Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Road to Greatness

In many ways, I consider the period 1975-76 to 1981-82 as the best, rather most satisfying (for the Indian fan, at least) span of cricketing years for India in Tests, apart from the recent period of 2001 to 2004 (1971 was THE golden year, unmatched since!).

And in a huge way it coincided with SMG's rise to stardom in that period, just as in the second turn it has been Rahul Dravid’s. Only Dravid has had to play second fiddle at times to a Tendulkar, Laxman, Sehwag or a Ganguly. But, between 1976 to 1981 it was a Gavaskar solo; alright throw in few duets with another Indian Great Gundappa Vishwanath! And Jimmy Amarnath occasionally.
Now back on the time-machine, India had a miserable series against England where Underwood had the final say over our famed spin brigade, with a little help from Lever, and wrapped up the rubber in first 3 tests. The undependable law of averages caught up with SMG for the next two and a half test matches, and he lost his form. The strange thing to note here is that in the 3rd Test Match at Chepauk (while he was out of form) he top scored in both the Indian innings with 39 and 24! I remember being glued to the radio and the hush that were to fall every time Gavaskar fell and the anguish in the voices of Anant Setalvad and Manish Dev “and he is OUT” was palpable! The emphasis on the ‘out’ wasn’t required because the silence in the backdrop, sometimes the sighs in the stands would say that. Finally India pulled one back at Bangalore with Gavaskar back in form again with a fine 50 in the second innings and then at Bombay, he shook off the disappointment of losing the series and scored a masterly hundred, his 10th and the applause over the radio is something which one had come to expect at the Wankhede. It was like rain to the parched throat for a fan like me smarting under India’s defeat and Gavaskar’s brief loss of form, not knowing, what a ‘real’ loss of form meant!

After a lengthy off-season, India was to go their first Australia Tour after 10 years to start the 1977-78 season. It was to be Gavaskar’s first test tour down under (I didn’t know then that he had already been there as a part of the Rest of World XI team way back in 1970-71!). I was really looking forward to follow his exploits in Aussie land. It was going to be fun. Packer storm was already blowing and we read in the media that Bobby Simpson is going to make a comeback to lead Australia. Indeed Australia was going to be depleted without the Chappells, Lillee and Marsh. However, for those ‘fence sitters’ who choose to denigrate Gavaskar’s achievements sometimes point out to this Packer era, where he supposedly mauled sub-standard attacks (!!) I will gently point out to some of the bowling line-ups masquerading as Test attacks today, consider Jeff Thomson still with enough fire in him to put the fear of god in a batsman, Wayne Clark that quirky action of his if any of us have seen his video clips! The standard lacked in the batting actually with people like Ian Redpath, Alan Turner, Rick McCosker, Chappell brothers, Dougie Walters all gone over to Packer, so really the Indian bowlers should have had a field day more than the batsmen! But I couldn’t be bothered less and eagerly waited for the series to begin, and what a series it was! I still maintain it is not the Pakistan series coming later, but this one, that put up the first question marks on the sell-by date of the spin-quartet.

But to the series itself. SMG took Thommo head on (without a helmet), sometimes supported by Jimmy Amarnath, the unsung hero of Indian Cricket and at times by his brother-in-law Vishy. But for 4 test matches he ruled supreme. The first 3 yielding centuries in each of the 2nd innings and only one victory!!!! Is there justice at all? I remember going to school with a small transistor hidden away in my bag (specially on the days when India were batting or had a chance to bat) and then finding time to go to the loo or far off in our expanse of the playing fields to switch on and hear where Gavaskar and India were standing!! Luckily a major part of the series was during the winter holidays and for a late-morninger like me, was up sharp at 6 or 7(latter for Perth) and following Jim Maxwell and the legendary Alan McGilvray for ABC on SW1. It still gives me goose pimples! The ‘Napolean’ of Indian Cricket was on his way to barging into the cricket’s ‘hall of fame’. Each of his centuries was exquisitely made and those of us, who have been lucky to watch excerpts of it, know it. Thommo who did everything he could, Clark though new, had the unorthodox action to trouble most, had an answer for everyone except the ‘master’. India lost the series at Adelaide despite a heroic attempt, as Gavaskar the ‘fourth-innings specialist’ failed to go beyond 29. His only ‘4th innings chase’ failure. A very satisfying tour for him personally as it was for me traveling in my mind with him going great guns. One of my many memorable winter vacs!! Come to think of it the crowds actually chose to watch the Aus-Ind Test Series over the star packed Packer circus!!!

With Australia done, it was another 10 month gap and now another ‘first’ tour in every sense to Pakistan in the late autumn of 1978. A lot of hype and build up by those media-less days’ standards ensued. But to be fair the print media did cover the build up pretty well through ‘Illustrated Weekly’ a fine weekly magazine to add to the ‘Sportsweek’ from the bastion of Khalid Ansari. It was to be India’s first tour to Pakistan in 2 decades, and where the Indo-Pak rivalry actually set root. It was a tumultuous tour. I followed it, luckily I was old enough! A top class attack with Imran, Sarfraz, Sikandar and Mushtaq (Iqbal Qasim was to become a threat only 9 years later!). And what a series it was for SMG again. While the Indian bowling was being torn into shreds, the spin quartet marching towards extinction, one man, stood amongst the ruins, and a new hero was being baptized by fire, Kapil Dev Nikhanj. This was also a significant series for Gavaskar and his fans because it was here that he was ‘forced’ out for his first score in the ‘nervous’ 90s at Lahore and thereafter he stopped ‘walking’ (a word which does not exist in today’s cricketing dictionary unless you are a certain Brian Lara) as in the 2nd innings of Karachi, where he admitted he was out first ball, nicking behind!!! But what followed in the last test at Karachi, only confirms that cricket is a team game. Despite scoring epochal 100’s in each innings Gavaskar ended up on the losing side, due to amongst others, strange tactics of Bedi, the captain and inept bowling resources that was chicken feed to the marauding Pakistani batsmen, all the while not forgetting the ‘umpiring’ in the series!

By this time, I as an Indian Cricket fan, and a Gavaskar fanatic, had mentally tuned myself to the fact that if India succeeds, it will make my day, but if it didn’t and Gavaskar shines, it’s really gonna make my day! Either way I was a winner, mostly in Indian Cricket those days, I would bet on the latter if I had money!!

India returned humiliated, with one man in shining glory against arch rivals, enemy, whatever you call it! The tumultuous tide had only begun! For me he was the shining beacon, playing for a team which was still struggling to get out of its nanny’s arms!

No comments: