Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sunil Gavaskar in World Cricket

In early 2000, Wisden roped in a team of 100 eminent cricket experts from all cricket playing countries to do what is a favourite pastime for most – draw up a list of greatest cricketers of the 20th century. The panel included former players, journalists and cricket connoisseurs.

In the end they came up with a list of 49 great cricketers, the list predictably topped by Sir Donald Bradman followed by Sir Garfield Sobers. Gavaskar was ranked 12th. What was interesting was that amongst pure batsmen he was ranked 6th! And amongst his contemporaries and the great players of the last 40 years he was ranked 2nd after Sir Viv Richards! Amongst all time greats only The Don, Hobbs, Richards, Hammond and Compton preceded him.

‘The Voice of Cricket’ Richie Benaud in his list of an ‘All Time Greatest XI’, selects the little master along with Jack Hobbs as his opening pair, and pays tribute to him by calling him a ‘tough cookie’.

On the other hand in a book written by Don Bradman’s publishers the list of Don Bradman's greatest cricketers do not include Gavaskar. The book however lacks authenticity since it was published just after the great man’s death and has been taken by most as a marketing gimmick thereby lacking credibility.

So does this Wisden ranking do justice to SMG? Well in this writer’s humble opinion it does and it doesn’t.

When the Wisden list was published, the Gavaskar fan in me was mighty delighted, seeing my hero’s name in the top dozen. I felt vindicated in my opinion that I held through out my 25 years of following cricket – that Gavaskar was one of the world’s greatest and most influential cricketers that ever set foot on the cricket field.

Ramchandra Guha on a television program on India’s greatest batsmen, said that as Vishwanath was the greatest on the Indian stage, Gavaskar was the greatest on the World stage. He wasn’t far from the truth, for Gavaskar put Indian batting on the world map.

There is an interesting story that Guha tells in his treatise on Indian cricket, ‘States of Indian cricket’. While on tour at Lord’s the cricket guide asked the group as to who they thought was the greatest contemporary batsman after Viv Richards. Some from the group said ‘Greg Chappell’ and the guide seemed in agreement. Guha was peeved and wanted to say, who but Sunil Gavaskar! He wanted to go further and say that the ‘little master’ was probably the greatest of his era! This just goes to show the way the then headquarters of cricket looked at anybody who was not English or Australian. They had to give in to the genius of Viv Richards for his plethora of exploits in England and for the fact that West Indies during his era was the best side in the World by a distance.

So after all those years, the fact that the Wisden panel, which included 48 out of 100 experts from England and Australia put Gavaskar as the 6th greatest all-time batsman and the 2nd greatest batsman since the 1970’s is a vindication of Guha’s belief and that of this writer and other Gavaskar fans. Just like Benaud, the Wisden list proclaims Gavaskar as the only other opener apart from Hobbs in the top dozen.

So where does one put Gavaskar in echelons of World Cricket history?

As an opening batsman he should be at the very top. Some of the modern English cricket journalists and writers do him great injustice by bracketing him with Geoffrey Boycott who was the other great opening batsman of that era, who was indeed a great defensive batsman. However, not every English cricket critic took to his overwhelming obsession with defensive batting technique. Somewhere one always felt that this was one way of getting back at or belittling Gavaskar, for the latter never was enamoured by the snotty ways of the British. So tit for tat!
However, the truth is that Gavaskar was a more enterprising batsman than Boycott for most part of his career. Where Boycott froze at most times, Gavaskar despite his preference to parsimony had all the shots in the book and many of his great innings bore testimony to that fact. Further, Boycott for most of his career played for a very strong England team. Gavaskar on the other for most part of his career played for a weak team like India. For the first dozen years of his career he had only Vishwanath for company and only in the last half a decade did he have good company in the likes of Vengsarkar, Amarnath, Shastri at various times. The fact that India’s bowling attack lacked enough teeth at most times also affected the scenario greatly. A good bowling attack of your own team gives you great confidence as a batsman, as one observed with Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes of the West Indies. Gavaskar did not have that luxury at best of times. Unlike Greenidge he never had to face the ferocious West Indian bowling attack! Or Boycott who was bred on traditional seaming and swinging tracks of England against the likes of Snow, Willis, Lever, Old, Arnold and Hendrick. On the other hand in handling of spin, Gavaskar was undoubtedly the master towering over all of the aforementioned. Some of the modern opening batsmen of the 21st century have impressive records with likes of Hayden and Langer boasting high averages and strike-rates, but the quality of bowling that they have come up against and with cheap runs against a ram-shackle Zimbabwean attack and whipping boys, Bangladesh have diluted the impact considerably. Further they again have the advantage of a Greenidge and Haynes.

Hence in the all-time list Gavaskar, as an opening batsman would rank alongside Hobbs and Sutcliffe. Not having seen either of the Englishmen in flesh or video it is difficult to compare them, but it would be fair to say that both these gentlemen again had two benefits going for them, their partnerships and the strength of the English side at most times when they played. However, to equate that it would be fair to comment that both of them played on uncovered pitches which Gavaskar did not have to much. Then again Hobbs played most of his cricket against Australia, and in England and Australia, whereas Gavaskar was playing against more countries and in most varied conditions. Between Hobbs and Sutcliffe, the former is considered greater by most English critics, since he was amongst the first professionals, and was the trendsetter.
Thus as Benaud would have it, it has to be Hobbs and Gavaskar at the very top of the ranks as opening batsmen of all times. Who was greater is a matter of conjecture and best left at that, though in terms of pure statistics Hobbs has his nose ahead, but greatness is not based on statistics alone. The aforementioned qualitative aspects are equally important. Therefore the gap in votes between Hobbs and Gavaskar, 30 and 12 respectively is too skewed towards Hobbs; probably the nostalgia took over most of the over populated English and Australians on the panel.

When it comes to batsmen over the last 40 years of the 21st century, Wisden ranked Gavaskar only behind Viv Richards. So how does Gavaskar stack up against his great contemporaries and the modern greats?

There were a number of great batsmen during the Gavaskar era. England had Geoff Boycott, Australia had Greg Chappell and Allan Border, Pakistan had Javed Miandad and Zaheer Abbas, New Zealand had Glenn Turner, South Africa had Graham Pollock and Barry Richards, but they didn’t play enough Test Cricket and West Indies had Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Clive Lloyd. Of the above, we have discussed Boycott vis-à-vis Gavaskar and the latter was clearly a better all-round batsman than the Englishman.
The others who fall in the all time great bracket would be Viv Richards, Greg Chappell and Javed Miandad.
The Pakistani ‘street-fighter’
was a butcher of spin bowling and along with Zaheer Abbas was responsible for bringing the famous Indian spin trio’s careers to a hasty end. He was not as technically perfect as the little master, however he made that up with his determination and aggressive demeanor. He was the ideal batsman for a crisis with his nerves of steel. He was not a pretty batsman but a mighty effective one. However, he was not as sure and consistent against fast bowling as he was against the spinners. His record against the West Indies bears testimony to that. The other aspect where Gavaskar is a clear winner is on performances abroad. Miandad had a great record at home, but an average one overseas. Hence, though he would go down as probably the greatest batsman Pakistan produced, he comes up short against Sunil Gavaskar, who had to open the innings which in itself was a very trying position especially if one played for a relatively weak team like India.
Greg Chappell the great Australian of the 70’s probably comes closer. He was a very stylish batsman with the best on-drive in the business. He had fine technique and had some notable success against the old enemy, England. His record against the West Indies was good too specially in that 75-76 series in which Australia decimated the Windies 5-1. Thereafter as the West Indies gained ascendancy his record took a bit of a dip. One of the advantages that Chappell had was that till the Packer era, Australia was the world’s best team, with great batsmen such as Ian his brother, Doug Walters and settled opening pair. This was backed by the best fast bowling attack which always is a comfort for a batsman. His record against spin bowling was never fully tested since he never played in India, and only toured Pakistan once, albeit with some success. Also, after the Packer era he chose not to tour overseas on several occasions, notably for the 1981 ‘Botham’s Ashes’ tour. Despite these factors he would go down as one of the greatest batsmen in the history of the game as much for his record as it would be for his sparkling stroke-play against all comers. But being an Australian with a history of such great batsmen of the yesteryears starting from Trumper to Bradman to McCabe to Harvey to Simpson, Greg Chappell had a legacy to follow. He added his name to the above list, but was not path-breaking as it was in Gavaskar’s case vis-à-vis Indian cricket. Hence I have no doubt that despite the western cricket experts’ preference of Chappell over Gavaskar; the latter had a bigger impact on his country’s and world cricket than the great Australian. The Wisden rankings just validate this point where he wasn’t even considered in the list of 49.

We last come to Viv Richards, who in opinion of most was the greatest post-war batsman and as Wisden testified by putting him in the list of top 5 cricketers of the century. ‘Smokin’ Joe’ was without doubt an outstanding once-in-a-life talent and he had the attitude to go with that. He strutted on the world scene for a glorious 17 years. He was a master against fast bowling, though he never faced his own lot. His technique though not perfect was more than compensated by his extraordinary eye. His shot making would awaken even the drugged. He made a statement for his team, his country and his race, notably against Tony ‘we will make them grovel’ Greig’s England side in ’76. His aggressive intent and the will to dominate the bowling at all times married well with his swagger to the wicket. Perhaps no other batsman in the modern history put fear into the bowlers like Viv did. The biggest help was of course the fact that post the disastrous Australian tour of 1976, he played for the all conquering Clive Lloyd’s team. Also there was the small matter of having half-a-dozen fast bowling monsters in his side who would - before or after a Viv Special – bludgeon the opposition into submission. The other significant fact that undoubtedly was a factor for Richards’ success was that he batted at No.3 after that impregnable pair of Greenidge and Haynes, one of the most successful opening pair in the history of the game. Viv in one word was an entertainer beyond compare. Compared to him Gavaskar was not an entertainer in the regular sense of the word. He had a more arduous task at hand. He didn’t have any of the luxuries that Viv had. The other factors that influenced others to acknowledge Viv’s greatness readily were his performances against – and in – England, which was the home of the game till not so long ago. Gavaskar’s performance against England pales in comparison to that of Richards. Then there was the influx of one-day cricket which Richards took to like duck to water. Gavaskar the master of orthodoxy probably did not take one-day cricket that serious. Further, Richards played in county cricket for over a dozen years and very successfully, whereas Gavaskar played only for one year for Somerset, incidentally the same county that Richards played for, for many years. Added to this was the fact that Gavaskar had always a love-hate relationship with the English way of the game. All these above endeared Richards more to the then, powerful English media who had no difficulty in promoting Richards as the best batsman of the post war era.
Though it seems apparently that Richards was the greatest, the matter is debatable for the Gavaskar fan. The little master was the better player of spin bowling. He played for a far weaker team and never had a stable opening partner like Greenidge or Haynes. He was not a naturally aggressive batsman, and he couldn’t afford to be one. But when the mood took over him – like in Delhi or Ahmedabad against Richards’ own attack – he was second to none. Then his performances in the last innings of a match which has got to be a major yardstick to ascertain a batsman’s greatness was non-pareil. A closer look at these factors makes the task of judging the two great batsmen. Nevertheless even if one were to consider Richards to be the greater of the two it wouldn’t be by the margin that Wisden proposes. In the book of yours truly, both were equals as they were completely different types. If at all I would like to probably concede that Richards was the first amongst equals if there can be one!

When compared to the modern greats, Gavaskar stands head and shoulders above most. The only ones who can lay claim to be among this list would be Tendulkar, Lara, Dravid and Ponting. But with the last two it has to be said that they reached their peaks only as late as 2002, by which time most of the great fast bowlers of the 80’s and 90’s had retired. The fast bowling cupboard is bare for some years now. That’s the reason one cannot put Mathew Hayden in this bracket either. This leaves only Tendulkar and Lara to contend with, who were the two greatest batsmen since the 90s, much like Gavaskar and Richards in the 70s and 80s.
Between the two Lara is more comparable to Gavaskar, with a lot of things in common. Playing for a weaker team, Lara scored tons of runs, sometimes to save test matches and on other occasions to bring in some semblance of pride in performances. He had the hunger for runs just like Gavaskar. Just like Gavaskar, Lara was the best player of spin bowling of his era. Tendulkar, similarly started when playing for a weaker team, but since the late 90s he has had the company of the likes of Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman and Sehwag which makes the best batting line-up that India has ever had. Tendulkar was the bridge between Gavaskar and Richards, where till 2001 he was masterly in aggressive intent. But numerous injuries and the ravages of times have dimmed his effectiveness and whether he bows out in the same fashion as Gavaskar did is yet to be seen. His record is exemplary, though in the 21st century his performances in crisis situations leave a bit to be desired. He is undoubtedly the greater one-day batsman, but as a test batsman he comes out close but second to Gavaskar in the books of the connoisseur. This more so when comparing the list of intimidating fast bowlers, the 70s and 80s were stacked with them, while it dwindled somewhat in the 90s and has vanished completely in the 21st century. The only fast bowlers of note in the last 5-6 years have been Shane Bond, Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee – and none of them have an outstanding record - with the first two being sparsely available for their countries for various reasons. Plus modern technology of bats have definitely benefited someone like Tendulkar whose game is based on power and timing. He is also less of a visual treat – not in the matter of strokeplay – at the crease, with a hunched stance and peculiar mannerisms. With Gavaskar there was calm that one felt when he was taking guard, with Tendulkar, the feeling is less so.

For a Gavaskar fan, it was therefore very pleasing to find Gavaskar in that list of Wisden, though the difference in ranking is debatable as argued earlier.

But more than records and rankings, he was an ambassador for cricket and as the great Don paid tribute to him, after he passed his 29th century, ‘he was an ornament to the game’.

Afterword: It has been exactly a year since I started this blog. Time has flown by. And as luck would have it, I happened to meet my hero again in September 2006 and told him that I was doing this blog! The great man was indeed most hospitable and updated me on the fact that he was doing a cricket blog of his own, which needless to say I already knew! He was the first cricketer to hold a blog conference, the leader again! Today is his 58th birthday and I wanted close it with this last one, which was a bit hurried being completed while waiting for a flight at the airport!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Gavaskar Impact on Indian Cricket

Much as I was enamoured by his batting, Gavaskar meant much more to me and Indian Cricket. This is a realization that dawned on me while he was still playing, and more so after he had called it a day.

SMG meant many things to many people. For some he was the ‘blue eyed boy’ of Indian cricket. For some, he was the saviour, ‘after Gavaskar there is none’ being the byword. In the 70’s & mid 80’s in middle class India, we needed and had heroes to look up to. Mine – and I suspect for most – were Sunil Manohar Gavaskar in cricket and Amitabh Bachchan in the movies. The country was still in the grips of the ‘license raj’ and the ‘quota system’, where bureaucracy ruled. It was still struggling to come out of the ‘socialist’ mindset and any merchandise ‘Made in Japan’ in our possession would make us proud. Majority of middle-class Indian household still knew only ‘bank fixed deposits’ and ‘life insurance’ as the only available mode of savings! Making a living through the daily grind was the way of life. Indian cricket mirrored all this till the late 60’s.

In this back-drop the advent of Gavaskar was like fresh air. He was the ‘growth oriented’ mutual fund which most of the time gave handsome returns. Here was an Indian cricketer who refused to go down without a fight. He would look the opposition in the eye, refusing to blink. These were still the days where the cricketing powers were with the MCC along with Australia, who more often than not had the condescending attitude that is usually reserved for lesser beings. Gavaskar, in many ways apart from his batting, stood up against this attitude as he continues to do even now. He always spoke his mind and thus landing up in several controversies. But he was also, unlike any cricketer before or after him, was a multifaceted man. He wrote several books during his days and the first one ‘Sunny Days’ till date remains perhaps the finest autobiography written by an Indian cricketer, and he didn’t ghost write it! Later on in his career after TV had arrived in India he ventured into several cricket programs called ‘Sunil Gavaskar Presents’ showing his penchant for the media role which he has donned successfully since then. He encouraged several youngsters in the team and guided them through the initial phases of their career. He grasped the commerce of cricket much before anybody else did. He fought for players rights and often got on the wrong side of the board for this. Though some of his detractors cried foul, calling him a mercenary, this argument falls flat on its face, as when he had the chance of going to Packer, he backed out since he wanted to play in the official form of the game for his country.

As a player, the impact of his batting has already been talked about, but his impact on other areas was equally important. He was a great slip fielder and became the first Indian to take 100 catches in Tests. Rarely does one remember him dropping catches in slips even during his later days. His fitness, along with Kapil Dev, was legendary, playing the most consecutive games for India. He missed just 3 tests due to an ‘external’ injury during a career spanning almost 17 years. He was supreme in ‘cricket fitness’.

At an early stage in his career, he was earmarked by Tiger Pataudi as his logical successor for Indian captaincy. But due to the strange ways of the Board he had to wait for three years of Bedi’s reign, before he could don the mantle as Indian captain. His captaincy skills, which were evident even in his younger days, have been spoken highly of, by most. Even in the early days when he would stand in for Bedi during a match opponents noted his intuitiveness. Tony Greig, MCC captain of the 1976-77 tour to India talks about this in his book where he mentions, how every time Bedi left the field, Gavaskar would take over and post a silly-point to our great spinners and that would worry the English batsman. They would wish Bedi to come back and take the silly-point off and give them respite!

When he became full time captain, he immediately put emphasis on fast bowling, which was helped by the advent of Kapil. He was instrumental in guiding Kapil through his formative years. However, strange were the ways of the BCCI, as it is now. They never gave Gavaskar the long rope which he thoroughly deserved; hence his reign was a very fragmented one. He probably didn’t trust the BCCI after the first time they removed him as captain for the 1979 tour to England, even going on to call them ‘court jesters’ later!
His captaincy essentially was based on the philosophy of ‘safety first’. He came across as very hard-nosed captain, thereby first making sure that India doesn’t lose and then going in for the kill if the opportunity so arose. As a result, he drew flak from some quarters who labeled him as a ‘defensive’ captain. What such critics forgot was that, his becoming captain also signaled another cusp in Indian cricket – ‘spin’ era to ‘medium-fast’ era – where he only had one match winning bowler in his team, the one and only Kapil Dev. By this time Kapil was operating both as a strike and the stock bowler and there was only so much that he could do. The great spin quartet had been decimated in Pakistan and were a spent force by the time he took over, where he had no other option but to apply this ‘safety first’ tactic, which sometimes cost him a win or two, but saved many more, interspersed with some notable victories.
His last stint in captaincy goes to blow this myth of being a defensive captain where he led India to that famous and comprehensive victory in the B&H World Championship in the one-day version of the game. And his captaincy was masterly as the venerable Richie Benaud himself stated. Handling a young Sivaramakrishnan, the leg-spinner in the ODIs was an example of this fact. Till then leg-spinners were the bane of one-day cricket. Gavaskar brought it into fashion, taking into account the large Australian grounds that India played on. This along with the World Cup victory in 1983 ranks as India’s two biggest moments in one-day cricket. In test matches there were several proud moments that Indian cricket gave us under Gavaskar’s captaincy. Some of the notable ones were the victory in Auckland against a strong New Zealand side in 1976, the famous series victory against an even stronger Pakistan side in 1979 and that MCG win in 1980.
There was controversy too, such as the supposed ‘tussle’ for captaincy with Kapil Dev. We as outsiders will never know the full story, but from all accounts, the major blame for this must lie with the board. Kapil was 10 years junior to Gavaskar in age – and in India, seniority matters even today – and 8 years junior in cricketing experience. Hence it is quite likely that Gavaskar was not given the due respect he deserved. He was unceremoniously removed from the captaincy after the ill-fated Pakistan tour in 1982-83. India was simply outclassed there and any other captain wouldn’t have fared better. Kapil on the other hand was an outspoken character and with his ‘dodgy’ English made statements that would rub any senior cricketer the wrong way. As a result, from reports it was apparent that there was a rift between Kapil and Gavaskar during the West Indies series in 1983 which the media blew out of proportion. After all Gavaskar had a successful series and scored his record breaking centuries. Kapil after the landmark looked decidedly happy when on a TV interview to Narottam Puri said “I am happy because he (SMG) is an Indian who has got the record, and he has done it under my captaincy”. The genuine happiness was for all to see. It is bewildering that so much was made out of that rift. A year later Gavaskar was blamed by most for being influential in dropping Kapil from a test match at Calcutta. The respected Rajan Bala’s book elaborates how Gavaskar wanted Kapil restored before the test, but the board put its foot down! I elaborate the above because it just goes to show that even if both of them did not see eye to eye on many cricketing matters, it necessarily does not mean that they were going at each other’s throats. Both knew the value of the other and Gavaskar being the senior statesman gave full support to Kapil Dev in the latter’s second stint at captaincy. The fact that their relationship has endured was when we witnessed Gavaskar being the first one to get up and congratulate Kapil Dev on the latter being declared India’s greatest cricketer of the 20th Century.

There was another allegation against Gavaskar being parochial and partial towards Bombay cricketers and didn’t help cricketers from other part of the country. This argument again falls flat on its face. Initially and for the first half of his career, virtually half of the Indian team was made up of Bombay cricketers. As a result it is quite obvious that he, coming from Bombay must have been closer to Bombay players. It is well known, the moral support he gave to Sudhir Naik who according to reports was crestfallen after the ‘theft’ fiasco on the disastrous tour to England in 1974 and Gavaskar was then just 24! Apart from helping shape several careers of cricketers from West Zone, he was instrumental in getting Mohinder Amarnath back for the Pakistan tour in 1982. Even in the earlier part of his career he was close to several players from the South and his early relationship with Bedi was of great friendship. Then how can he be branded partial to Bombay cricket? Many youngsters got their first chances under his captaincy and not all of them were from Bombay. The only questionable selection made during his tenure was probably that of Suru Nayak for the 1982 England tour where Nayak was a miserable failure. An error of judgment or two over 17 years is not a crime!
Even after retirement, he was known to have passed on his vast knowledge of the game to several youngsters, none more so to his protégé and successor to the throne, Sachin Tendulkar. Even in the recent past, it was a well known secret that he stood behind the deposed Indian skipper Sourav Ganguly in the latter’s bad days after the spat with the recently departed coach Greg Chappell.

Even from the distance, he always came across as an extremely strong-willed man. He was the anti-thesis of the usual Indian sportsman. An Indian sportsman was supposed to be just an entertainer. His only duty was supposed to be playing for India and not worry about rewards. He was supposed to play for the country as if he was on national duty and not even think of making a good living out of it. He was supposed to be a gullible sort of a chap who should be at the mercy of the cricket watching public and the Board playing the role of the patron. We were suppose to ‘love’ our sportsmen not necessarily ‘respect’ him. Gavaskar came and changed all that. Hence where the crowds loved their ‘Vishies’, ‘Chandras’ or their ‘Kapils’, SMG was a different kettle of fish. He was not a royalty like ‘Tiger’ but neither was he the ‘sentimental’ favourite of most. He was the one they ‘respected’, even sometimes grudgingly. He made sure that he would get his way even at the cost of being unpopular at times. He in his head-strong way even took on the crowd at times, most famously at the Eden where he had some tumultuous times during the 80’s. He promised after the England test in 1985, that he would never play at the Eden again. Right or wrong, he kept his word.

Over the years, Gavaskar appears to have mellowed down and is guarded about his opinions. Through his weekly columns he comes across as more of a world cricket observer than an Indian cricket critic. His commentary is more in the lines of Benaud, speaking only when it matters and his elucidation on the technical aspects of the game is non-pareil. He has though sadly, but not surprisingly, stayed away from being involved in any official capacity of the board, appearing only sporadically in various committees and was instrumental in restructuring the Ranji Trophy – for the better – a couple of years back. One though feels that given a free reign he could have delivered much more for Indian cricket, drawing on his immense knowledge of the game.

As recently on the 75th anniversary of Indian cricket while drawing up the Indian team of the past 75 years, Erapalli Prasanna a member of the panel which selected the India’s Greatest XI, commented while nominating Gavaskar as the captain of the all time greatest India XI, “He is such a good CEO, like of any organization...”. He couldn’t have been closer to the truth.

In one word, the ‘Little Master’ over his long and distinguished association with cricket had gone on to become the ‘Grand Master’ of Indian Cricket.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sunil Gavaskar, Amongst Indian Greats

It is not that, India didn’t have good or great batsmen before SMG, but he was the one who took it to another level and brought deserving, if grudging, respect to Indian batting. Some of the yesteryears greats like Col. C.K.Naidu, Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare and Polly Umrigar, amongst others have had folklores written about them. Indeed they were great batsmen in their own right. But they suffered a considerable handicap. Either they played too little Test cricket or played during times when India struggled to even draw test matches. Some of them showed flashes of brilliance, but were not consistent enough to be taken seriously by critics world-wide. In fact at times the western media would sneer at Indian batsmen, commenting on their discomfiture against fast bowlers, and how they would sneak towards the square-leg umpire when they faced a fast bowler on song.

However, Indian era of batsmanship will always be broken down into two eras B.G. and A.G. Gavaskar remains the cusp on which Indian batsmanship and Indian cricket as a whole turned a new leaf.

The first proof of that lies in the statistics.

Before Gavaskar, India’s test record stood as follows:

Tests Won Lost Tie/Draw
116 15 49 52

Series Won Lost Draw
28 5 17 6

During the Gavaskar era, India’s test record was:

Tests Won Lost Tie/Draw
130 25 35 70

Series Won Lost Draw
33 10 16 7

Figures mostly don’t lie and in this case it shows up starkly. Before Gavaskar made his entry into Test cricket, India had only won 12.9% of the tests and lost a whopping 42.2% times. During the Gavaskar era the India won 19.2% of the times and the loss percentage came down to 26.9%.

Before SMG, India had won only 5 series (out of which only 1 was abroad) and had lost 17 of them out of a total of 28. During the SMG era, India won 10 series and lost 16 out of a total of 33.

Obviously all these victories and avoidance of defeats did not and could not have come because of one man, but Gavaskar’s contributions in Indian wins and his rearguard action in many of the matches where he staved off defeat for India are numerous and the marked difference between the stats of B.G. and A.G. are there for all to see.

Gavaskar brought respect to Indian batting. He brought in belief that Indian batsmen could stand up to the fast men – there were lots of them during his era – and look them in the eye. And astonishingly, he did this without donning the helmet, which is a given in today’s cricket. Moreover, he played all of his matches, barring a few in the last couple of years in the demanding opening slot.

He was the first great opening batsman from India since Merchant and he took the world by storm as the former had in his short career. He did not have a stable opening partner for more than half his career and only had a steady partnership with Chetan Chauhan for a few years. He however, by all accounts, enjoyed a great partnership with Srikkant the swashbuckling – if inconsistent - batsman from Madras. But this did not deter him to play his solos for years on end. By the early 80s with Vengsarkar maturing into a fine batsman and the resurgence of Mohinder Amarnath, he could relax once in a while to play the way, which I feel he would have loved to, given the opportunity. However, there were only a few series where he was overshadowed by any other batsman in the team. One can think of the West Indies series of 74-75 where Vishy was the talk of the town, while SMG was out injured, the twin tours to Pakistan and West Indies in 1983 where Amarnath rose briefly like a colossus to take the honours and the 1986 series against England where Vengsarkar reached his pinnacle.

He was the guiding force for most Indian batsmen of his time, mostly youngsters. He mentored the young Vengsarkar, Shastri and Sandeep Patil, amongst others. They flowered during his time. Even the comeback of Mohinder Amarnath was largely due to the serious backing that he got from Gavaskar before India left for Pakistan in 1982.

However, there was often an allegation against Gavaskar, from some vested quarters – and wrongly at that – about him being a selfish batsman or a batsman playing for individual records. Neither statistics nor facts substantiate this. Most such critics take the myopic view or are plain ignorant. It is amusing to note here that at most times Gavaskar was the boy on the burning deck. With no disrespect to other Indian batsmen of his time, it was plain that in most of the long innings that he played for India, he was virtually the last man standing. In this there is an ironic, but true parallel with the modern master Tendulkar, who also like his mentor, at his peak was the lone man who was battling when the other fell like nine-pins around him. Batting is about partnerships and if atleast one or two don’t perform around the main batsman, even the latter at his best can’t do much. Couple of such examples would elucidate the point further. Let’s take the Karachi test of 1978-79; Gavaskar scored a century in each innings and yet India lost! He scored 111 in the first innings when the next best was a 59 from the then tail-ender Kapil Dev at No.9 and in the second innings when he scored 137, the next best was a 53 from Mohinder. In Faisalabad four years later, it was the same story; Gavaskar in the second innings carried his bat through for 127 not out battling for 7 hours, the next best was Mohinder again for 78 – no one else crossed 20. The famous Oval test is another case in point; while he scored 221 the next best was an 80 from Chauhan and then zilch. There are many such instances which clearly go to show that his effort as an Indian batsman was monumental and peerless. If at all, there was only one instance which one can remember where Gavaskar played for an individual goal, that being his 28th century at Bangalore against Pakistan on the 5th day when the match was destined to be a draw. But one struggles to find another such instance where he played just for himself.

He set a new benchmark for future generations of Indian batsmen to achieve, albeit an arduous one. Sachin Tendulkar was the chosen prodigy. For half of his career he too like Gavaskar ploughed a lone furrow, with flashes of brilliance from others here and there. Azharuddin, all grace and timing, was at most times a fair weather batsman, and it was only during the second half of the nineties with the advent of, first, Dravid and Ganguly and then Laxman and Sehwag in that order, did he find some support. The influence of Gavaskar on Tendulkar was palpable. The original master, by passing on his Morrant pads early in the latter’s career virtually passed on a legacy, which Tendulkar has carried manfully. Both were short men. Tendulkar was more naturally talented and more aggressive – perhaps a natural culmination of the Gavaskar legacy – but had the same mastery over the common strokes like the straight drive and the flick of his legs. Dravid is the latest Indian batsman to achieve all time greatness; however, he has had it the easiest amongst the three. There is another myth, which some sections of media are trying to propagate in this battle for ‘India’s greatest batsman’, mentioning the term ‘match-winner’ for a batsman. Except for instances that can be counted on the fingers of our two hands, in the entire cricket that has been played in the world till now, most tests have been won by bowlers. They wish to propose that Dravid is India’s biggest ‘match-winning’ batsman. A look at most of matches that India has won since Dravid reached top flight as batsman in the early part of this century, one would observe that he has either supported or has been supported by at least one of the other three in such momentous occasions, if not more. Be it Headingley 2002, Calcutta 2001, Adelaide 2004 he had either Laxman, Tendulkar or Ganguly giving him a good hand. A situation that didn’t exist at most times with Gavaskar or Tendulkar. Dravid forms the holy troika of Indian batsmen, but he is not greater than the other two.

In fact Dravid himself is more from the Gavaskar school, with his game firmly based on a sound defense and a wide array of strokes to go with it. Dravid like Gavaskar improved as a one-day batsman as the years went by and both of them were more than useful batsmen in the limited overs form of the game.

For batsmen who were a notch or two below these three great ones, the Gavaskar influence is unmistakable. When a dasher like Sehwag says that he gives the first hour to the bowler and then seizes his opportunity, he is talking the Gavaskar language!

This is the reason why this writer calls Gavaskar the cusp between Indian batting ages. Indian batting is far more resilient, ambitious and self-confident than what it was till the 60s. The signs therefore are there to see, where the post Gavaskar era has had India win more matches than even the Gavaskar era, which is a natural sign of progress. However, despite winning more matches in the last 20 years, India is still to achieve some of the great feats that the Indian team of the 70’s and 80’s achieved. India during the Gavaskar era won 2 series in England and 1 in West Indies, while drawing 1-1 against a formidable Australian side. In one-day cricket India won two world championships in 1983 and 1985. Compared to that the Indian side of the 90s drew a blank in both tests and one-dayers, while their record in the first decade of the 21st century is considerably better. India won their first series in Pakistan in 2004, a historic series against Australia in 2001, albeit at home and reached the final of the World Cup in 2003. The overseas victories against Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and a lowly West Indies in 2005 need to be discounted. Restricting India’s performances in Test Matches – the real yardstick – one of the major factors for India not doing well abroad has been the lack of a solid opening pair or half. Various openers have been tried in the last 20 years and except for Sidhu for a brief while in the early 90s and Sehwag over the last 3 years, no one has gone the distance.

So where does Gavaskar fit in amongst the greatest Indian batsmen? Such ranking always sets the cat among the pigeons, but I will stick my neck out for Gavaskar at the top of the pecking order followed by Tendulkar and Dravid. This, simply because the master was the pioneer of modern Indian batting. Secondly, he scored all, but a few of his runs at the top of the innings which in the context of the fast bowling quality that he had to face - and with out a helmet – keeps his nose ahead of the two other worthy torch-bearers of the flame. Though Tendulkar and Dravid have a better average and some better statistics to show, but the difficulty of Gavaskar’s job is to be understood from the fact, that despite being blessed with one of the better techniques of modern cricket, Dravid has always backed out opening the innings, barring a couple of occasions. Not for nothing cricket historians and followers maintain that to pit an opener against a middle-order batsman, one needs to add 5 runs to the former’s average! However, as a one-day batsman though one would have to put Gavaskar behind Tendulkar who has all the records to his name. But then when there is talk of great batsmen, Test cricket is the yardstick or else, without any disrespect to his one-day record, we would be considering Michael Bevan as one of the world’s all time great batsmen!

Let me end this treatise with a comparison – from Polly Umrigar bench-mark to the Sunil Gavaskar bench-mark was a giant leap to Mt. Everest. Anything done to surpass that would be a struggle. Even with the enormous talent that Tendulkar possesses, it became a monumental struggle for him to get past the colossus that was Sunil Manohar Gavaskar.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Revolutionary Indian Batsman

Ramachandra Guha in his interesting omnibus ‘States of Indian Cricket’ mentions how his uncle Durai rightly said ‘if Gavaskar was an Englishman he would have been made an Earl by now’.
Rajan Bala, the respected cricket-writer and critic in his book, ‘Glances at Perfection’ writes that Gavaskar was the ‘be all and end all’ of technical perfection in batting. He wrote this book when the modern Indian greats Tendulkar and Dravid had reached their peak.

For a fan like me who had followed the ‘little master’ over a major part of his career and having read and heard most of what has been written or said about him, he was always this and more. As Navjot Sidhu – owner of that bombastic tongue – said on a program on Gavaskar, “If Dravid is the wall, Sunil Gavaskar was a fort”. This statement is no disgrace to Dravid, a giant amongst all time great Indian batsmen, but more to show the true picture of what Gavaskar meant when he played for India.

His records speak for themselves. He was at his best against the West Indies who at most times during his era were the world’s best team and had the best fast bowlers of any era. His record against Pakistan is formidable and that is one bench-mark either side always considered while ranking their batsmen. His record against a tough if not the best team, Australia was again top class. It is only against England that his career record suffers in comparison. Though ironically it was in England where two of his finest centuries came, one in 1974 and the other, the epic at the Oval in 1979. Having watched some of the old videos, it is a mystery why he shouldn’t have scored more runs in England. Many of his 30’s and 40’s got curtailed due to one solitary mistake. Probably that was only to make him look human! His record at home and away was equally good, which meant that he wasn’t just a fair weather player.

His adversaries over a long career, was a virtual list of ‘who’s who’ of fast bowlers! While judging the quality of an opening batsman this has to be the key. He started off in 1971 against a wily if ageing Sobers & that fine seam bowler Vanburn Holder. Over the years against the West Indies he had to face Andy Roberts, Mike Holding, Joel Garner, Wayne Daniel, Winston Davis, Sylvester Clarke, Norbert Philip and above all that ‘monster’ the late Malcolm Marshall, who was undoubtedly the greatest fast bowler of the late 70’s and 80’s. The only West Indian he did not face was Colin Croft. He succeeded against such attacks like no one else. Against Australia he faced off against the formidable Thommo, Lillee, Pascoe, Rodney Hogg – a force for a while in the 70’s, Geoff Dymock – who had some success against India, and towards the end of his career a young but fiery McDermott and the wiry but highly promising Bruce Reid. Against Pakistan he faced up to his respected adversary Imran Khan, Sarfraz Nawaz, Sikandar Bakht – who had a successful tour of India in 1979 and the ‘left arm of God’, Wasim Akram. Against England he had to face up to a long line of fine fast and swing bowlers, most of whom were dangerous in their backyard, namely, John Snow & Price, Peter and John Lever, Bob Willis, fine swing bowlers like Chris Old and Mike Hendrick and the wily Ian Botham. Against New Zealand he faced Richard Hadlee, one of the world’s finest bowlers in his prime, with some success. In fact it was only against Lillee that he did not have much success with a solitary 70 in that famous MCG walkout! Is there any opening batsman who can boast of a better record against such a formidable array of fast bowlers? And without that crucial protective gear – the helmet? Not in this planet at least.

But he wasn’t partial to just the fast bowlers. His record against spin bowlers was equally impressive. He faced up to some great spin bowlers of his time or battled conditions which were far from being conducive. During his time he faced up to Ray Illingworth, Derek Underwood – the last great spinner from England, Lance Gibbs – once upon a time world record holder, Jim Higgs from Australia, Bruce Yardley also from Australia whom he always rated highly and the Pakistanis, Abdul Qadir and Iqbal Qasim. The 96 at Bangalore leaps to the mind, first. But there were many others. It does sound ironical though, despite being an opening batsman, he was probably the finest player of spin of the modern era, and this despite being so short in height. Some of his old videos show the quality of his footwork. He would sometimes end up almost half-way down the pitch after completing a stroke against a spinner. He rarely got foxed by flight. And on square turners he played late as late as one could be. There was always a beauty in his method, which sometimes left onlookers speechless. His batting was a seamless blend of ‘art’ and ‘science’.

What attracted one to his batting was not only his near-perfect technique against both pace and spin, but the whole package as it were. His balance at the crease was beyond parallel. He had all the shots in the book, though when compared to the other Indian great, Gundappa Vishwanath he chose parsimony over lavishness. This was of course necessary, since India in those days was known as a one-and-a-half batsman team. He was always playing for a relatively weak team, with the opposition knowing that if they got past this ‘fort’ the territory was theirs.

His critics, of whom there were quite a few, pointed to this supposed weakness of his, supposed inability to dominate attacks. They often forgot that he was the fulcrum of Indian batting for most of his career. If he went, India would collapse at most times. And he knew that more than anyone else. One who has played cricket at any level knows that if a batsman has to dominate, he would have to take chances and that meant higher risks. Gavaskar could not have afforded to take high risks, especially being an opening batsman. And more often than not he was right.

Somewhere in the first few years of his career, he realized the importance of his own wicket, and hence after a couple of dismissals on the hook he put it away in the closed for 7 long years. He dusted the cobwebs off this shot only when he had no choice, in 1983 against a rampaging West Indies led by Marshall. The result is still fresh in memory.

A principal part of his technique was his balance at the crease. His stance was one of the most picturesque stances that one has seen. The only other that comes close to it in elegance is that of the ‘master blaster’ Viv Richards, which was intimidating. But Gavaskar’s was even more balanced. There was a bit of a ‘rocking’ feel to it. He committed to his strokes very late and that ‘one-and-a-half foot’ shuffle that he introduced in the latter part of his career helped him even more. If there was at all any weakness in his technique, it was his fallibility outside the off-stump to the swinging ball, early in his innings. But one is yet to see a batsman who doesn’t have that weakness! His defence was copybook and virtually impregnable. He read the ball early and rarely missed the flight of a spinner. Above all his concentration at the crease was unmatched. One of the most intense sights at the ground is Gavaskar reaching a milestone and then practicing ‘tunnel vision’ down the pitch, i.e. putting his hands beside his temples and looking down the pitch. It could be demoralizing for the bowlers, in a way. They would better give up thinking of getting him out. Watching it even today, gives me goose-pimples.

In attack, there was no shot that he couldn’t play. He was both proficient on the front foot as well as on the back foot. However, his signature shots were the impeccable straight drive and the flick of his pads. His square cut was second only to Vishwanath’s. It was less ‘rubbery’ in execution but packed more ‘steel’. Towards the later stages of his career, he drove on the up a lot more, included the lofted on-drive and the late ‘dab’ in his repertoire. The latter was a variation of the late cut with not so much a ‘closed’ face of the bat as much as it was a parallel blade.

In one of the chapters of his book on Gavaskar, Ramachandra Guha talks about ‘the two Gavaskars’, Gavaskar the pure batsman and the other the captain as batsman. This was pretty close to truth. Gavaskar with all the weight of expectations on his shoulders did get bogged down at times, especially when he was captain in his second and third stints. This change probably came due to his mistrust of the BCCI and critics at large, who were always ready with their daggers, ready to pounce, were he to fail and India to lose. But over a long period of 16 years of cricket, there were probably three Gavaskars. The young Gavaskar who swung between being ‘stodgy’ and ‘belligerent’. Gavaskar as the captain in his second and third stints when he was very measured and always in self-denial. And then in the intermittent periods and towards the end of his career when he became quite carefree and often dazzling in his stroke-play. But situations also dictated how he played, his last innings being a case in point.
So often in a long Gavaskar innings, one would switch on the radio after an interval and find that his score had hardly moved, where in another instance he would rattle off on a run scoring spree. This often costed the spectator dear, as Guha lamented in his book. Like me, he had never watched Gavaskar score a century live at the ground! Luckily we have some videos of Gavaskar to fall back on.

His batting in the last few years of his career came out in full bloom. The same man who once scored that infamous 36 in his first World Cup match had finally scored a rollicking 100 in his second last world cup match! It was ‘blitzkrieg’. He had finally begun to enjoy his one-day cricket towards the last 3-4 years of his career and all that showed in various phases. Striking the ball on the ‘up’, hitting across the line, words which were taboo to the master, were now a part of his repertoire.

However, there was something which I suspect a true Gavaskar fan always sensed, all through the years, which one has not seen with any other batsman since then. There was a strange detachment that was evident in his batting, as if he was oblivious to what was going on around him. One of the famous things associated with Gavaskar was the fact that he never looked at the score-board while batting. The proof of that was during his 29th century, when Vengsarkar literally had to go down to him mid-pitch to congratulate him after the peerless on-drive that brought him to the landmark. He rarely got flustered by the antics of the fielders around him, as one saw during that famous innings in Bangalare. This probably had to do with two facts, one, his matchless concentration and secondly – and this is only a guess – because he knew that most of India’s fortunes depended upon him. And if he still couldn’t save or win the match for India, he knew that he tried his best. For me, he was one of those rare men, who in my humble opinion practiced at most times, the doctrines of the ‘Bhagwad’ on the 22 yards.

Dozen of his Best

It is difficult to pick only 12 of Gavaskar’s best innings out of such a volume of work that he produced in the era, but it is worth trying. Lists are always contentious, hence this one too will be.

221 at Oval: A fourth innings epic that took India almost to the doors of a near impossible victory. Next best score was 80 by Chauhan.
101 at Manchester: SMG considered this his best century. Need we say more? Only two others got past double-figures!
96 at Bangalore: Arguably the best innings on a snake-pit against top quality spin of Pakistan, where he again took India almost to the doors of victory. The next best were the ‘extras’.
220 at Trinidad: First saved the match for India and then almost won it for them. Next best was 54 by Wadekar. A painful tooth helped him concentrate better!
129 at Delhi: His fastest century of 90 odd balls against a fearsome attack which had decimated India in the previous test at Kanpur. The hook was plucked out of the cupboard.
90 at Ahmedabad: Another epic on a treacherous pitch. A hundred looked certain when done in by an unplayable delivery off Holding. No one else got past 40! India, needless to say lost.
127n.o. at Faislabad: Carried his bat through fighting tooth and nail against the formidable Khan to save the test match. He couldn’t as only Amarnath got past 20!
103n.o. at Nagpur: His only ODI century and what an innings it was. Only 2nd Indian till then to score a 100 in a world cup!
57 at Manchester: SMG rated this as his best test innings technically. Having watched the video it was difficult to find a fault with it, he got beaten only once – when he got out!
102 at Trinidad: Kick-started the famous run chase of 404 with a perfect innings.
205 at Bombay: An attacking innings, rattling up 177 runs in a shade less than 5 hours against the West Indies.
127 at Perth: A belligerent innings against Thommo and Clark, guiding Amarnath to his first test century and almost setting up a win for India.

There could be another dozen that could contend for a place in this list. As one can see in most of the above innings and in many others he ploughed a lone furrow. In some he was lucky to get a little help from his brother-in-law and friends! Such was his impact on Indian cricket.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Hangover Years – From one master to the other

‘The sport is bigger than the sportsman’ goes the clichéd saying. However, that didn’t hold true for me at the time post 1987. Yes, India played some cricket after the world cup. Quite a fascinating test series against West Indies followed but my involvement of watching the game was restricted to the time that Viv Richards spent at the crease. Gavaskar’s replacement for the next couple of series was Arun Lal who didn’t too bad a job, but it wasn’t the same as SMG walking out to commence an innings for India. For many years after that on occasions I would wake up in the morning after having dreamt that Gavaskar had announced a comeback. Dreams die first!

This state of affairs was a strange experience for me. It was the first time in my living memory that I wasn’t feeling as passionate about cricket as I had over the last 12 years. I still followed the game and the matches that were being played around the world, but more as an onlooker.
My own foray into cricket was coming to its logical conclusion as it does for million starry eyed young players in the country – limited to club or district level cricket. And my move towards professional pursuits in academics only heightened my distance from cricket. I had moved from Kanpur to Calcutta to pursue Chartered Accountancy a far cry from the greens and flannels.

The first cricket match that I watched at the ground after SMG’s retirement was the Nehru Cup match in 1989 between India and Pakistan which I watched at the Eden. India batted first and to be fair to Srikkanth and Raman Lamba it was an entertaining passage of play, but looking over to the pavilion when I didn’t see the familiar white ‘panama’ cap and the ‘duck-walk’, the hollowness came back again. I began to wonder whether my association with cricket will remain consigned to just the Gavaskar era. The ‘it’ effect that Gavaskar and his batting had had on me for years would just refuse to go away.

In a matter of days India were touring Pakistan and when the team was announced I was amused to see a new ‘kar’ being selected in the touring party. I had read about him in the media, how he had made a dream first class debut, but this was test cricket ‘Asia’s Ashes’ especially with other issues that were hogging the limelight then. Gavaskar had himself talked highly of this boy and had gifted his Morrant ‘super-light’ pads to him. It would be interesting I thought, hence followed the 1st test at Karachi on radio in which this little boy made, albeit, an ordinary debut. It was only during the 4th Test at Sialkot that I finally got to watch him on telly. On a lively pitch I saw a young boy thrown to the wolves with India in some discomfort. Imran, Wasim and a young Waqar bounced him repeatedly, while the 16 year old batted in a cap. He took a blow on the nose, brushed it off, and carried on to score his second fifty of the series. Imagination was being stirred by this slip of a boy. He was similar to the master in height and had the cleanliness in his shots like the former, remarkably balanced at the crease. I was hooked back again on to cricket by Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. That day I knew he would go close to the master and become one himself. I have followed Tendulkar closely since then (though the helmet has replaced the cap), like I did with Gavaskar and he has fulfilled all the promise that he had shown 17 years back, but I still remember that 50 at Sialkot as the day the baton passed and an Indian Cricket fan in me was awakened again.

I remain an ardent cricket fan and a fierce Indian cricket fan, to this day. A journey that started while following the Wankhede Test in 1975 on the radio with a little man making a comeback after injury continues through generations with the modern master Tendulkar and who knows who’s to come next. The ‘Murphy’ radio set is long gone but the follower lingers on.

The ‘post-retirement’ Gavaskar has been followed with quite the same zeal as well, for he never left the limelight. Sunil Gavaskar has since then come in various avatars. He has remained an involved TV commentator since then and has been writing columns quite regularly for various newspapers and web-sites. In between he removed the mothballs from his kit and wore them once again during a Masters series in the early 90s when he took on the likes of Marshall and Garner once again. It was exhilarating stuff. Looked like I was dreaming.

He has gone on to hold important positions with the ICC, heading the technical committee at the moment of writing. He has however kept himself away from any direct involvement with Indian cricket. He has never held a position in the selection committee or as a board member. Being a highly intelligent man and from experiences during his playing days, he probably realized that it would be well nigh impossible for one man to change the way cricket is run in this vast country, where street level politics rule the roost. However, he has remained associated with tertiary bodies like the NCA, various committees to revamp domestic cricket, amongst others.

His voice is still heard with intensity by most, hence the reactions that we see even today. Gavaskar at various times, during his playing days had courted controversies and even 20 years after his retirement he never shies away from it. His opinions at times are caustic, sometimes guarded and sometimes quite blunt. At all these times he comes out to be a person of exceptional intelligence, a rare breed amongst sportsmen.

But a Sunil Manohar Gavaskar, in context of cricket in general and Indian cricket in particular, is all of that and more. He is a hangover that is yet to wear off, at least for people like me who love the past as much as the present!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Last Hurrahs!

The Pakistan series was a draining one like it usually is, both for the players and fans like me. To top it, India had encountered a heart-wrenching defeat in the Bangalore test and the reigning double world champions had then taken a battering in the one-dayers. Gavaskar’s 96 in the losing cause still rankled.

There was no cricket coming up before the World Cup, so we had time to get over it and I was sure the team would too. As a result I got engrossed in the remainder of my non-descript cricket career which was on its last legs, with any hopes of my etching out a career in cricket dying a fast and natural death. The last season hadn’t been good for me, though this one was proving to be quite successful.

Soon the summers came and our season was also coming to a slowdown when I read in the media that MCC was planning for its bicentenary celebrations and as a result, an unofficial test match would be played between MCC and the Rest of the World at Lord’s in August. The teams were going to be a mixed lot. MCC were to be represented by all those players playing for England and its counties and the Rest of the World would be represented by the best of the World. This made for an interesting prospect.

MCC would be captained by the then England captain Mike Gatting and having a galaxy of stars like Greenidge, Gooch, Gower, Shastri, Marshall, Hadlee, amongst others. Only Botham was missing due to injury and was replaced by the capable Clive Rice. Rest of the World was to be captained by Allan Border and contained Haynes, Dujon, Richards (later replaced due to injury by Vengsarkar), Miandad, Imran, Kapil Dev, Walsh and Sunil Manohar Gavaskar. It was thrilling to know that 16 years back Gavaskar had represented in the last ROW series in Australia and now in the evening of his career he was still considered the best in business to be a part of this galaxy of greats.

The match was played from the 20th to 25th August 1987 and though it wasn’t telecasted in India, BBC’s ‘Test Match Special’ came to my rescue when I tuned in on the first day to realize that it was broadcasting the match. MCC batted first and piled up a huge score in a day and a half, on the back of hundreds from Gooch and Gower, though Greenidge missed out. Gavaskar and Haynes came out to bat for the ROW facing up to Marshall and Hadlee. A dream contest! In fact in the very first over there was a huge appeal for LBW against Gavaskar by Marshall that umpire Bird negated. After that, it was an exhibition. Marshall at his best first snuffing out Haynes and then Vengsarkar, from round the wicket, followed by the spinners coming to fore, Shastri and Emburey. It was anything but a festival match. Gavaskar facing up to the thunderbolts against Marshall, the wile of Hadlee, the lively medium-pace of Rice and the spin duo with equanimity, came up with some brilliant and classic shots of vintage. When the day ended he was not out on 80 and all the commentators were in raptures about this little man. He had never scored a 100 at Lord’s. It was never his favourite ground, which raised quite a controversy over the years, but one could sense that he wanted it to get it this time since it was a big occasion.

Late that night while tuning up to BBC’s Sports Roundup I was waiting for a review of the day’s play, when the news slipped in. Gavaskar had announced his retirement from Test Cricket at a press conference that evening! This was going to be his last five-day match! I felt like being hit by a lightning. This must be a joke, one of his pranks with the media. Unsure of what it meant I went to sleep, only to get up the next morning to read the papers which confirmed the news. Reality struck me then. The unthinkable will be unfolding in front of my eyes in a few days time. Sunil Manohar Gavaskar would never come out to open the innings for India in a test match again. There was a small matter of a World Cup coming up in a few months after which he would be hanging his boots from all cricket. It was a fact hard to digest. The day was spent pottering around before the match started again and now I was getting nervous over a first-class game in which Gavaskar must be trying to score a hundred in front of a packed Lord’s crowd. He did eventually score a monumental 188.

I have since watched the innings on video. At 38, the master was imparting a lesson, so much so, that for a day and a half he was the cynosure of all eyes at the hallowed grounds of the MCC. Allan Border, the captain, later had said that this innings should be shown to at academies as a lesson for young cricketers. He couldn’t have been nearer to the truth.

The match ended on 4th day with Gavaskar in the second innings losing his off-stump to the great Marshall, two great adversaries closing their rivalry with 1-1 score line!

Over the next few months, I kept pondering over the momentous decision that my hero, the original purpose for my getting to be a cricket fan, a player, an opening batsman, had taken. I hoped and hoped that he would reverse this decision in the coming months. Probably the board would talk to him. Maybe his captain and team-mates will get him to reverse the decision somehow. It never happened when suddenly the World Cup was upon us.

This was the first world cup being held outside England and there were a lot of expectations from India, it being held in the sub-continent this time. In addition, all Gavaskar fans hoped that he would get a well-deserved farewell with a successful World Cup and the trophy.

India’s campaign began against a rejuvenated Australia that dished out a cracker of a match. Aussies creamed the Indian bowlers to build up a total of 270, huge as per the standards of the day. When India came out to bat, I wanted to see Gavaskar’s approach, and it was heartening that he went hammer-and-tongs at McDermott to score a 37 of 32 balls before he was out. India went close but lost way in the end to go down by a solitary run. We were disappointed but quite sure that India will go a long way in the tournament, considering it was only the first match.

India won against New Zealand and then came the Zimbabwe match which was the end of the first leg of league matches. Knowing that SMG had a missing element in his CV – a 100 in ODIs – I was hoping that he would score one this time, but Zimbabwe batted first and were skittled out for a low score which put paid to my hopes though Gavaskar got a quick 40 odd again.

The return matches in the league started against Australia, again. Gavaskar playing a strokeful innings again, got to his 50, and then suddenly got out, again denying himself a century. India won the match resoundingly and thereby making reasonably sure of a semi-final spot.

The next match against Zimbabwe saw a bit of controversy. India won chasing again, though Gavaskar unlike his recent forays played a slow innings – another 50 – though India won the match easily. In a post match interview Kapil strangely decided to castigate Gavaskar, without taking his name, for slow batting and costing India on the run rate.

India had made the semis but wanted to avoid playing Pakistan who were on top of their game in Pakistan.

So when the India vs New Zealand match started and New Zealand batted first India had to win at a run-rate of 5.25 to top the group and avoid Pakistan in the semis. The Kiwis put up a good score of 221 which was curtailed by Chetan Sharma’s hat-trick, somewhat of a redemption for the ‘last-ball-six’! When India started we heard from the commentators that the little master was suffering from fever, but had come out to bat, nonetheless. In the next 3 hours we watched spell-bound, what was to be, the last Gavaskar magic. A beautiful, yet clinical decimation of the Kiwi attack where we saw gorgeous cover drives and the lofted on-drives, along with the trademark glances and flicks. In a matter of 85 balls he had scored the fastest one-day century by an Indian, his first and to be the only one. Though he did seem a bit nervous when he was stuck for a few balls on 99, but what a 100 it was. One cover-drive sticks in the mind where a ball from Willie Watson pitched on length and Gavaskar committed on the front foot, altered his balance at the last moment and sent the ball scorching through the cordon with immaculate poise and beauty. India won comfortably within the target run-rate and topped the group to face England in the semi-finals at the Wankhede.
What the hell on the earth, was my hero retiring for? He could play for another 3 years, at least, I thought. Maybe if India wins the World Cup he would change his decision, I played with my mind.

The first semis were played between Pakistan and Australia and just as Gavaskar, Imran had also decided to retire from the game and all Pakistani and Indian fans dreamt about an Indo-Pak final for a fitting tribute to two of the greatest from the sub-continent.

But dreams die first. While the ladies stand at the Gaddafi chanted ‘Chalte Chalte, Mere Yeh Geet Yaad Rakhna’ Pakistan were losing and before long Australians had taken the first berth in the final. There were celebrations across the border.

Now it was India’s turn to face England on 5th of November at the Wankhede Stadium. This was going to be SMG’s last match in his hometown. Can he get a big one here for a farewell, all of us wondered? Kapil won the toss and decided to chase, relying on the batting form of India. This was probably the first error India made. Thereafter, we watched perplexed from thousands of miles away, Graham Gooch sweeping England on to a considerable total of 254 at the end of 50 overs. Srikkanth opened with Gavaskar and the little man started in his recent vein, with a boundary. Now in the third over, Philip DeFreitas into Gavaskar - the master walks into his drive - meets thin air – the ball finds the gap between bat and pad – timber – 50,000 dumb statues at Wankhede & 20 million in front of the TV screen. Sunil Manohar Gavaskar trudging back to the pavilion, from the hallowed greens at Wankhede, out for 4. I was disappointed, but the optimist within said, he has another innings to go; he will renew his association with the Eden, with a big one. But who did know, that the old bogie of India ‘after Gavaskar, there is none’ would come back to haunt them again. After Srikkanth and Sidhu the new wonder at the World Cup had steadied the ship, both fell. Azhar, batting well carried on, but wickets by then had started falling at regular intervals. When Kapil committed hara-kiri on 30, India’s chances were dwindling. With our hearts in mouth we watched, as the lower-order fell away one by one and when Shastri was stumped out last, India had lost by 35 runs. It was our neighbours’ turn to rejoice now. On 8th of November the Indian version of a final ‘Bus Drivers vs Tram Conductors’ was played out in front of a packed Eden.
Reality dawned on me quickly – Sunil Gavaskar, India’s greatest batsman had played his last cricket match. Could this be a joke yet? I desperately hoped so. He surely had a couple of years of quality batting left in him. His last test innings was an incomparable 96. His penultimate first class innings was a 188. His second last international innings was a 100 of 85 balls. The World Cup was a testimony of it. What would I do from now on when a cricket match is on? The game was bigger than an individual I had read and heard, but will cricket, for me, be the same again? Will I follow the game with same verve? I didn’t have the answer then.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Last Stand

There was always going to be enormous interest in this series. For one, after 8 years a full-strength Pakistani side was crossing the border to lock horns against India who having beaten the Sri Lankans were on a high. The mercurial Imran Khan was leading the Pakistanis where Kapil would lead a strong Indian line-up.
All of us expected a hard fought series and hoped for an Indian win to avenge the ‘last ball 6 at Sharjah’ and the previous drubbing that they took in Pakistan 4 years ago.

The lung opener as was becoming the custom was the 1st ODI at Indore, which India lost narrowly.

It was now time for the real business to begin, the 1st Test at Madras. Pakistan choosing to bat first were in trouble before Imran played a captain’s innings and Pakistan ended up with 487 late on the 2nd day. It was flat pitch and when India ended the day without loss, I could not wait for the rest day to get over, to watch the Indian reply. Though Srikkanth played a blinder and hogged the limelight, my eyes were pinned on Gavaskar, who was himself playing a blemish-less gem and around tea when on 91 he got out to a sucker ball from Qadir, I felt like kicking myself. How could he miss out on that 35th century! India nonetheless on this brilliant platform built up a small lead and by the last day the match was dead – a draw. More importantly Gavaskar had made an auspicious start to the series.

The scene shifted to the 2nd Test at the Eden and true to his word Gavaskar announced his unavailability. The man had stood his ground and thus had brought an end to a relentless unbroken run of 106 consecutive tests which was then a world record! Arun Lal replaced him and did well for himself with two fifties in the match. However, the charm of watching the first day’s play was definitely missing with the great man absent. The memory that remains is a placard at the ground seen on the TV screen “Sorry Sunny, forgive us”. However, as it would pan out in the future, fate had decided for Gavaskar not to play another international match a Calcutta!
India did well after a shaky beginning and with a bit more of imagination from the skipper could have had Pakistan on the ropes. Nonetheless, this test was consigned to the bins of history as another draw, the only event being Gavaskar, rather his absence.

The 2nd ODI also at Eden (with the master missing again) saw Srikkanth tear into Pakistan but in the end India flattered to deceive again as Salim Malik carved out a miracle. Result – Pakistan leading by 2-0.

The 3rd Test was going to be at the brand new stadium in Jaipur, but was remembered for all the strange reasons. Gavaskar came back. Younis Ahmed played for Pakistan after a decade and a half. The Pakistan Prez was at the ground and on the 3rd day play was abandoned as Pakistan complained that the pitch had been tampered with. The match though, begun in stunning fashion. Imran came into bowl to Gavaskar first ball, takes inside edge, raps him on the pads and flies to slip. Stunned silence at the ground and in front of the TV! India though managed to recover and another dull match met a stalemate once the 3rd day was abandoned. In India’s second innings which was only of academic interest, Gavaskar got to 24 before he spooned a catch off Tauseef, but he had inched closer to that magical ‘five-figure’ mark, the Everest of Test Cricket.

The scene now shifted to the ‘Motera’ for the 4th Test. I hoped that there won’t be anymore postponement of history and that the 10,000th run will come here itself, which the master was shy off by on 58 runs. But he was to wait till the 3rd day before he could lay hands on his bat. Pakistan played out a dull and dreary 2 days for all of 395 runs and finally it was Gavaskar’s turn. He started in a serene manner, as if this was going to be it and though it was a slow innings, there was a touch of inevitability to it and finally late in the day he first reached 50 and then with that late cut off Ijaz Faqih, he had scaled the peak, the first human to score 10,000 runs in Test Cricket. The euphoria had to be seen to believed. Crowds came on to the field encircling him like bee on honey, showering him with garlands of flowers & rupees, one touching his feet, some wanting to hold his hands, some just wanting to touch this son of the soil that had made India proud. I was getting a bit worried though, thinking what this prolonged break would do to his concentration. He didn’t fully recover and just when I thought that he has seen the day through to come back again and score that elusive century, he fell minutes before close, lbw to his great adversary Imran. The rest of the match was bore except for the first signs of greatness that a young fast bowler of 21 would go on to achieve, in a matter of few minutes Wasim Akram cleaned up the tail.

So the series stood at 0-0 with one to play. There was heavy criticism in the media in the dull and dreary series that was being played out, with neither side taking any chances and the flat beds that the grounds were dishing out.

So when the 5th Test at Bangalore began everybody expected another belter on which the batsmen would have a field day. What got dished out was a mine-field as a result, what we witnessed was a gripping test match, which yielded the wrong result for an Indian fan, but it tested all the batsmen’s techniques and in the end we witness ‘the last stand’ beyond compare, talked in the annals of Indian cricket as one of the top 3 innings played on a difficult wicket in India. But to follow the pattern, Pakistan won the toss and batted and were routed on this under-prepared pitch by Maninder for 116. India started well, Gavaskar and Srikkanth, studies in contrast, one meticulous and technique personified while the other belligerent and attacking. But Srikkanth went soon followed by Gavaskar and then Vengsarkar who had now grown in stature took up the cudgels and with mixed aggression scored a fine 50 to take India past Pakistan with only five wickets down. The pitch however was rapidly deteriorating and Tauseef and Qasim in tandem ran through the rest and India were left with only 29 in the kitty. Pakistan in reply, sent in Miandad to open to take advantage of the new ball and though they started off well, Javed soon fell trying to take on Shastri. But Maninder bowled poorly at this crucial juncture and the Pakistanis built up a lead brick by brick. Towards the end a fighting 40 by Yousuf saw Pakistan go past the 200 run lead. At the half way mark of the Test, India were set 221 to win the Test and the series.

At this juncture it would be good to note that no one in the Test match had survived at the wicket for more than 2 hours. Only Imran barely managed it in the 2nd innings score of 39. By this time it was clear that considering the condition of the pitch and the two wily veterans, Qasim and Tauseef (backed by an inspiring and innovative captain) would make life difficult for the Indians.

The last stand

Under excruciating pressure Gavaskar and Srikkanth came out to open the innings for India. Pakistan started with Wasim and Qasim right away. India made a cautious beginning with Srikkanth also emulating the master’s quiet mood. After half an hour and just when we were settling in front of the telly, Wasim produced two body blows, first getting the break-back to trap Srikkanth LBW and then off the very next ball got Amarnath to snick one to Yousuf. It was a stunning display of seam bowling on a dusty spinner’s pitch. Till then while Gavaskar was handling him expertly he didn’t look like the great-bowler-to-be that he went on to become. Pakistanis, after this went about with additional springs in their steps and the spinners started bowling with umbrella fields. With the ball getting older, the pitch was starting to play up now and we had dark forebodings of things to come over the next day or so. All hopes now rested with Gavaskar and Vengsarkar. If only they could have a century partnership. For an hour or so it looked as if our wishes would come true. Vengsarkar was looking increasingly comfortable and Gavaskar while giving an exhibition of perfect defensive play, concentration and temperament while the opposition left no stones unturned to disrupt it, kept talking to Vengsarkar to egg him on. However, this probably got to the latter a bit when he lost his timber to Tauseef’s guile and India were back to its familiar position of the last decade; chances of winning or saving a match entirely depending on Gavaskar. More, the keeper, inexplicably promoted ahead of Azhar, came, fumbled for a while and went. Azhar who followed him did not look too much out-of-place and this instilled some hope in us. The master duly completed his 50 and at close India stood at 99 for 4 with Gavaskar after batting in excess of 2 and a half hours was 51 not out with the young Azharuddin giving company.

There was tension all around for the next day, which was a rest day. For all practical purposes Pakistan looked to be in the driver’s seat. On a pitch like this, batting was becoming a lottery and though India had 6 wickets in hand they still had to get in excess of 120 to get. The papers quoted Imran saying that there was only one thing that stood in the way of Pakistan’s first series victory in India – Gavaskar’s wicket. Nothing new, said I and my pals!

Day 4 began amidst nerve-racking tension. I dreamt over the previous night – Gavaskar had made a century and India had won by a wicket – and therefore woke up groggy and tired with the tension. The Tauseef-Qasim duo started on a relentless pursuit of Gavaskar’s wicket. The going was slow, but on a snake-pit such as this, every ball was like a harbinger of doom. The master resumed from where he had left off. Picture of concentration, determination and godly technique. The spinners were bowling vicious square-turners now. Some balls were keeping low while some others jumped like a torpedo, some stopped while others scooted through. Still, for an hour or so, Azhar, under close supervision of Gavaskar, fought on till he scooped up a return catch to Qasim and the Pakistanis rejoiced. Shastri came and in his usual dogged fashion dropped anchor, where Gavaskar pushed for the singles and twos and played a couple of gorgeous square-cuts to take India to 150. If only Shastri could stay with the master we thought. He wouldn’t, having got a rush of blood, he missed the flight of another ball from Qasim and was out ct and bowled just like Azhar before him, 155 for 6. Less than 70 to get, could Kapil do a mini Turnbridge Wells here. For the next 15 minutes we hung by the thread, when a hapless Gavaskar watched Kapil go for a wild slog to only get bowled by Qasim again. 161 for 7. It was clearly a day when the genuine batsmen had failed him again while he waged a lone battle, so what could the tail do now for him. Binny came in and his initial moments did not give much hope though he tried manfully.
Gavaskar on the other hand was giving a master-class in classical batsmanship. The stroke of his innings was one which the ball did not touch the bat! A ball from Qasim which looked innocuous dropped on length and Gavaskar made a forward movement only to find it spitting out of the pitch coming towards his shoulder. In a split second he altered his balance, dropped his hands and swayed out of line, as any batsman would do to a bouncer from a fast bowler. The commentators, Akash Lal and MLJ on TV went into raptures. There were very many such ‘sunny moments’ during the innings which remain etched in memory.
Slowly but surely he reached his nineties and India into the 170s. Now the target was less than 50. At 180 for 7 with 42 more to get, it seemed that, if Gavaskar stayed India would do the near impossible. But tragically it wasn’t destined to be. At this score and with Gavaskar on 96 playing for a believe-it-or-not five and a half hours he received a ball from Qasim which pitched just in front of his pads and kicked up from good length and though he tried to take the hands away at the last moment, he couldn’t the spitting cobra took the shoulder and went to Rizwan standing in slip who along with the orchestra from fielders started dancing with joy. The umpire, Ramaswamy had raised his finger with a million dreams lying in tatters. Needless to say despite some unorthodox and iffy hitting by Binny India was never going to make it. They ultimately fell short by 16 runs and the series was lost. Till date 17th March remains the most disappointing day in my cricketing memory, where another dozen runs from him would have got India the win and a century for the master. If this innings didn’t deserve to win a test match, then none do. If only Vengsarkar had stayed a bit longer, if only Shastri and Kapil had not thrown their wickets away! If only.....

After such a pulse-numbing test match with the wrong result, I had no interest left in the remaining one-day matches and it was fine for the fact that India got walloped in the ODI series and thus ended the season whose pains will refuse to go away for a long long time.

‘96’ on screen

Like in case of some of his other later centuries I have this innings of SMG on video and often watch it on a gloomy day (cricketing or otherwise). Through the grainy colour recording one could still feel the sense of pride, pain and the pinnacle that batting can reach when a master technician is tested. The sure footwork, the soft hands, the balance, the judgment and most of all the temperament exhibited by SMG on that day, which turned out to be his last test innings is a sheer visual joy to behold. He scored only 8 boundaries in that innings which lasted 264 balls and 5 and a half hours which is acknowledged by all, barring the cricketing pop-corn generation of today, as THE best innings played by any one against quality spin on a snake-pit, in the post ‘un-covered’ pitch era. In hindsight, though India had lost, it was a victory of all that is pure in craftsmanship of a great batsman in the late afternoon of his career. I could wish to be born again to watch an encore of an innings like that.