Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Back on the uneasy saddle, while the run river flows

After the Oval Test I, from a Gavaskar-centric point of view, just hoped that this dream run continues for SMG. He was rightfully given back the captaincy for the long season ahead, which I thought was only justified. It should not have been taken away from him in the first place. But now that the threat of Packer was off, I guess the selectors were feeling more secure!

A feast of cricket awaited us in the next few months; warming up against a Australia without the ‘Packerites’ and then going onto the season’s derby, Pakistan in India after almost two decades and capping it with the jubilee test against England at Bombay.

Needless to say the trip for me was set to continue too. 13 Test matches over 3/4 months. Overdose for some, but not for the cricket junkie. How I wish we could get back to 5 Test series again in the present days. As someone just getting into his teens, I was ‘sure’ that his hero was going to go great guns anyway. So the roller-coaster ride began even before Oval had really sunk in!

By this time I was into reading quite a bit of cricket. I remembered how India had lost the series in Australia two years ago when the Packer players away. Australians, by now I knew, typified the never-say-die attitude even when some of their top players are not present. In short, they were hard to beat. But I was hoping Gavaskar’s India would prove to be too strong for this Australia, who was now without the same key players missing two years back and this time even Thommo wasn’t going to be there, and this time in India. But they were not to be taken lightly as they had discovered a new tyro called Rodney Hogg who had taken 41 wickets in the Ashes the previous season and was going to be supported by Alan Hurst and Geoff Dymock. Dymock was a left arm medium pacer, but I somehow did not like left arm bowlers against SMG and always felt left arm bowlers had a however slim, but a chance against the master early in the innings (This might be now as I think could be due to the fact that I never liked facing left arm bowlers very much, foolish me thinking of myself in the same breath as my hero). They were to be ably supported by Yardley, the off-spinner who Gavaskar later went on to say was the best off-spinner he played against. But one thing that all of these bowlers lacked was ‘experience’ especially in India. But the fighting spirit was something I was looking forward to seeing and expecting.

I hardly remember the first two tests at all except that Gavaskar opened with a 50 at Chennai, but heavy rain played spoil sport in both the matches. Nonetheless the much vaunted fighting spirit of the Aussies coming to the fore, and the Indian bowling lacked fire with Kapil still young, though Doshi and Yadav made strong statements on their debuts. It was not a beginning that a Gavaskar fan was looking forward to by the way. In a blink of an eye 2 tests went by without the master scoring a century, or getting an opportunity as much.

But I had reason to be excited again as the bandwagon rolled into Kanpur next for the 3rd Test. The test was to begin on a holiday (I think, at least, I remember going to the ground on the 1st day) and the scampering for tickets began. Me and a friend of mine managed to get hold of tickets and no way were we going to miss out on the opportunity. Cricket fever used to rule Kanpur for Test Matches in those days. Long queues outside the Green Park with mounted police. We decided to go down to ‘Meghdoot Hotel’ (my dad knew the manager who would allow us entry!!) early in the morning where the cricketers always stayed, to catch a glimpse of the players. I was again lucky. We saw some of the Aussies at the breakfast table and went we straight off barging in for some autographs! Then the turn of the Indians to come down into the lobby, but no signs of Gavaskar, which pricked a little of my enthusiasm I must say, but they left for the ground in a huff, so didn’t get much of a chance to get any autographs of any Indian players! As the crowd started building up outside the hotel, we made our way out and cycled out to Green Park in order to ensure that we reached the stadium before the game started.

Delighted I was when India won the toss ensuring the chance to watch Gavaskar bat straightaway. That is an advantage that I always enjoyed, with Gavaskar being an opening batsman. I more or less knew when he was going to bat and as a result could plan to get a near a transistor or the TV later on. The excitement that comes with the beginning of a test match or an innings is not the same in the middle of the innings. Another small reason why Gavaskar was my hero. To come back to the Kanpur Test. India batted first and once again I hoped that we would finally be privileged to witness a masterly Gavaskar century at his in-laws in our town. The going was good after an initial hostile Hogg spell was masterly negated by SMG in quite muggy conditions. But if I remember correctly after the first hour, the little master closed all doors for the Aussies; few went past his bat, where as the trade mark drives, cuts flowed. Lunch came, 50 was passed and the expectation grew and so did trepidation. When he went smoothly into the 70s I was extremely nervous. I had never watched Gavaskar get this far in flesh and blood, live. I prayed that he would get the 100, his first of the series, when suddenly disaster struck (for me, as well as for India which was usual in those days), may be lapse in concentration. He was gone and so did a major part of my interest, though the other little master GR Vishwanath played a little cameo and was last out, but India faltered and ended up with 270 odd in the first innings. I rued my bad luck that I was not at the right place at the right time to see a Gavaskar century, live at the ground. It ultimately remained a curse that I never did and its one of my life’s regrets. The next few days at the school were spent, getting regular updates on the radio which by now was an integral part of my school bag! It was indeed a happy moment when India won the test match, the first of the season and first after SMG’s return to captaincy. The next test was going to be in Delhi and with half the series gone, and I was now getting agitated that Gavaskar was yet to score a century. This was unheard of in my little life till then.3 tests of relative obscurity for the one and only Sunil Gavaskar! The test started again on a holiday, India again won the toss and Gavaskar resumed again. Infact I particularly remember Narrottam Puri and his hindi counterpart Ravi Chaturvedi mentioning on the radio that the master was having a difficult time in the middle against Hogg who was at his incisive best and fastest. I remember he got a chance or two in the beginning. But then as was customary, he wore down Hogg and then let unleash the scorchers. It was a fine innings as I pictured from the broadcast, laced with 17 boundaries and hit a six of (I think) Peter Sleep too! It must go without saying that I lost a major part of my nails when he was into the nineties but finally the magical three figures was reached! Though, the day ended with a disappointment as he got out just before close, I was satiated finally that the account had been opened for the series. Dom Moraes in his book has mentioned that it was one of his better innings and his mastery of Hogg and the others after the initial hiccups was top-drawer, and that is image that I formed in my mind while listening to the commentary of the innings. How I wish that I could see it again? The test itself should have landed in India’s pocket after Australia was made to follow-on, but the bull-dog spirit again saved the match for them in the 2nd innings and despite Kapil’s heroics in the first innings, the bowlers simply could not measure up on a by now flat pitch on the 4th and 5th days and the match was drawn.
The bandwagon now shifted to the Eden, where the last time round, Gavaskar had scored 2 centuries and I, ever the optimist, hoped that he get at least one this time. After all he had to make up for a rather lean first half of the series! On the contrary, it turned out to be quite a damp squib for me, with Gavaskar failing in both the innings and juggling my memory I only remember a marathon innings by Graeme Yallop and a tense finish on the final day after Australia made a bold declaration. Gavaskar and Chauhan chased the target but then Gavaskar first, and then Vengsarkar and Vishwanath both fell quickly and set India back, though Yashpal Sharma played a blinder to give visions of victory but it was too late by then. Another drawn test. So after 5 tests India and SMG were 1 up only. Not exactly fairy tale stuff. And the fighting spirit of the Aussies had to be admired, with the trinity Hughes, Yallop and Border doing very well and the bowlers Hogg occasionally (despite the no balls) and Geoff Dymock threatened, with Yardley and Higgs toiling manfully.
The scene finally arrived at SMG’s hometown where he had always been successful though it had been a mixed venue for India. I really hoped that he would score at least another century and India wins. Against a less than best Australian side, it would be unsatisfactory if India won by a similar margin as against the Windies in the previous season. The bowling had to click and I hoped that the batting led by Gavaskar clicked before that. He won the toss again and this time Calcutta looked a blip between Delhi and Bombay. He was in full flow and it became only a matter of time before the century. I was hoping that he would go on for a double (since the next day was also a holiday a Sunday) and I could hear him batting. That was not to be. He had 22 centuries now and I was suddenly at the end of it started wondering at the unthinkable Don Bradman’s record being surmounted, that by an Indian. It dawned on me, looking at the cricket ahead and the frequency of his centuries, that it was not conjecture but a certainty that he would break that record in the next 2 or 3 years! Cock-sure fan if there ever was one. In a small matter India earned a thumping win by an innings, with Doshi and Yadav in full cry and Kapil coming into his own in the second innings. The score-line for India/Gavaskar: 2-0 / 2 at the end of series, was good but frankly I was expecting at least 3 from Gavaskar especially after the Oval euphoria. Never can have enough of good things in life!

With the Australia series dried and dusted India now looked ahead to another marathon series, the derby of the season, a formidable Pakistan in India after nearly two decades. The Indian bowling looked good in patches against Australia and the batting was fine without being spectacular with GR Vishwanath being in the forefront in averages and Gavaskar following in a close second. But the Pakistanis had pinched the previous series and would be coming in with a full strength size and we shuddered what was in store for the hapless Indian bowlers. All hopes rested with the batting, led as usual, by the master. There was a lot of hype before the series and a huge buzz. In the curtain-raising interview in the ‘Illustrated Weekly’ Gavaskar was asked, how did he think India will fare against such a strong Pakistan team? Gavaskar replied “They will smash us to pulp”!!! and all hell broke loose in the media. I was amused by reading the answer and also didn’t know what to make of it. I could be excused, I was all of 13. But the media started a campaign saying that Sunny Gavaskar was a defeatist and that he was scared of Pakistan and all the usual banalities. Little did they know of the master-stroke (unlike any of the mental disintegrations and verbal volleys of today)?!! Just like one of his silken straight drives taking the bowler by surprise!

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