Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Glorious Year, First of Many

Well with me as a young boy not yet out of single digits I was quite oblivious to the ‘36 not out’ and it’s aftermath, not that the cricketing public in those made that much of a noise anyway about one-day cricket.

So here I was in school one day (year 1975) not yet hooked ‘lock-stock-and-barrel’ on SMG yet, when somebody had a transistor and was listening to the commentary of the India-Sri Lanka unofficial test match at Hyderabad and I just sneaked my head in along with other heads who wanted to catch on to the ‘goings on’ and for the next few minutes it was just bliss (at least to me) as Gavaskar spanked a few boundaries in a row to reach the hundred one which I wanted him to score a few months back against the Windiest was made. For one who was just getting addicted to cricket, it seemed that scoring centuries was a piece of cake probably, 80 odd a few months back, a hundred now!!

I have no more cricketing memories of the year, except that I was playing my own cricket for my class in Xavier’s Calcutta and was falling for it hook-line-and-sinker, without knowing. A significant change was about to occur in my life that year, which I was oblivious to, then. My Dad, who worked in a British Multi-national, got transferred out of Calcutta in December 1975 to Kanpur, and for me that was a big change ---- for the better or worse, I don’t know.

Back to SMG then. India traveled on twin tours to New Zealand and West Indies in the season of 75-76 under Bishen Bedi. However, providence held that Gavaskar would lead India in at least one test match as it was originally planned! And what an initiation it was to be. Against a strong New Zealand team and diabolically partisan umpiring India went 1-0 up at Auckland, with Gavaskar leading the way with a century guiding ‘Tommy’ Amarnath to his century on debut with Prasanna finishing off the New Zealand innings in the second turn with 8 wickets. There was another brilliant 71 in Christchurch where India held the upper-hand again, before pitch-conspiracy at Wellington and a fractured Gavaskar cheekbone (while fielding) led New Zealand to a comeback victory to square the series.

None of the matches were relayed live on radio that time, live telecast only a fantasy. Reports filtered in a ‘backward’ place like Kanpur only through newspapers and magazines, and I followed it only through them!

After finishing with New Zealand, West Indies beckoned India again. Now there’s a backdrop needed here. This was after the Windies had taken a pounding and steamrolling at the hands of the Aussies, Chappell brothers, Lillee and Thomson and company and the memories were still fresh and they were determined to set things right and how they did it in the end! The India-West Indies series was also not broadcasted live but we did get these hourly bulletins from AIR (thankfully!!) and the usual newspaper and ‘Sportsweek’ reports. And what a series it was for India (yeah, India lost it 2-1!!) and for the Master himself. The famous win and before that a near win in India’s favourite venue, Trinidad. 2 brilliant hundreds for SMG. And then to Jamaica where the ‘shape of things to come’ from the Windies was launched. The world record winning score at Port of Spain in the 3rd Test was the corner stone for Windies domination of world cricket for the next 15 years!! A four pronged fast bowling attack was unleashed though Daniel, Holder and Julien were to be there only intermittently. Worst was yet to come! But it was in a way instigated by SMG himself. His form in that series, even in the 4th test at Sabina Park, he played a peach of an innings of 66 in the first innings in an opening stand of 130 odd with Gaekwad, before the worst unfolded. How I wish we could have that series on video? We, living thousands of miles away got a feel of it through the periodic air-waves and print only can’t probably imagine what went on. India lost only 11 wickets in that test match but still lost! And this was pre-helmet days! And Gavaskar still finished that tour with an average of more than 50. He, promptly returning back to India, released what is unarguably the most accomplished book by an Indian cricketer ‘Sunny Days’ and called the West Indians ‘barbarians’ who belonged to the prehistoric ages!!! A man, even then, not known to mince his words. He was adored in the West Indies, revered in Trinidad! Had a calypso composed by Lord Relator after him, yet he could not tolerate what went on in that last test match, where Holding and Daniel went berserk, with the umpires and the captain Lloyd condoning every bit. Mind you he did not suffer any of the injuries, came out as a knight in shining armour, where others were either wrecked or battle scarred to an extent where even a brilliant stroke-player like Brijesh Patel lost total confidence and on his way out of international cricket soon after.

I, like many others, still ponder sometimes, about what impact lack of helmets would have had in today’s cricket, if such intimidation were to be wreaked upon hapless batsmen in modern times, specially with the battery of pace bowlers that prevailed in the 70’s and 80’s. Sunil Manohar Gavaskar was the only man who played successfully with out a helmet through out his career. (the skullcap was only an apology of a protection and Viv Richards, the other one, thereafter had all the most damaging bowlers on his side!!!)
The season of 1976-77 began with the Kiwis touring India and Gavaskar promptly opened it with a fine hundred at his homeground. The next stop was going to be at Kanpur for the 2nd Test. By then, although I followed Gavaskar quite closely, but I don’t remember still being obsessed with him, as yet. My uncle, who had initiated me into live cricket at stadiums in that Eden epic against the Windies, was staying with us at the time, and one day he told me that he was going to take me to see the 2nd Test at Green Park. What a joy it was to hear the news. Tickets were arranged by my Dad for the 4th day which was a Sunday. I was brimming with excitement at the twin prospect of seeing cricket itself and that there was a possibility of seeing India batting, which meant seeing Gavaskar bat definitely. That’s the thing with being an opener, and I could later always time myself to be near a radio, television or the ground when Gavaskar batted.

Green Park was quite a cute little stadium in those days with a fine scoreboard where most details could be followed from the stands and a lush green outfield. Anyway, I remember it to be a dull day with clouds playing hide-and-seek and some brief stoppages of play. But finally the Kiwis were bowled out and India were to bat. I remember asking my uncle, how did Gavaskar look like and how will I recognize him? I remember him saying that it would be the smaller man who comes out to open as Gaekwad was his partner! And finally he did come out, that rolling-but-balanced walk with that trademark white panama hat. And that stance, like Sidhu said sometime back if we call Dravid the wall today, Sunny was a fort! Indeed that was the impression he gave when he took guard and settled into his stance, every time. It looked straightaway, that, what a fine technician he was? Here I was hoping again that he would score a century, but that was not to be. Following the 66 in the 1st innings, he scored only 15 before the fiery Hadlee (he was a genuine fast bowler, then) uprooted his middle stump, but before that he had shown the ‘flick’ and an ‘extra cover drive’ that drove the crowd (apart from me), wild. After all he was the town’s son-in-law and they too willed him to score a hundred. The other thing which impressed me about him was the moment he got bowled he didn’t look back and carried on to walk back to the pavilion. The whole impact on me, right from the moment the master came into bat and till he went back, is hard to describe. But from that day onwards, I started doting on him, blind devotion one may call it. Another fine series ended with him having made a customary century. And later on in that year I was to discover that he was on the verge of being the first Indian to score 1000 runs in a calendar year! It was considered to be tough achievement in those days where cricketers hardly played 10-12 matches in a year. But Gavaskar was already on the road to greatness and many more achievements were to come his way, but when the last test against the Kiwis ended he was still short of the 1000 run mark with only the upcoming 1st Test against England at Delhi remaining. Will he make it, was what I and other Gavaskar fans wondered and prayed for!

The first Test at Delhi was to be played in December and we happened to be in Delhi at the time during my winter holidays (for what I don’t remember much!). But I do remember that we stayed in a hotel with a TV (with local DD telecast) and India were having the rough end of the stick against a formidable English attack of Old, Willis, John ‘vaseline’ Lever and the greatest English left arm spinner, Underwood. India failed to grab their chances in the England innings and then Gavaskar scored a patient but never boring 40 odd before falling to that man Lever. The match invariably was being played in English conditions with clouds around and a bit of rain and on a surprisingly lively pitch. India followed on with Gavaskar still short of the magic 1000. And what a fine innings of 71 that was. His handling of Underwood specially with Greig and other lurking around his bat was masterly and promptly when he got that 1000th run on the 4th day, a generous round of applause came from the stands. Even a novice like me knew something special was on. No century was scored, no records broken, India was sure to lose (it was only the 4th day) but it was a victory for cricket and a cricketing genius, an Indian one at that. Underwood won the battle in the end as did England, but not before the master-class had been conducted.

Sometimes, performance of ‘a’ man in cricket transcends boundaries of victory or defeat, personal joy or sorrow. Just remain transfixed at that moment in time. It was one of those days. (With SMG it was always like that for me) Another unique achievement as an Indian cricketer, his first during my time of following him! Don’t I remember it?!

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