Whenever J.R.D. Tata went to Jamshedpur, he would visit the flying club, which he had encouraged Ratan Tata to start. The club always wanted one thing or the other, and it would request him to provide the funds during such visits. S.K. Nanavati was the managing director of Tata Steel at that time and A.K. Bose was the controller of finance. Once when somebody raised a request, Bose whispered in J.R.D. Tata's ear, “Sir, no funds.” Tata held back. Then someone else had another request, and Bose repeated his whisper. The third time, J.R.D. Tata turned around before Bose could open his mouth and said, “Mr Bose, we are talking about fun, we are not talking of funds. Let’s have fun, we’ll find the funds.”
“That was his commitment to sports,” recalls T.R. Doongaji, aka Donn, who was the longest serving chairman of Tata Sports Club; he is currently adviser to Tata Central Archives. Doongaji represented Tata in national and international bridge tournaments, and played cricket for Tata Steel and badminton for Tata Sports Club. “Today, corporate cricket has lost its significance,” he says. “You do not have to come through a company, prove your merit. It has taken on a different hue. We gave India 27 Test cricketers, like Ravi Shastri and Sourav Ganguly (Tata Steel), Dilip Vengsarkar (Tata Power), Farokh Engineer and Nari Contractor (Tata Motors). Today, you can do a marathon, like we do. But you won’t find Test cricketers working in companies anymore.”
The reason behind Tata Group's deep commitment to sports is Sir Dorabji Tata, who went to Cambridge, and excelled in horse riding, rowing and athletics. “His wife, Meherbai, was an outstanding tennis player,” says Doongaji. The lady wore “slacks or skirts, if the world was watching, but played an important tournament in a six-yard sari, Parsi-Gujarati style, with a long blouse, because she wanted to tell the gora memsahibs [English ladies] that an Indian woman could beat them at their game.” Dorabji and Meherbai were stakeholders at Wimbledon.
“When Sir Dorabji returned to India, he wanted to put Indian sportspersons on the world map. For every Tata, India has been the first love,” says Doongaji. The first Indian Olympic contingent was to Antwerp in 1920. It had four runners and two wrestlers, sponsored by Dorabji. He sent a bigger contingent to Paris in 1924. Dorabji was the Indian Olympic Association's founder president.
J.R.D. Tata, too, was a fitness buff. Once, Premchand Dogra, who was Mr Universe 1998, came to Bombay to meet him. The 15-minute slot given to him turned out to be a one-and-a-half-hour-long one. “J.R.D. Tata’s commitment to sports was huge, but flying was his passion.” says Doongaji. “Ratan’s passion is also flying.”
Ask senior coach Bagicha Singh, an Arjuna Award winner from Punjab, why did he choose Tata Steel over Punjab Police or the Railways to pursue a career in sports. “The sports environment and the infrastructure here is very good,” he says. Tata Steel has academies and training centres for archery, athletics, badminton, basketball, boxing, chess, cricket, football, handball, hockey and karate. “You name it, we have it,” says Ashish Kumar, head of sports at Tata Steel. His eyes are now set on the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. “Deepika Kumari is India’s No. 1 archer and a big prospect for our country in the Olympics,” he says.
Deepika's coach Purnima Mahato, a Dronacharya Award winner, joined Tata Steel at the age of 18 and has since been training children mostly from villages. “Most of them win a medal and we ensure that they get a job in the Army, CRPF, Assam Rifles or police,” she says. Mahato, along with Dharmendra Tiwari, led a team of four archers to the Rio Olympics in 2016. Of the four, three were ex-Tata cadets.