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Diary: On The Road With Sudhir Gautam, India's Biggest Cricket Fan

08/03/2015 1:22 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Hindustan Times via Getty Images
MUMBAI, INDIA - APRIL 2: Indian cricket fan Sudhir Kumar Gautam lifts the 2011 ICC World Cup trophy as Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar appluds him after India won the final beating Sri Lanka by 6 wickets at Wankhede stadium in Mumbai, India on April 2, 2011. (Photo by Santosh Harhare/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

This article is from Cricbuzz.

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By Jamie Alter

An intercity bus, from Auckland to Hamilton. The bus makes it's only stop during the two-hour journey in Manukau, dropping off and picking up passengers. In those five-odd minutes, a handful of travellers board the bus. First, an elderly couple, then three single backpackers, then a Samoan mother and her daughter. Then, a familiar face gets on. A thin frame, dressed from head to toe in an official India training kit, dark blue. From under an oversized baseball cap, two narrow and nervous eyes peep out at the big, fat bus driver. From one hand a folded piece of paper emerges, handed with a ramrod straight hand to the man in front of him. The driver scans the ticket, checks off the passenger's name, indicates with a thumb for the scrawny individual to make his way down the aisle.

Sudhir Kumar Gautam sports a replica of The ICC Cricket World Cup on his head with the Indian national flag colours on his hair during a training session of the Indian team at The M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore on February 26, 2011. (AFP PHOTO/Indranil MUKHERJEE)

The man takes a few steps, sees the empty seat next to me, and sits down. It is Sudhir Kumar Chaudhary, also know as Sudhir Gautam, the most famous Indian cricket fan. Instantly recognisable if you've watched Indian cricket on TV for even a few days. Sudhir has devoted his life to Sachin Tendulkar, and images of him and the superstar with the 2011 ICC World Cup trophy have made their way into the fabric of Indian cricket history. His travels are famous. He has cycled over 12,000 miles to watch Tendulkar's India play; to Dhaka, Lahore, all over India.

"In Pakistan, I stayed with Chacha, the iconic Pakistan supporter, in his house in Lahore. He was so warm to me, took me around, introduced me to Pakistani people. He made me more famous. People recognised me in Dhaka and Colombo too."

"November 1," recalls Sudhir, who hails from the town of Muzaffarpur in Bihar, about his first journey to watch an international match. "Jamshedpur. I cycled from my home in Bihar. India played West Indies. India lost, but I had made my first pilgrimage to see Sachin Tendulkar."

So passionate for Tendulkar was Sudhir that he ditched his job at a milk company and cycled over 1700 kilometres in two weeks to Mumbai. Eventually he got an audience with Tendulkar, who he says has been "very kind" in supporting him. Tickets, travel, accommodation. "Sachin sir is great." Sudhir has followed the Indian team to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. "In Pakistan, I stayed with Chacha, the iconic Pakistan supporter, in his house in Lahore. He was so warm to me, took me around, introduced me to Pakistani people. He made me more famous. People recognised me in Dhaka and Colombo too."

I ask him what drives a man to deck himself up in paint - it takes four-and-a-half hours to canvas himself, and if India are starting a match early he does it at night and does not sleep - and forsake his family to follow the Indian team. "People say I am crazy, and maybe they are a little right. Cricket is life, I have no other devotion. I have been recognised by Sachin Tendulkar, I have nothing else to achieve."

Sudhir Kumar Gautam at the first cricket test match between India and Bangladesh at the Bir Sreshta Shahid Ruhul Amin Stadium in Chittagong, Bangladesh, May 19, 2007. (AP Photo/Gautam Singh)

Sudhir's trip to Australia and New Zealand has been sponsored by the New Delhi radio station Fever 104 FM. He is the face of it's campaign One-Day Mataram, whose tag line is 'Prove you are India's craziest cricket fan'. Earlier this morning, Sudhir was a worried, frantic man. The body paint he uses was confiscated by New Zealand airline officials at the Auckland airport. The fine was NZD (New Zealand Dollar) 1400.

The body paint he uses was confiscated by New Zealand airline officials at the Auckland airport. The fine was NZD (New Zealand Dollar) 1400.

"Where would I have got that much money from?" says Sudhir. "I pleaded with them, told them I was the Indian fan who paints himself and goes everywhere. They said they understood, but that I was not allowed to bring these paints in. Then I showed him the letter that Sachin sir had written for me, to show to the embassies for visa purposes. Then they said okay, go ahead. I was scared, but in the end it worked out."

The Tendulkar letter has also made news. In it, he has stated that Sudhir warrants special treatment with his visa application because of his status as a national icon. On Tendulkar's request, the Australian embassy in New Delhi granted Sudhir his visa on special note so that he could be in Australia before India's World Cup opener against Pakistan in Adelaide on February 15.

This is his first time outside of Asia and he is, naturally, taken away. "Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth. Amazing. But New Zealand is so much nicer," he says, looking out at miles and miles of green fields and wide roadways. "So much natural beauty, so well maintained. And nobody honks, like back in India."

And the bus travel must be a bit cosier than back home too, I say. "First-class buses," he says. "Neat and clean."

At one turn not far outside of Manukau, there is a Bank of Baroda with Hindi text. Sudhir is agape. "What is that doing there?" A while later, we see signs for the township of Bombay. Sudhir turns to the journalist behind us. "Sirji, your stop has come."

"Jiski dharti, uski anubhav." (Who's land it is, he is experienced).

Sudhir says he is welcomed wherever he goes, shows me endless photographs on his smartphone of fans at grounds, on the streets, in parking lots and motels. He makes sure I see the brief NDTV report in which Tendulkar thanks Sudhir for his support. "Did you hear that part?" he asks, rewinding to midway of the YouTube clip. India's biggest cricket supporter is a bit of a fanboy himself. He shows me photographs with umpires Kumar Dharmasena and Nigel Llong from the airport this morning.

Sudhir Kumar Gautam lifts the 2011 ICC World Cup trophy as Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar appluds him after India won the final beating Sri Lanka by 6 wickets at Wankhede stadium in Mumbai, on April 2, 2011. (Photo by Santosh Harhare/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Reunited with his paint, Sudhir, 33, is geared up to inspire Indian fans at Hamilton's Seddon Park on Tuesday against Zimbabwe. MS Dhoni's India have won four out of four to make the World Cup quarter-finals. Sudhir is only worried about them meeting New Zealand in a home knock-out. "They are too dangerous, full of big hitters and real fast bowlers. At home, they are even better. Jiski dharti, uski anubhav. (Who's land it is, he is experienced)."

On that note, he lowers his cap and nods off to sleep. Just like that. Dreaming, no doubt, about Indian cricket.

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