Thursday, October 12, 2006

‘Down’ Under…Literally!

To take a detour, the 1979-80 season for me had not started off well. At the beginning of the season I went down with jaundice and missed out on captaining my school for an inter-school tournament and then ran into bad form for my club. The thing that irritated the most was, that having cloned my batting on the master, I could probably copy his gait, the panama cap, the stance, the bat swing and a straight drive that onlookers certified as ‘pretty’ good, I couldn’t get myself to concentrate or show the patience that he showed in the highest class of the game. So while I followed the great man most ardently through print and radio, I rued every time I would get out after settling in. Quite contrary to what my club mates, seniors and the local cricket circle called me, ‘chhota’ Gavaskar! A poor man’s Gavaskar is probably what they meant, but that made me feel proud and actually gave a lot of confidence. I kept trying damn hard and finally towards mid-winter my form picked up gears and was soon carving big scores in the important matches for my team. The master had to be emulated after all, even if it was to be in the miniature set up of club cricket!! But in my defense I must add, that in those days we played mostly on the dodgy turf pitches that existed in the vast expanse of the Medical College Campus of Kanpur and technique had to be of paramount importance, and that is why I considered myself lucky to have had the great man as my hero!
However, on a not so serious note around this time my cricket and academics were at loggerheads. While cricket was coming into the forefront, studies took a plunge. 1980 was to become a critical year too, when I had to change from my middle school to another one that would see me graduate through high school. Thereafter school cricket receded into background and club cricket became all encompassing.

Now, by the end of the 1979-80 season Sunil Gavaskar had played 63 tests scoring nearly 6000 runs at an astonishing average of 56+ for an opening batsman, colossal figures all. Sadly, I could not follow much of Gavaskar’s stint at Somerset except for the odd updates on BBC’s Sports Round ups during summer vacations since they used to come up pretty late in the night. In a way the lack of international cricket involving India helped me to concentrate on my own cricket. By the end of the season, I had caught up with the scores and learnt that SMG had not had a great season but didn’t do too bad either. From all accounts there was refreshing approach to his batting in the Old Blighty, where he played attacking innings more often than not, spared from the burden of carrying Indian batting on his shoulders.

The 80-81 season soon approached and the cricket fever was catching up again. After all it promised to be a phenomenal contest; Gavaskar vs Lillee for the first time (leaving aside the ROW tour in 1971 which most Indians couldn’t follow) and the great Greg Chappell vs Kapil Dev who was now coming into his own. On the back of the last few seasons I was confident that not only Gavaskar would do well in Australia but India had a fare chance too. And then round up the Kiwi tour with a thumping win. It would also be the first time that India would be playing a triangular one day tournament though the interest in it was not as high when compared to the real tests. I particularly dreamt forward to the cold winter mornings under the blanket listening to Alan McGilvray, Jim Maxwell and co. describing a peerless Gavaskar innings, making it another winter to remember. Instead it became a despondent winter which is a bit hazy in memory, except for the last two days at the MCG. One needs to just look at the scorecards to know why!

The tour though got underway with the one day matches, and how well did India begin! Winning the first two matches against Australia and New Zealand, quite unprecedented till then. Gavaskar had actually begun the tour well with a century and some meaty scores in the first class matches before the international matches and his failure in the one dayers did not matter to me much.

I could hardly wait for the test matches to start. I still remember the first test at Sydney, getting up at 5 a.m. and trying to catch the ABC on shortwave1 on the radio and gleefully hearing that India were going to bat first. On the contrary, the horror story was just started. In the first over itself Gavaskar went fishing outside off to Lillee. Needless to say it was a bad day for the rest of it. The next few days was however, followed with some vigour as Chappell stamped his authority with a sparkling double-ton in his first appearance against India. Listening to this, I geared up to a Gavaskar riposte in the 2nd innings and when he got off to a couple of boundaries I thought “well the master is on his way”. Well it only lasted half an hour and India was packed off in 3 days with a thumping defeat. Deflated, was how I felt and that would be an understatement.

I let the one-dayers go by, as India lost one match after the other and Gavaskar failures going hand in hand, except for in one of them when SMG made an 80 odd against Australia and I finally felt that he was getting into his groove. So I waited with baited breath for Adelaide to arrive. Well it did, and so did disaster. Two failures awaited SMG again. In the first, he stonewalled for two hours for 20 odd and finally got bowled with the ball rolling off his pads. Could luck get crueler, I moaned. India barely managed to save the test match and the winter suddenly felt very cold that year! To compound all these I was having a horror of a season myself. Contagious disease, is the excuse I gave to my team mates!

So I went into the MCG test with trepidation and a bucketful of hope! Will we see the return of the Superman? It was again a sad beginning with Gavaskar going for 10 in the first innings and the familiar story of Australia getting a huge first innings lead. India went in the second time around, 180 odd adrift and I had given up all hopes by then. The series was turning out to be a knock-out punch for the little master’s fan. The fact that even Vishwanath and for that matter the new kid on the block Vengsarkar were having a horrible tour did not strike me then, but Vishy finally managed to get a century in the first innings which the Messrs. McGilvray and Maxwell raved about. So what was in store for the final Indian innings of the tour?


Our schools had re-opened by then, and I followed the 3rd test mostly at school and on the bus. Gavaskar and Chauhan I remember began slowly but steadily and I counted every run that they, specially Gavaskar scored. I finally heard Gavaskar getting to his 50 in the school bus while going back home and as he remained unbeaten overnight, I could go to sleep peacefully, before the militant day began next morning! I heard ‘the’ dismissal over radio but in the melee in the background didn’t gauge as to what went on. Then suddenly we heard that Gavaskar was staging a walk out... but hang on... no... Chauhan was going back in again with Vengsarkar. Reading the reports of the day’s play I was incensed at Gavaskar being given wrongly out again. India had been at the receiving end in that series from all reports I had read, this was the final nail. And did it have an effect.
With only a meager 143 runs to score, Australia was trounced. Indians came hard as never before with a less than fit Kapil & Doshi and the out of form Ghavri scalping the great Chappell for a blob. Australia was blown away for 80 and India had weaved out a conjurer’s trick to level the series 1-1. All through that fourth innings, especially once Chappell was snapped up, I never lost hope on India.

Re-living it up on video and the ‘Walk Out’... or almost

Doordarshan in India was kind enough to relay the highlights of the Tests (mostly unannounced, though) and I caught a glimpse of the first 2 tests, unfortunately not the third. Many years later, I have now the highlights video of the series. As a Gavaskar fan, there is not much to watch except his dismissals and that MCG innings and the near walkout that followed. The effect of that ‘walkout’ was to be seen in the fourth innings where all the members of the side were all breathing fire, and it gives immense pleasure to see an angry Kapil Dev showing Border the way back, after the latter having survived several confident appeals. The umpiring as Gavaskar later said at many times was atrocious and most of the players felt aggrieved. The captain made a statement (though not the perfect one) and the series was saved. As for Gavaskar the batsman, he mostly got caught in the cordon behind the wicket, sometimes to great deliveries from Lillee and Pascoe, which was only a meek consolation, if at all. There were some reports in the cricket media that since he was coming on the back of an English season, his first stint at county, his technique had undergone some alteration. After having watched the videos, I feel there was some merit in that. At various times he was caught on the front foot or rooted to the crease, and his back foot shuffle was conspicuous by absence except for the last innings at MCG where on a treacherous pitch he struggled and fought it out to get India out of the mire.

However, at the end of the series I was in a tizzy. I had been following cricket and Gavaskar for half a decade now and I had never heard of the word ‘out-of-form’. Centuries is what I and all his fans expected every time he went out to bat, I had come to believe that in a 3 test series he should get at least get one if not two, for a 4 test series definitely 2, for a 5 or 6 test series he should get at least 3 and so on!!!!!!! And here a 3 test series is completed but my hero has added only a half-century.

Still, with some hope I looked forward to the New Zealand leg of the tour and hoped that he would recover and set the record straight against the great Hadlee. But alas that wasn’t to be. This is one series of which I remember little, not surprisingly. I hardly caught the master batting on the radio, except for the 2nd test where he scored a scratchy 50. Before I could blink the series was over and India had lost to New Zealand for the first time.

So the summer down under ended up in a disaster for SMG, and in great despondency for me. Six tests, no runs and more importantly, prestige punctured! The failure against Lillee rankled me the most. The greatest fast bowler of his times, if not of all times... and the master failed to conquer him. Unfortunately, he would never get a chance again.

I was desolate that whole season...over his batting, though not so much for the skipper’s job.

I sheepishly waited for the Englishmen to arrive in the Indian winter of 1981-82 as I did my ICSE exams at the end of the season!

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