Friday, September 08, 2006

Packer Fracas, its Aftermath and SMG influences

Just after the series against West Indies ended, I was still in a bit of a daze with the success that SMG had had in the last couple of seasons and further ‘that’ evening made my world more Gavaskar-centric.
I was by this time engrossed in my own little world of cricket. Having taken up to opening the innings for my school and club I was doing fairly well. Mr. Lal, (our sports ‘sir’ as we used to call him), was pretty impressed with my technique and saw some promise. Same went for my club where the members of the seniors’ team came up with a lot of encouragement. The whole fixation was about having a water tight technique; perfect execution of shots, and meeting the old adage “to be a cricketer you must look like one”. So I sported the white panama hat which SMG started donning more often around the time and copied his gait as well, in white shirt and white flannels!!! Though I was not formally coached (anyway, you did not get too many professional coaches in Kanpur those days), I understood the game fairly well and coupled with the encouragement from outside and my performances on the park, my life started gravitating more and more towards this great game and my cricketing hero.
I was anxiously awaiting the upcoming England tour, which I was hoping would be another territory Gavaskar will conquer since he had till then, been only an above average performer there. In the 70’s the certificate of being a great cricketer came usually from England, not that Gavaskar had to prove anything to anyone but still this was one country where though he had scored his best hundred till then, it was but a solitary one and he was still considered as a ‘very good’ batsman rather than a ‘great’ one by the stiff upper-lipped Englishmen. Now, I (like most of his admirers) know that Gavaskar was the antithesis of the subservient type of an Indian Cricketer, the exception. He didn’t consider Lord’s to be the Mecca of cricket, didn’t like the slope either or the atmosphere, the overbearing and condescending attitude of the British and being a proud Indian he cared two hoots about what the English thought of him. The era of the colonial masters was over more than 30 years now for him. But he also knew that cricketing life comes to a full circle only when one sets Thames on fire, even if for once!

So to get back to 1979. We were still a little bit in the dark about the Packer circus particularly with its influence on Indian cricketers. It was only known later that Gavaskar was the prime candidate for recruitment on to Packer rolls and he had said ‘yes’ on the condition that the BCCI will let him play for India, regardless. The other one who fell by the way side was Kirmani. All this happened in the background and I as an Indian cricket fan was astonished when the selectors dumped Gavaskar as the captain for the Prudential Cup for the summer and the following Test Series against England! The reason as per some of the print media was that he did not lead India well enough. I was fuming! A series in which India should have won 3-0 but for a toothless attack, cannot surely be blamed on SMG I thought, but I did not then know, the behind the scenes machinery that worked. It was a fa├žade and as a quirk of fate, it was Venkat who got the captaincy for the twin series again after a gap of exactly four years! How SMG must have felt. It was just his stature as a cricketer that prevented BCCI to drop him, though Kirmani did not escape the axe. So much for Indian selection! Let down by his tribe again he could have pointed to those critics, who have relentlessly criticized him as a mercenary, that they must remember, and bloody humbly as well, that it was the Packer Series that Gavaskar rejected, not India. He would have got more money playing in the Packer series with the cream of world cricketers, but for him playing Test cricket for his country was paramount, money was important but secondary (for most mortals it is the other way round).It is just elementary that the Packer circus dissolved around the time that Indian selection for the England tour was taking place!

Predictably, it was a poor Prudential Cup in 1979 for India where we managed to lose even to Sri Lanka and Gavaskar did not have a great time either. Except for scoring his team’s highest 55 against New Zealand he did nothing else. He had played just one ODI between the 2 Prudential Cups in 1975 and 1979!!! It goes to show that limited overs cricket was yet to take over the Indian consciousness. It was more so for someone like Gavaskar who was raised in the Bombay school of cricket where “play along the ground” philosophy was still the code of batsmanship unless you were a tail ender attempting cow shots. West Indies won again in a lackluster tournament, but in India we hardly noticed. The business end of the season just beckoned!

1979 India-England series was the first one that I followed on the ‘Test Match Special’ on BBC, with the legendary John Arlott, Brian Johnston, Chris Martin-Jenkins, Fred Trueman and Trevor Bailey to provide with the relay of the spectacle to come. The start was as usual dismal with the customary 1st Test loss away from home for India. But did Gavaskar bat beautifully, along with Vishwanath. He would continue to hook and pull in this series at most times against a pretty formidable attack of Willis, Botham and co. In fact his 61 in the 1st innings was a gem and would have most likely turned into a 100 if he had not been run out (ironically with his partner being Vishy!). The next few innings served as starters to the impending main course. Incredibly all but one of them was 50+ scores (the one being 42!). Still no sign of the much awaited 20th century! The author Chris Clark in his book on SMG has clearly given indications that he was fixated by the prospect of a SMG century in England as it was with many of the other English cricket followers. One could suppose that along with him, I suspect, half a billion people wanted it badly too. It was getting to be a case of so near it so far. Gavaskar kept getting out in most inopportune circumstances or to great deliveries or catches that was reserved as if specially for him. In the 1st test he got run out for 61 and then in the 2nd innings for 68 to a lifter from Hendrick. In the 2nd at Lord’s he scored 42 in the 1st innings in most difficult circumstances and in the second turn got to 59 when he got out to a fantastic catch by Brearley. By the time the last test at Oval arrived the scorecard was still blank. Four 50’s and a near one, but no century. In the 1st innings at the Oval, finally he had his first failure of the series and by this time one would believe Mr. Clark would have lost a good bit of money in wagering on odds for a Gavaskar century! He still had hopes pinned on the 2nd innings, but by the time England declared in the 2nd innings, India were faced with an uphill task of surviving a major part of the last session on the 4th and the whole of the 5th day. The deficit was a mere 437 runs!! All of England, including the expatriate Indians had come to the foregone conclusion that the cause was lost. I suspect even Mr.Clark would have given up on India at the time (!) though he had a respectable 10 pounder at stake for a different purpose, that is, a Gavaskar century! A bit like me I thought, except I didn’t have 10 pounds to put a bet on it! A win or loss didn’t matter at this stage, but a Gavaskar finale did; since defeat was anyway a foregone conclusion which was nothing new for Indian Cricket. But even the most die-hard fan would not have anticipated the events that were to unfold in the next 24 hours. Of course, India had the world record 406 chasing score, and several other ‘last salvos’ in the recent past, specially since Gavaskar made his entry into Indian Cricket. However, even for a die-hard fan this was just that much more difficult. Yes, the pitch was still playing the true Oval pitch, the batting line-up was relatively stronger, with Gavaskar, Vishwanath and Vengsarkar who was on his way to become the Lord of Lord’s, but this was a formidable team, and at its peak, with one of the best brains in the game as captain Add to that, the sheer pressure at the fag end of a long and demanding tour which had only moments of glory, but no real success. So when Gavaskar went out to the middle with Chauhan, the only interest left in the game (at least for me, and I suspect a few million) was whether Gavaskar can score a century and go down fighting like many times before. None of us had an inkling of an idea of what was to come. A Shakespearean drama ending almost like a Hitchcockian thriller!

Hot September Nights

I remember, it was late evening in Kanpur where we stayed in a compound housing four families, and we were about half-a-dozen kids with a penchant for sports, primarily cricket. It was a usual hot North-Indian summer that was coming to an end with splattering of rain, now and then. Because of the weather, in the night a friend and I, staying in the compound slept on the big terrace of our house, which had a covered portico, to which we would run in case a passing shower were to intrude on us. That September night, when India started out on their second vigil we had just finished dinner, and I geared up next to the radio, when Gavaskar and Chauhan went out to bat, and though the next day I had school I still was glued to the radio till the match finished with India going in at 76 with both of them unseparated. Gavaskar in the meanwhile was completely in command and masterly described from the far pavilions by the inimitable Arlott, Brian Johnston and the others. Next day I remember, I wanted school to get over quickly so that I could reach home and get glued on again. I ‘knew’ that India was going down but Gavaskar...well; would he finally get that elusive hundred? It was a hot day I remember, and on reaching home, I told my mom that we were sleeping on the terrace that night. In the meanwhile the cricket started and I got on to the ride again. The little master’s magic was going to be weaved on the match now. His handling of the key man Botham, Willis and the spinners was unparalleled. It didn’t matter that there was no TV then or I was away from the scene by a small matter of a few thousand miles. I saw it through the commentary team’s eyes. As the evening wore on, the maestro got into the 90s, and finally but finally he reached his 100 with a boundary and there would be no stopping him now. A ‘champagne moment’ as Johnston bellowed. This I was to realize later, happened to be BJ’s signature comment when something momentous was happening between the 22 yards. India was still going strong at lunch with the opening stand untouched. At 213, when Chauhan went, there was still no chance of India winning, but with a fair chance of a draw. But then suddenly Gavaskar exploded without so much of a notice, with the able support of Vengsarkar, he suddenly took charge, not so much by blind hitting, but maneuvering the attack so clinically that I suspect an already graying Brearley to have gone grayer that evening. The master was giving an exhibition that day, which England had had only fleeting and tantalizing glimpses earlier in the summer, but this was like a five course dinner in place of the starters that were on offer earlier. At my end, while all this madness raged on, I couldn’t partake much of the dinner that was laid on the table and bumbled away to the terrace, with my friend. While we lay under the stars on the steamy night, Sunil Manohar Gavaskar unleashed his entire repertoire of drives, glances, flicks and cuts to launch first his 150 and then his double-century when the total itself was only 324. So much for claims of him being a dour and defensive batsman! I couldn’t just lie down anymore, nor could my friend. In the meanwhile, it started to drizzle. As we dragged our ‘chaarpayees’ (as they are called in the north) under the portico, the hearts were beating loud, my nails taking a battering as it usually did whenever I was tense (which I always was when ever Gavaskar batted) and sweating. The rain cooled down the temperatures outside but not me! Then suddenly catastrophe! Vengsarkar lost his cool and wicket. India was still 70 runs adrift but Gavaskar was still there. But madness came up on India. For no particular reason, Vishwanath was pushed down the order, and out came Kapil Dev who was still not the finished article. What we need was not mindless violence, but tactical brilliance of the other master, especially since he was the man in form. Needless to say, Kapil came and went and in the meanwhile England slowed the game down so harshly that just 6, yes six overs were bowled between tea and the start of the mandatory overs. If it was India who would have been guilty of slowing the game down thus, all hell would have broken loose, but since it was England, all has been dusted and brushed under the carpet. To help English matters, blunders by India continued with Yashpal coming in after Kapil and though he was a quick runner between the wickets, as a batsman he was no comparison to the great Vishy. Gavaskar had to continue the charge and finally when he got to 221, his highest score till then, all was not lost. India had been going at a run a minute and just needed the final push, when at 389 the master departed playing a tired shot to Botham. I still remember the hiss on the radio, which was multiplied by the clapping in the background and the incomparable Arlott and Fred Trueman paying tributes. For me I just prayed that this gargantuan effort of the master didn’t go waste. It was well past 10 in the night and sleep wouldn’t come. I had school the next day, but who cared. Vishwanath, finally emerged and promptly started with a boundary (poetic justice?), and then suddenly things started going pear shaped when India were within touching distance. Vishwanath was given caught out in highly dubious circumstances, off a bump ball. Mr.Constant, who was to become an Achilles’ heel to the sub-continental teams later on, had got into the act. For a better part of six hours Sunny Gavaskar did not give a sniff of a chance to, let alone the fielders, even the umpires. But now the flood gates were opened and although the tailenders tried gamely, wickets started going down rapidly in the last few overs and there was a fair chance, with 2 deliveries to go India had to hit two boundaries and England had to grab 2 wickets, to achieve a result. It ended in a draw. I was tired, petulant and angry that India could not win the test match, due to varied measures of some peculiar captaincy by Venkat, England’s gamesmanship after tea and the umpiring towards the later stages. It was well past 11 till that the commentary went on and finally, drained of all emotional energy, the last thing I remembered was the rain stopping outside and a cool breeze starting to take off, only to be woken up by my mom early next morning to get ready to go to school.

For the next few days I was pre-occupied first of ‘what might have been’, and then ‘what had been’. It was hailed by the knowledgeable as the greatest innings that Sunil Gavaskar had ever played and that this would go down in the pantheons as one of the greatest innings played at the home of cricket. I was finally satisfied with my hero.

221 Fast Forward

I have since then watched this innings many times on video, and possess different versions of it. John Arlott was eloquent about it, so was Richie Benaud. It is truly one of my treasures. The command that the little man had over his batting, his environment, and his partners at the other end, has left me enthralled over my lifetime of cricket following. I still can’t choose between his 101 at Old Trafford, 221 at Oval, 121 at Delhi and 96 at Bangalore, and that is because each one of those were so typical and so different from each other in context and texture. And in that sense if Indian Cricket was my universe Sunil Manohar Gavaskar was Lord Vishnu. A small matter as to which was his best innings is a welcome confusion!

Back in 1979, I now looked forward to take some of these lessons of the master on to the cricket field towards my own cricketing progress.

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