Sunday, October 01, 2006

Euphoria…and an abdication

Within a month’s gap from the Australia series, the Pakistan series had started. I will always remember this series with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction as a SMG follower. This was a series in which Gavaskar’s canny captaincy was in its full bloom in Test Match arena. The master tactician was to the fore. His batting too didn’t suffer (though he got a bit slower), and in fact ended up as the highest run-getter between both the teams. However, this is not how it began for me.

I was quite nervous before the 1st test remembering what happened when India went across the border a year back. Then India was starting at Bangalore, till then not a very happy hunting ground for SMG. I remember after the huge Pakistan first innings, waiting with some restiveness as to how India and Gavaskar in particular would respond. It was weekend again and a holiday when Gavaskar resumed batting but the first hour took away any worries as though he was marginally slower than usual, he seemed (at least from the commentators end) as safe as a house and led from the front in the very first test match of the series and I looked forward to another Gavaskar century, his first at Bangalore, especially with the arrival of his brother-in-law at the crease. But it wasn’t to be and he fell 12 short of his 23rd 100. Then un-seasonal rain came and sounded death-knell for the test. Both Asif Iqbal and Gavaskar had traded initial punches and tested waters but no one was ready with the killer blow yet. Imran the dreaded pathan was if not tamed, was held under leash by Gavaskar and co. There was hope for the rest of the series, I thought!

Therefore I waited for the 2nd Test at Delhi, eagerly and what a crazy Test it was. Kapil bowled beautifully to bundle out Pakistan and then Sikandar Bakht playing his first test returned the compliment. Gavaskar fought hard and apart from him and Yashpal no one stayed for more than an hour. At one stage I feared for India and when India was set to chase 390 I was strangely not very hopeful, though India had chased big totals in the past. But, though Gavaskar went after a hectic little innings, the absence of Imran cost dearly for Pakistan and an eventful last day helped India eke out a draw. Vengsarkar who was now coming into his own as a Test batsman played a patient innings and had he quickened the rate a little earlier before tea, India might have won the test. So at the end of two tests neither team had gained the advantage nor had Gavaskar scored a century. This was going the Australian series way.

The 3rd test was going to be at Bombay and I was by now hoping that India will try to win here and that Gavaskar will make his customary century. Well half of my prayer was answered, India won handsomely on a raging turner where spinners from both side ruled supreme and I remember Gavaskar batting quite beautifully in the second innings to top score with 48 but just when it seemed that the century was there for the taking, he fell to a turner from Qasim. Probably, on a treacherous pitch such as this one had turned into, it would be asking too much of even a supreme technician like Gavaskar to score a hundred. India collapsed but by this time we were sure India were going to win. And with Pakistanis apart from the ‘street-fighter’ Javed nobody made any headway and the match was pocketed. Our joy knew no-bounds. I remember it was winter vacations for us and my matches were on and every minute that we had would talk about how India is getting revenge for what Pakistan did to us last year. However, I was worried. Despite a good beginning SMG was yet to score a hundred in this series. Would the Green Park Stadium luck finally smile on him?

The cricket fever reached its peak. It was holiday season and we all waited with baited breath for the stars to arrive. The usual hankering for the match ticket was on and me and my friend again managed to get the tickets and complete the ritual of visiting the team hotel. This time though the security was very tight. The hotel manager whisked us in through the side door on the morning of the match and though we had a look at only some of the Pakistan players, like Wasim Raja and Iqbal Qasim, Imran Khan the major attraction was nowhere to be seen. Neither did we catch any glimpse of our Indian heroes. However, suddenly I saw my friend going up and chatting up Yashpal Sharma and then calling me over. Yashpal was quite sympathetic to us kids when he saw that we had a blank day with autographs. He took our autograph books and promised that he will get us all the cricketers’ autographs and invited us to go up to his room the next day from where we could collect them!!! Pleased as punch I was at the prospect of having a full set of autographs of the Indian and Pakistan team. But the trouble when we got out of the hotel was what I saw outside. Hordes of cricket fans waiting outside for the teams to get out, police everywhere stopping people from getting near the hotel entrance. It was utter chaos. How do we get back again the next day? Surely the police are not going to be kind from now on, that a section of the crowd got unruly and there was a mild lathi charge to disperse the crowd. But I could hardly let the thought linger as we sped off to the ground for the start of the match.

It was again a murky morning at Kanpur and as we heard on the radio was a lively green pitch. We saw Gavaskar winning the toss and electing to bat and when the little master came out with that trademark gait of his I prayed that let this be the day, but it was not answered. Before we could settle down in our seats on that cold December morning, he was gone. India had a bad day before bad light played its part. I went home dejectedly with a double blow Gavaskar and India both failing miserably.
The next day morning however we were right back at the hotel, this time finding our way, clandestinely, through the police cordon and went up to Yashpal’s room. He was just getting ready to go for the day, when we caught him and right there were our autograph books almost full with signatures of each and every member of the Indian and Pakistani team. I double-checked if Sunil Gavaskar’s was there and also of one Imran Khan’s! They both were, safe and secure. Thanks, was all that I could offer Yashpal Sharma and wished him good luck for the test match. Then we got out of the hotel and were met with a mad crowd outside with the police challenging them in their own inimitable way. While brushing aside a ‘lathi’ that swung over my little shoulders like a pull shot gone awry, we ran towards our bikes and off to the stadium again, hoping for a better day for India. It turned out to be just that. On the 3rd day, I chose to stay away from the ground as I had a match of my own. But the transistor was close at hand. I had a good match of my own, a crisp 50. And when I got out and got back, I heard that India was batting again and Gavaskar still there. India ended the day with Gavaskar still there just short of 50. Hence, I decided that I will be going to Green Park the next day and see if the great man gets his 100 finally and puts India into a winning position. That was not to be. I was flattered and deceived. 81 runs he scored. A restrained and technically impeccable innings, but just when it looked that the century was his, a roar and hush! A delectable flick picked up in a flash at square-leg, inches from the ground. A chanceless knock goes a begging. I lost interest in the rest of the day and fittingly rain and thunderstorms brought end to the Test.

Four Tests gone and SMG with two 80s but no 100s yet. India ahead but no killer-punch yet. The Fifth Test was going to be at Madras and played on days when I would not have a day off school! So the transistor accompanied me to school on the 1st day but put to sporadic use as Pakistan batted and India and Kapil in particular had a field day. The 2nd day, I missed out on the start of India’s innings but in the school bus back home I was glued to the transistor again, as Gavaskar went about creating a monument. Back home with a few morsels down the throat, the radio and me were inseparable twins. At tea it looked as if Gavaskar would get his century the same day but it wasn’t to be. He downed shutters early to keep Imran and the spinners at bay and ended up with a 90 odd not out. I would have to go to bed, anxious not knowing what was in store for the next day and I might not be able to follow it ball by ball in school. Well, in between the periods I heard that SMG scored his century, finally and when I got back home he had just gone past his 150. I really hoped that he would make his double to atone for the mishaps earlier in the series. But that was not to be and one can’t really complain about 166 impeccable runs that were the monument on which India could dictate terms to Pakistan! That is exactly what India did though unfortunately Kapil missed out on a 100. The match was convincingly won with Gavaskar and Chauhan leading India home by 10 wickets. The series was won. India led 2-0 and……
Just then in the papers in a day or two I read that Gavaskar has dropped a bombshell, relinquishing the captaincy for his brother-in-law G.R.Vishwanath for the rest of the season.

I had been reading in the papers and the sports magazines that the Board had agreed to send the team to West Indies just after the season ending with the upcoming Jubilee Test Match and Gavaskar was against touring again and hence relinquished the captaincy to Vishwanath to acclimatize in the role. Indian team had been playing non-stop cricket for the last 18 months or so with 20 odd test matches and it was simply ridiculous for the Board to be so inconsiderate of the cricketers’ needs to rest. When one talked about a packed schedule if that wasn’t it, then what was? Though I was feeling a bit miffed at losing a chance to follow Gavaskar in the Carribean, I did see his point as a cricket follower. However conspiracy theorists and Gavaskar baiters did not miss the opportunity to point out that Gavaskar declined to tour fearing the backlash that was awaiting him there due to some of the highly critical remarks that he had made in his recently released book ‘Sunny Days’ and that he would never tour West Indies again. Load of rubbish, I thought. Average men would probably do what they were proclaiming, but to me it seemed preposterous that Gavaskar would take the easy way out. In fact I was proved right in due course because it then came out that Gavaskar had only asked for the tour to be postponed by a few weeks for a well earned rest and secondly, if Gavaskar was scared then how come he turned out in the Carribean three years later? Once again a case of media jumping the gun.

However, to come back to the last test at the Eden, Vishwanath won the now ‘famous’ toss which Asif Iqbal claimed the former had won. By all counts it was a queer test match. I had hoped that SMG would get at least his second century of the series but that wasn’t to be though he played a decent knock in the 1st innings. Thereby there was drama through out the match and in the end Pakistan looked like doing a Lahore or Karachi on the last day till Asif got run out and finally the match was drawn. It was indeed a great win for India under Gavaskar and all of the country celebrated. The master scored another 500 odd runs in the series but with only the sole century at Madras. However he scored 1000 runs in a year again and that was thrice in 4 years, incredibly, another world record! I was happy but rued the fact that there were those two 80+ scores which could have been 100s with a bit of luck.

Anyhow, with in a fortnight of the Pakistan tour, England were in town for the Golden Jubilee Test and I was looking forward to this one too because this one would be the last one featuring Gavaskar for sometime to come. I remember listening to the radio when India won the toss and batted at the Wankhede and Gavaskar was off to a belligerent start. Suddenly the commentary was not audible with so much noise in the background. A six, we gathered! The master had just belted Lever out of the ground in the first hour of a test match just like he did against Windies at the Green Park a year ago. But at 49 a fatal mistake against the canny Botham and the century dream evaporated. After that it was all England and Botham. Second innings was a disaster and thereby the Indian season ending with a whimper, India losing by a whopping margin of 10 wickets.

I kept wondering for the next few days as to what would happen in the Windies without Gavaskar and I didn’t like the idea at all with Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft in waiting. Thankfully and not surprisingly, very soon the news was out about the tour being cancelled. The West Indies board had said that if India tours West Indies with a certain Sunil Manohar Gavaskar, it would not be able to raise the guarantee money for the BCCI; in other words there would be no ‘guarantee’! The land of Sobers, Worrell and Kanhai would not like to be deprived of the one man of Indian Cricket who would rank alongside them comfortably. I heaved a sigh of relief; and as they say all’s well that ends well!!

In the meanwhile, Gavaskar due to his performances over the last few years and finally in England in 79 was counted as one of the top 3 batsmen in the world, and as it was their wont, one English county approached him, Somerset that is, inviting him to play for them during the 1980 season. Since he had never played in County cricket till then, he went for it. I while following him thought that this would help him to rack up a few more centuries, warm the English hearts a bit more and would prepare him for the tough Australian tour that winter. Little did I know!

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