The playing fields of India can sometimes seem a desolate place. Perennial underachievement, inadequate backing and a general indifference to the search for sporting excellence have left the country short of champions and long on excuses explaining the shortage. Lost in the welter of woes surrounding Indian sport are the stories of those who try to make a difference, of people and organisations with the vision to see beyond the gloom and the despair. This is one such story.
The Tata group may be India's best-known business conglomerate, but not so known is its commitment and contribution to helping India find a place in the sporting sun. This has spawned academies for different sports, sponsorships of events and individuals, and support for numerous talented sportspeople. No other corporate house in the country has done as much for the cause of Indian sport, and for as long, as the Tata group.
Sport has always been an integral part of the Tata way of life. Jamsetji Tata, the group's founder, was an enthusiast and patron of cricket and cricketers. Sir Dorab Tata, his son, was a Cambridge blue at cricket and a founding member of the sports-oriented Willingdon Club in Mumbai. Sir Dorab sponsored the Indian contingent for the Antwerp Olympics in 1920 and, as president of the Indian Olympic Council, financed the Indian squad that went to the Paris Olympics in 1924.
Naval Tata, one of the modern stalwarts of the group, headed the Indian Hockey Federation during what has come to be known as the golden age of the game in the country. This was the period during which India won three successive Olympic gold medals, beginning with London in 1948. A passionate sports lover, Naval Tata also served on the International Hockey Federation and steered the All-India Council for Sports during its infancy.
It was sporting allegiance to the cause of Indian sport that led to the setting up of the Tata Sports Club, established in 1937 to encourage sports and sportspeople within and outside the group. The Club's endeavours have been directed at spotting and then developing potential, at providing an early platform for those who deserve no less.
Supporting sport has been a tradition with the Tatas, not for any return but as a policy. It is this kind of sporting altruism that sets the Tata group apart. Saurav Ganguly was hardly known outside of Kolkata when Tata Steel started supporting him. Former India skipper Dilip Vengsarkar joined the Tata Sports Club before he played international cricket.
If these names give the impression that the group concentrates its largesse on cricket, perish the thought. The criticism that cricket hogs the lion's share of corporate money in India, aired by sports lagging in the popularity stakes, cannot attach itself to the Tatas. The group has considered every sport as worthy of support. Two world billiards champions, Geet Sethi and Michael Ferriera, were Tata employees.
Here is a sampling of what the group has done in other sporting disciplines:
The academies and foundations aside, the group has invested considerable money in creating some of the finest infrastructure for sports and recreation in India. Conspicuous among these is the JRD Tata Sports Complex in Jamshedpur, a 40,000-capacity arena with facilities for athletics, archery, boxing, basketball, volleyball, boxing, tennis and more. Also in Jamshedpur is the Keenan Stadium, a regular venue for international cricket.
There are three clear components to the present Tata patronage of Indian sport:
Champions aren't going to show up in a hurry on the Indian sports horizon, but it helps to have a group such as the Tatas backing the quest to find them. And the earlier you start the search, the better the prospects of unearthing these elusive diamonds. That's what the Tata group has striven to do, as those who have benefited from its vision readily acknowledge.
Leander Paes is only too glad to recognise the support he received from the group when he was but a child in tennis terms. And Pullela Gopichand, when he was rewarded with a Rs5-lakh cheque by the group for winning the All-England badminton crown, said: "The first people to give me a break were the Tatas."
The Tata commitment to sports is not dependent on incentives; it's done because it's dear to the heart of the group and its leaders. Rather than looking at what's in it for the group, the Tatas have focused on what will take Indian sport ahead, and at helping individuals realise their sporting ambitions.