What’s in a nickname?

‘Bapu’, ‘The Don’ were unique, but other cricketers’ nicknames destined to meet same fate as those given to us

In The Don’s case, the reason is clear, his many towering, unmatched accomplishments. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rameshchandra Gangaram Nadkarni passed away recently. If the name doesn’t ring an immediate bell, blame it on Nadkarni’s more famous nickname. Bapu. Among the stickiest nicknames for an international cricketer. The kind that sparks a trivia quiz question around the real name, not the other way round.

Cricketers’ nicknames are normally inspired by the same things that inspire other mortals’ nicknames. A play on name: ABD, Boycs, Inzi, KP, Mahi, Very Very Special, Yuvi, Zak. References to appearance, from hairstyles (Judge) to builds (Beefy) to legs (Pigeon). Demeanor and carriage: Big Cat, Captain Grumpy. Signature style: Boom Boom, The Wall, Jumbo. Less known, somewhat exotic facets of personality: Gaffer, Punter, Zulu.

Again, like normal folk, it is family, friends, and mates who pick the cricketer’s nickname. Mostly. Enthusiastic fans and clever wordsmiths have had a role too, particularly in recent times. Unlikely that Hit-Man, Fizz, Turbanator, or Universe Boss were thought up in homes and dressing rooms. Same for Matara Mauler, Rawalpindi Express, Sultan of Swing, etc.

Things can get tricky with the titles fans and wordsmiths conjure though. ‘King’ has been suitably qualified to distinguish between Virat Kohli (King Kohli) and Vivian Richards (King Viv), but there’s been more than one Captain Cool (Arjuna Ranatunga, Mahendra Singh Dhoni), Colonel (C K Nayudu, Dileep Vengsarkar), Little Master (Hanif Mohammad, Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar), Tiger (Bill O’ Reilly, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi), and Master Blaster (Tendulkar, Richards).

Up there with Bapu in terms of unambiguous association (there’s been only one Bapu in international cricket) and endurance value (the last Bapu featured in an international was over fifty years ago), one can only think of one other nickname: Donald ‘The Don’ Bradman.

Other popular nicknames of the past – from Fred ‘Fiery’ Truman and Trevor ‘Barnacle’ Bailey to David ‘Stoat’ Gower, Joel ‘Big Bird’ Garner, and Merv ‘Fruitfly’ Hughes – are either forgotten or merely column-embellishing factoids now. If some continue to enjoy currency, it is thanks to the individuals’ visibility on TV. Think David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd and Navjot ‘Sherry’ Sidhu. Or even Michael ‘Athers’ Atherton and Matthew ‘Haydos’ Hayden.

And then, as mentioned above, every era has found its own Masters and Kings. Which also means, heretical as it may sound, that there could be other Bosses, Expresses, and Walls in time. In short, many a catchy fan/ wordsmith-conferred nickname of today is era-specific, not era-spanning. As was many a catchy fan/ wordsmith-conferred nickname of yesterday.

Most cricketer nicknames then come with a shelf life, a little stretchable if attention-challenged TV audiences permit. The fan/ wordsmith-conferred nickname is destined to pass onto another worthy. The family/ friend/ mate-conferred nickname is destined to revert, after the world has embraced and discarded it, to the tongues and memories of family, friends, and mates. That, come to think of it, is the trajectory of nicknames of people like you and me.

The Don and Bapu are unique. Unclaimed titles. Their usage undimmed. Decades later. Without the shoring effect of TV. In The Don’s case, the reason is clear. His many towering, unmatched accomplishments. Explaining Bapu’s case is tougher.

Bapu’s niggardly spells might be legendary, his record for consecutive maidens long-standing, but there certainly is little comparison with The Don in terms of stature and influence. The Don’s feats enjoy universal acknowledgment, Bapu’s acknowledgment is niche, among Indians and serious record-trackers.

Bapu, reminiscent of the Mahatma, sat well with Nadkarni’s famed frugality as a bowler. In a country where Mohandas Karamchand ‘Bapu’ Gandhi lives on, could it be that a man who took his nickname and displayed one of his signature traits found a little bit of the eternity sparkle come his way?

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and writer)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.