimbabwe fell short by just four runs. After Crowe took the catch, Lenny yelled out with excitement, “Great catch! Great catch!” But a young voice said, “Sir, what’s so great about the catch?”

Despite his teacher explaining the difficulty of taking a catch when running backwards, looking over one’s shoulders, Baichung insisted that it was not that difficult and even boasted that he could do it. So the next day, Baichung, his friends and Lenny assembled in the school’s cricket field.

“I asked him to stand about 15 yards from where I was standing and face me as I would hit the ball in the air about 35 to 40 yards over his head. I told him he had to run back to chase and catch it. I hit the ball up in the air and he chased it. He didn’t take his eyes off the ball for even a second and caught is clean,” Lenny reminisces. When told that it was a fluke, Baichung came back with the ball and a big grin on his face. Lenny challenged him to do it again and this time he hit the ball even further and Baichung flung himself full-length at the end to take the catch.

This incident along with numerous other anecdotes finds mention in a new book “Beyond the Goal: The Official Biography of Baichung Bhutia” by sports writer Mohammad Amin-Ul Islam. Published by Random House India, the book has a foreword by Sachin Tendulkar and introductions by Olympic medallist boxer Mary Kom and footballer Sunil Chhetri.

The book also says that Baichung’s real name is Ugen Sangey and had once appeared in a cameo, playing himself in the Bengali film “Kuasa” (fog), about a decade ago along with former East Bengal coach Subhash Bhowmick. “Earlier, I was offered guest appearances in movies but didn’t consider them as I could not have taken any time out from the game. But now, I would do this only for the sake of an appearance,” says the star, who earned 107 international caps and scored 42 goals.

Indian football star Baichung Bhutia is not averse to the idea of a film being made on him going by the recent movies on sporting legends like Milkha Singh and Mary Kom and wants Ranbir Kapoor to play his role.

“When Ranbir’s father Rishi Kapoor-starrer “Karz” was released in 1980, four-year-old Baichung hung on to the actor’s every move. Although he would later become an ardent fan of Aamir Khan, young Baichung was at that time fascinated by Rishi Kapoor and Mithun Chakraborty. While Rishi’s musical blockbusters made an impression on him, Mithun’s dance moves in ‘Disco Dancer’ floored him,” the author says.

In 2009, Baichung replaced his football studs with dancing shoes to take part in the third edition of the dance reality show “Jhalak Dikhhla Ja”. He enthralled the audience and the judges to walk away with the title, beating the nimble-footed Gauhar Khan and crowd favourite, TV actor Karan Singh Grover. He became the first Indian sportsperson to win the show, crafted in the format of BBC One’s “Strictly Come Dancing”, where celebrities put on their dancing shoes and compete, aided by their choreographer-dancer partners. Baichung’s partner was Sonia Jaffer.

Baichung, dubbed the ‘Sikkimese Sniper’ for his shot accuracy, has been winning young and old hearts alike with his rare skill and boyish charm since 1993. Regarded the only iconic face of Indian football to the outside world, his career has not been without controversy and “Beyond the Goal” also delves into the footballers relationships with his coaches, the clubs he played with, and his much debated retirement.

The book also features some rare photographs of the footballer, who became the first Indian player to sign for a European club when he joined Bury FC in 1999. He has a football stadium named after him in honour of his contribution to Indian football and has won many awards including the Arjuna Award and the Padma Shri.

In October 2010, he founded Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools in Delhi and in August 2011, announced his retirement from international football. His farewell match was with the India national team on January 10, 2012 against Bayern Munich at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium here.

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