Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Beginning - That Got Away

Sometimes, as a Indian Cricket fan and more so as a Gavaskar fan I feel a bit cheated. If only i was born 10 years earlier. This because i started following cricket and the master during the West Indies tour to India in 74-5. Was too young to understand the game before that.

As a result, I had missed out on his grand arrival at the big stage which coincided with the most golden couple of years of Indian cricket. Infact the impact of that period of 71-73 hit me only i grew up a bit and got engrossed into cricket myself.

I as a mere mortal and just another club cricketer have just tried to imagine what those twin tours in 1971 would have meant to Gavaskar, Indian Cricket and the indian cricket followers, which was undoubtedly less in number in those days and no media except newspapers and a solitary sport magazine 'Sport and Pastime' which was the precursor to Sportstar as we know today. But luckily I have read books most importantly Sunny Days and autobiographies of some of SMG's contemporaries to absorb the excitement that must have aroused in to the cricketing milieu of those times. The photographs of the motorcades on streets of Bombay, special dinner invitation at Indira Gandhi's, etc.

Unfortunately, no video archives are available for the West Indies tour which was a watershed tour for SMG and India, though we do have BBCs pictures of the 71 series where Chandra weaved his magic at the Oval.

But back to SMG himself. The most bombastic debut one can even think of even in today's game where bowling is not as it used to be then or where batsmen weave their weapons of destruction in their most potent avatars.

Agreed the West Indies didn't have a great bowling attack with Sobers and Holder the only serious names to contend and a young tyro Uton Dowe and Shillingford at times, but not the fearful battery to come later in the decade. However, compared to some of the West Indian and other teams of the current day would struggle to match up to the names above. Further 774 runs in 4 tests against even Zimbabwe or Bangladesh or the West Indian attack we saw recently over 3 1/2 tests (Edwards didnot bowl after the 1st inns at Antigua) today would generate reams of paper. So the attack was short of great but 'testy' and had India in trouble in the last Test before the original little master of Indian cricket pulled out one of his many monoliths 100 and 200 in the last Test to not only pull India out of trouble but scaring the Windies in the end. And the young genius had arrived and India had won their first series against the Windies ever, and that too away. For the first time in India's history an opening batsman had announced himself since Merchant, but that was a page in history dusted and put up in the rack. By all means it meant a tumultous achievement for a young man of 21.

England beckoned the victorious Indian team and though similar success did not follow, two impeccable half centuries (the second one at Manchester claimed by the master himself as his perfect innings) against the two Johns, Snow and Price and Peter Lever gave glimpse to the snotty English noses that here was someone who was going to challenge the Hobbs legacy one day, though mysteriously England went on to become the opponents against whom his record would be the most modest. Then came the win in the final test at the Oval where SMG did not play any significant role, but being part of a victorious side in back to back overseas series was and still is unheard of and unseen in Indian Cricket. For the master at that point in time, life in Indian Cricket team would have been a dream.

Now after these two tours Indian cricket went into hibernation for 1 and 1/2 years and who knows if Gavaskar had played in a few series then may be more runs would have been added to his run ban, but then England returned the visit to India and SMG again had a moderate series in the 5 tests with two half centuries and though India won the series again, questions were probably being raised if this guy was a one-series wonder. Indian cricket and indian fans i guess have and will always remain the same!

Then again a gap of 1 and half years before the next series. How the little master must have itched to get back at the critics, specially when Indian Cricket had gone undefeated in the last 3 years. And when he embarked on that doomed tour to England in 1974, he would surely have little known that where the next dozen years will catapult him into alltime batting greatness, but the happenings in Indian cricket will resemble a lottery, swinging crests one day and damning troughs on another. The England tour has been chronicled enough in several places in Indian cricketing literature but for Gavaskar the tour started with a roar and ended with a whimper. But his century (which is probably his best ever, at least regarded so by him) at Manchester and the his other innings at Old Trafford and Lords were absolute peaches specially since this time India were playing in the first half of summer and it happened to be the coldest cricketing summer in England for years. But a 3-0 defeat, what does it do to a young mind and a successful man at that, who had not faced defeat till then. It must have been painful, and with all the developments off the field must have disenchanted him, he would have realised the fickleness of the Indian public's mood after Wadekar his first skipper's statue at Indore was defaced and broken.

I as a fan and follower of Indian cricket and Gavaskar more specifically believe, this was the seminal moment which influenced his cricketing years enormously. The crest of 3 years and then the trough of 3 months and all reputations, respect ground to dust.

However, that winter West Indies was touring India and Gavaskar after playing the first test got injured (the only time in his cricketing career) missing the next 3, but not before some more drama off the field. It is well known that the canny Tiger who was in his last series as captain had recommended to the selectors and had at several places commented that Gavaskar though only 25 was ready and the only contender for the Indian captaincy and was therefore crowned captain for the 2nd test when Tiger pulled out, only for SMG to pull out himself due to the hand injury. When he came back for the 5th Test Tiger was playing his last in an epic series, which swung like a see-saw and only a 240 odd from Lloyd saw the game taken away from India. However, Gavaskar after the 3 test break came on in the 1st innings at Wankhede like a loose cannon with an authoritative 86 against a rampaging Roberts (who had removed Engineer for a blob) and guided Solkar through a crucial partnership. He had to write a tailpiece to the series script where his brother-in-law in his absence had made monumental strides as a world class batsman with 2 signature innings 132 at the Eden and a sublime 97 (worth many more) at the Chepauk. The innings on that cold winter day was being watched from the stands by this writer, still a small boy in shorts and marvelled at the atmosphere in the Eden and the grandeur of Vishwanath, the darling of Calcutta. By the way, i had still not heard of anybody who went by the name of Gavaskar. My hero was Brijesh Patel (not because of his batting or fielding but because of his grand moustache which could pass as whiskers!!!!). Wonder if was English in the times of Godfrey Evans !!!

Then, suddenly in our Calcutta house I happened to hear the commentary of the Bombay Test on the AIR and though i can't remember who were the commentators for the game, i remember the eloquent commentary of Gavaskar's innings, his hooking of Roberts and twinkling feet against Gibbs fascinated me as much as his name did. And almost mysteriously i suddenly wanted this man to score the century.But just before the close of the day the guile of Gibbs scalped him and I hated my cousin who was predicting all the way that “Gibbs is going to get Gavaskar because he is luring him to hit out“ and i haven't forgiven him (my cousin) till today.

However, this was the beginning of SMG Part II and was the defining moment where an undying fan was born, whose life changed from that day, because for the last 30 years I have followed - from a distance - Gavaskar's career and life as a hawk as the devotee offers his prayers, took to cricket viciously, even at the cost of education momentarily, took to opening the batting for my school and my club later on with reasonable success, read all that i could about him, tried to gather as many videos i have been able to and i have been blessed that atleast i grew up during the era of unarguably the greatest Indian batsman ever, and one of the two of the world's greatest batsmen in the post 60's era.

For me it became rightly or wrongly, First it was Gavaskar and Then there were None (to borrow an Agatha Christie title!!) But that is for the next post.

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