Over the years, having served as a masseur to some of India's biggest sporting icons, Raghunath 'Pintu' Basak has collected his share of sporting memorabilia. Sachin Tendulkar's given him T-shirts, Rahul Dravid shoes while VVS Laxman has gifted shawls. Amongst his most prized possessions though is an item of clothing he displays on his WhatsApp status too. It's a picture of himself in an Argentina hockey jersey, the blue and white shirt personally signed by every member of the 2016 Olympic gold medal winning squad.
"I'd spoken to Gonzalo Peillat and Agustin Mazzilli in 2015 and told them they were going to win an Olympic gold. And when they did they needed to give me a signed jersey," says Basak.
Two years had passed since Argentina pulled off an upset to win a historic gold at Rio de Janeiro, and Basak wasn't expecting them to remember their promise. But when Basak -- who was hired by the Argentinian team as their official masseur for the 2018 Hockey World Cup -- met captain Mazzilli, the first thing he was handed was the jersey from the Rio Games. "He told me 'I owe you this!" Basak says. "You can buy a lot of things. But an Olympic gold jersey is priceless," he says.
Basak's stint as masseur with the Argentinian team is only his latest high profile assignment. The son of a railway signalman from Howrah, his career began as a masseur at the Aryan's Sports Club in Kolkata. He first kneaded muscles and rolled out warped tendons of East Bengal footballers and then began working with the Bengal Ranji team. His first brush with international cricket came in 1991 when Sachin Tendulkar needed a masseur after a hard net session ahead of an ODI against South Africa. "After that I've always been with the Indian team when it came to play at the Eden Gardens. I've been with the team - senior, junior and India A -- for some 50 international games in Kolkata and with the Bengal Ranji team for maybe a hundred, " says Basak. He's been part of some of India's most significant sporting moments. He helped relieve Tendulkar's muscles during his 199th Test Match, an incident that found a mention in Tendulkar's autobiography 'Playing it my way'.
Most Indians would be grateful for his work with Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, during that Test match at the Eden Gardens in 2001. "After they batted all day, both Dravid and Laxman were completely exhausted. One of them had a saline drip while he was lying on the bed and the other on the massage table. I first worked for two hours on Laxman and then I began with Dravid. I kept telling them ki 'Zyada pani piyo. Australians ko kutte ki tarah maroge tum' (Drink lots of water and you can thrash Australia) and then they did that!" Basak says.
While Basak only received his signed Argentina's t-shirt two years after the Rio Games, the players maintained contact with him throughout. "They have been contacting me for two years. They knew the World Cup is happening in India. And they told me not to go anywhere. At that time, I was being approached by the Dutch and Belgium teams as well, but in my heart I really wanted to work with Argentina," he says.
That's because long before becoming a masseur to the stars, Basak was a Maradona fan. "I was a fan the first time I watched him on a black and white TV during the 1986 World Cup. There was a power cut in my neighbourhood because of rain at that time, so I went to a different neighbourhood to watch it. I was even bitten by a dog on the way, but I was so happy I could watch him. Ever since then I've been a fan of everything from Argentina. First Maradona and then Messi and Tevez," he says.
The Argentina stint also helped him get leave from his office. "I work as a physiotherapist with the CESC (Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation). I can work with Indian teams but it's not so easy to get permission when you want to work with an international side. But when I told my boss that I'm being called by Argentina, it was easy. You know how crazy people in Kolkata are for Argentina," he says.
After a heavy training session or a hard match at the World Cup, the Argentina players make their way to Basak's room, where he gets to work on groaning muscles, first using his bare hands and then once the knotted tissue fibres and built-up lactic acid have been pried loose, he applies oil and ointment. It's a hard job, Basak reckons he spends at least seven hours a day massaging the Argentinian players. "It's different from cricket. In cricket, the part of your body that is the sorest depends on what position you play. The toughest job was for a wicketkeeper, or a fast bowler or a batsman who has been playing for a long time. For a wicketkeeper like Dhoni, the sore parts would the glutes, the calves and hamstrings," he says. Hockey players struggle too. "Their whole body is sore and especially the lower back because they have to run while bending so much," says Basak.
Hockey players also have entirely different body types. Take Gonzalo Peillat for example. "His body is like a patthar (stone). It's very hard and muscular with almost no fat. Only some cricketers' bodies like Tendulkar or Laxman's were as strong as that," he says.
None of this though is particularly challenging for Basak. "They could be Tendulkar, or Dravid or an Olympic champion. On the massage table they are all the same," he says. Indeed, when Basak first put his hands on Peillat, the drag flicker with the chiselled physique yelled out in surprise. "He shouted 'Easy, Easy Pintu'," grins Basak. "I heard exactly the same thing when I worked with cricketers. They'd say apka haath hai ki hathoda? (Do you have hands or hammers?)"
They know his hands are special though. "He's the absolute best, He has incredible hands," Mazilli says in the middle of a practice session at the Kalinga stadium. That's perhaps why, Basak says, the Argentinian team has asked him to be with them when they compete at the Hockey Pro League next year and even at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. "I've not decided whether I will be able to go for the Tokyo Olympics. I've already told them they will win another Olympics and they've promised to give me another jersey," he says. "Maybe I can meet the Argentinian football team there too".