Is he the greatest Indian sportsman ever?

Certainly it would be easier to argue for him than against him. In any case there is no doubt in my mind that he is the greatest ever.

The latest honour of being in the world’s top ten for 26 consecutive years – including 21 months at No 1 during 2007- 08 – only confirms this belief.

Indeed, I have often wondered why Viswanathan Anand doesn’t get enough recognition for his unique achievements and the enormous inspirational role he has played in almost single-handedly popularising chess in the country.

I mean what was the chess scenario in India before 1987 when Anand became the first Asian to win the world junior championship and shortly afterwards became the country’s first grandmaster (GM)? There were just a handful of International Masters (IM). India’s standing in world chess was next to nothing and chess itself was looked upon as a leisurely relaxation or time pass instead of a serious sport that is played in well over 150 countries with a passionate following in many of them. (There are a total of 200 countries affiliated to FIDE, the international chess federation).

There was a following for chess in India fittingly enough for the country reputedly invented it and people were familiar with the great names associated with the sport like Petrosian, Tal, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov. I know for sure that the famous world championship between Fischer and Spassky was followed quite keenly by chess fans in this country as was the long, intense and sometimes bitter rivalry between Karpov and Kasparov.

But all we in India could do was to sit back and applaud the achievements of the chess greats mostly from the Soviet Union as it was then until Fischer broke the monopoly. How we wished that someone from the country that gave birth to chess could shine on the international stage!

But through the years no one of that stature emerged until the late 80s when Anand suddenly started showing signs of becoming the first Indian chess great. Record breaking was a habit for the cherubic lad from Madras as it was known then for he became the youngest national sub junior champion (at 14), the youngest Indian IM (at 15) and youngest national champion (at 16). However being aware of the infuriating penchant for Indian sports prodigies to falter and fade away rapidly we were a bit cautious or even sceptical.

We need not have been for Anand even as a teenager was mentally very strong. Besides talent aplenty, he had an ideal temperament, a burning desire to succeed and even become the best in the business. For him being second best was nothing less than being a loser.

It was when he performed the dual feat in 1987-88 of becoming the first Asian to win the World junior title and followed it up by becoming India’s first GM that we realized that here was a really special talent who could go far.

Anand was not going to be a fluke, a meteor but one who would go on to greater things. In racing parlance he was a stayer not a sprinter. And over the last 30 years he has made the country proud by his manifold achievements culminating in being crowned world champion five times. In a chess world that is fiercely competitive and dominated by Russians and Eastern Bloc countries Anand is the one opponent who is respected and even feared.

From the ''Lightning Kid’’ days when he used to mesmerize audiences and opponents alike with his aggressive, super fast moves in the game of 64 squares Anand has gradually acquired defensive skills that has seen him outwit the best of opponents. He has come a long way having an ELO rating of over 2800 (only one among five players in history to break this mark), winning the Chess Oscar six times and being awarded the nation’s second highest civilian award the Padma Vibhushan besides being the first recipient of Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award.

Possibly even more than these accomplishments and accolades Anand will be remembered as a role model and a mentor. No one in Indian sport has played a greater inspirational role than Anand and this is underlined by the simple fact that since he broke the barrier there are now as many as 45 GMs and 92 IMs in this country. India is the fifth highest ranked country behind Russia, China, USA and Ukraine. The Anand effect has produced world champions from under-10 to the junior level. Boys and girls want to be the next Anand. He is the yardstick by which others in Indian, nay world chess are judged.

At 47 he can sit back on his many achievements but Anand is still hungry for success and is always searching for greener pastures. As the first player in chess history to win the World Championship in three different formats: Knockout, Tournament and Matchplay he has an aura all his own.

Let the final word come from his great friend and rival Vladimir Kramnik who put it succinctly when he said he always considered Anand to be “a colossal talent, one of the greatest in the whole history of chess and in terms of play no way weaker than Kasparov.”