Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Imperial Enemy again

The previous season had drained me emotionally (where it concerned Gavaskar, that is). It took time to digest the failures of my hero on that twin tour to Australia and New Zealand. Two of the greatest fast bowlers in the history of the game, Lillee and Hadlee had made him a mortal.

Losing form for any batsman, however great he may be, is an accepted eventuality, but for me (or the average Indian fan) during my limited time of following the game in the last 6 years till then, it was unheard of where the master was concerned.
Therefore the anticipation for the MCC team that winter.

Of course, the tour might not have ever happened, with the South African rebel tour of some of the English players and finally when the government gave an all clear, I heaved a sigh of relief. Firstly, I could do with following a bit more of cricket and naturally wanted to check out how SMG fared after the shock of the previous season. He still remained the captain, probably on the back of the Indian victory at MCG, but I was more interested in Gavaskar, the batting colossus, cut to size in the previous season.

England came with a side at full strength, lead by the wily if dour Essex captain, Fletcher. He had all the ammunition with him. Boycott, Gooch, Gower & Fletcher himself to hold fort with the bat and a fiery Willis, mercurial Botham and SMG’s old foe Underwood with the ball.

This was also the first time that a full fledged one-day series was to be played in India and that is where the season started and badly for India, and for Gavaskar. It was a school day and with the ICSE exams approaching, I couldn’t follow the game, live on the radio, but got the result later that India had lost and Gavaskar had got out for a ‘duck’. I wondered what was in store for the winter. First board exams, coupled with dodgy form of my idol. A double whammy if you like. My own cricket having already taken the back stage for the season.

The 1st test at Bombay started two days later and I followed the first day at school, and was relieved that at least he made an auspicious start with a half-century. The commentators described it as not a very good pitch and on that he top scored in the 1st innings. The next two days was over the weekend and since exams were still 2 months away, I followed it ball-by-ball. There was no other option anyway; I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on studies otherwise! So my parents, exasperated as they were, relented. It turned out to be a low scoring high tension match. And while the 2nd innings didn’t bear any fruits for SMG, I remember it for the strange run-out of the debutant, Srikkanth and a doughty performance from the prodigy, Ravishankar Shastri.

The 4th day was going to be on a school day and though our preliminary exams were just around the corner, I could not take my ears off the radio, with the test so delicately poised. So I followed it at every break and otherwise whenever I could. At every fall of an English wicket, the joy increased and finally while we were on our way back home
the last wicket fell and India had won by a whopping margin.

By the time the 2nd test began at Bangalore, the schools had closed for a long winter vacation to open now only for the exams in February next year. That, for a cricket-mad boy with India in the midst of a tough international series, was a recipe for disaster and disaster it was. Strangely, I didn’t feel all that guilty of missing out on studies while following the cricket. I was one of those for whom cricket was religion and nothing would sway me from it! Even if it came at a price.

The Bangalore test began pretty dourly with England winning the toss and batting very slowly for two days to make 400. However, that did help me to pick up my books for a while! On the third, they were consigned to the racks again with Gavaskar batting slowly, but very solidly to return undefeated. Though Willis was not playing in this match, Lever, the tormentor of the last tour was. On the fourth day, duly the 24th century was completed with serene calmness and I was finally happy that the century drought had ended after 2 years. He went to play the longest innings by an Indian lasting nearly 12 hours, without a blemish, as if to teach Fletcher and co. a lesson that if England had to come back in the series they had to do all the running. A flawless innings from the master-craftsman. The test petered into a draw, but I was fully satiated.

Immediately after the Bangalore test, there was the 2nd ODI, which India surprisingly won due to some great batting by Vengsarkar, with Gavaskar not even venturing to bat. He was still not enamoured by the limited overs thrash-bang variety, I thought!

The 3rd Test at Delhi came to be one of the dullest that I had followed till then. First England was creating a ruckus over the umpiring before the test match and then on a feather bed, racked up another 400+ total batting very slowly with Boycott scoring a very slow century and Tavare who threatened ‘out-boycott’ the master technician. Gavaskar slowed the game down with a declining over-rate. Again as in the previous test, this gave me a chance to get into my books again a bit. Then during the rest-day something funny happened which we read only in the papers the next day. During the England innings, Boycott went past the then world record of highest run aggregate which belonged to the great Sir Gary Sobers, and hence on the rest-day there was a party, which the Indians also attended. Gavaskar went up to Boycott and congratulated him and asked him to enjoy it as long as he could, because the record was going to remain with him for two years only! We read this in the next morning’s papers. I marveled at the master’s confidence. SMG was still about 1500 runs away and there was no guarantee that Boycott would stop playing or that he would lose form drastically over the next 2 years. A premonition of things to come I guess. Nonetheless, though Gavaskar began India’s innings seeming to carry on from his previous monument at the KSCA, he fell just when he was batting beautifully. Thereafter, it was a ‘runathon’ with Vishy scoring a fine hundred and Shastri unfortunately missing out on his first and India had replied in kind resulting in another stalemate.

Finally the season reached Calcutta for the 4th Test on New Year’s Day and I felt that Eden was the ideal place to have a result again, hopefully in favour of India. The morning Hooghly breeze had always helped the bowlers on all days and the wicket too was usually sporting, usually deteriorating for the spinners to take hold on the fifth. What followed was a gripping test match with a bit of spice. This turned out to be the last test of Boycott’s controversial career ending in fittingly controversial circumstances. England batted first again and though the going was slow, Kapil skittled them out on the 2nd morning for 250 odd and India began with Gavaskar batting like a house as he had done through out the series till then. I hoped that he would get another century to make a quarter century of centuries. By just then again in the 40s he fell to his old foe Underwood and India was itself packed off for a 200. The game had opened up but England strangely batted very slowly again and only at the fag end of the 4th day declared asking India to score 306 in 6 hours. I was decidedly nervous when the innings began. It was usual when Gavaskar started his innings at the end of a day. The ultimate nuisance for an opening batsman. Thankfully India went in without damage and the prospects of an exciting last day beckoned. Unfortunately, the start of the 5th day was delayed by more than an hour due to the notorious haze of Calcutta and by the time it started, chances of India winning were bleak. But England still went full tilt to secure the series leveling win. However, being an optimistic lad and with many 4th innings heroics trailing him, I still harboured unrealistic hopes of the little master leading India to victory, India losing was never in the equation. And that’s how it panned out. It was slow batting, but a treat for the connoisseur, even through the radio, listening to the commentary. Gavaskar stood between England and victory and saw India harmlessly off to a draw. In the process, he missed out on a hundred, but retaining the lead was of far more importance.

By now my exams were less than one month away and I could no further avoid anything less than studies at full tilt. Hence I couldn’t follow the last 2 tests so incessantly. But still I would listen to the radio every alternate hour/half-hour to just follow what was going on.

A dull draw again resulted in Madras, with several centuries, most importantly Vishwanath breaking Gavaskar’s record of the highest score of 221 against England. I remember switching on the radio on the 2nd day several times only to go back to studying secure in knowledge Vishy and Yashpal were unseparated. This time England replied in kind in even more dour fashion and the fate of the match was sealed. The interesting bit of this test, to me was to be revealed sometime later. K.N.Prabhu that highly respected journalist and sportswriter, in his review of the series, talked about how masterly Gavaskar was in this whole series. But according to him, the best stroke made by anybody in this series was one by Gavaskar. He wrote of the first morning at the Chepauk, where the pitch was at the liveliest as it usually was in those days and Willis on fire. It was a session where not too many runs were scored but it produced the best batsmanship of the series – from Gavaskar. One ball from Willis, dropped a tad short of length and climbed up more than expected, on the master. Gavaskar had gone back and across, while seeing the ball rising unexpectedly a bit higher, he just got higher on his toes and brought the bat face up a bit, loosened his right hand on the grip; the ball hit the full face of the bat and dropped dead right at his feet. Two vultures prowling at silly point and short leg waited in vain. A run-less stroke of pure perfection but again a connoisseur’s delight. I wish Doordarshan had saved it on video. Prabhu’s prose was not of the romantic variety of a Cardus or even Thomson’s and therefore would not have resulted from day dreaming or fantasizing. It was a re-recognition of a genius.

Just before the last test at Kanpur, the deciding ODI had to be played and this one was followed by me in its entirety. At Cuttack, Gavaskar put England in and chased a healthy score of 230 of 46 overs. In those days, the bowling team could slow the game down by sending down fewer overs in the end, within the allotted time. This would give them the same overs to bat when their turn came. However a 5 runs per over rate in those days was a pretty tall order and I thought it was unlikely that India would win. After all, till then, India’s record in one-dayers was pretty pathetic. What followed was majestic however and historic, something many people have since forgotten. The master in his finest ODI innings till then came out all guns blazing. This was the first series in India that the fielding restrictions of first 15 overs was applied and he took full toll of Botham and Willis sending them to all corners and tamed Lever when he came on to bowl. Sandip Patil helped him in no less measure and by the time he was gone for a majestic 71 (out of a 135 for 3) India were well on their way and though Kapil went for a duck, Yashpal and a young Malhotra saw India through on a canter. It was a historic win, not hailed so much as one day cricket had still not captured the nation’s imagination, but historic it was nonetheless. It was after all India’s first ever victory in a one-day series!

The 6th and the last test match at Kanpur followed. This was the first test at Green Park that I had to miss with only a few days remaining for my ICSE exams and I was definitely under prepared. Not that I missed much. Another rain affected match at Kanpur. Slow batting added to the tedium. SMG signed off with another half century and India had thereby regained the rubber.
The master had had a great series, not so much by way of runs, but by the way he batted, safe as a house and when he wanted to, displayed the full array of strokes. I was contented but anxious of something which was brewing elsewhere, a small matter of my 10th grade exams.

With the cricket out of the way, I jumped into my books, too late though, I was. One can’t have your cake and eat it too, I realized it then. I had an average outing, unlike Sunil Gavaskar in the England series, and the results when they came out, were not unexpected. But what was more unexpected and a setback was the news that we were shifting base from Kanpur, and that too to Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh which was not exactly a bastion for cricket. Gone where the days of a Naidu or a Mushtaq Ali! It was mainly known for hockey then. It was a blow since it would impede my own progress in cricket. As it is I had had little to do in the previous cricket season in Kanpur. And though some of my well meaning seniors and well wishers advised me to stay back and join the Kanpur Sports Hostel, it was an impractical scenario at that time. Thus, with a heavy heart I left with my parents for my new home.

By the time I was settling in the new city, India was getting ready for the return tour to England in 1982. Gavaskar understandably was going to lead, but this time there were a host of new players from Bombay in the touring party. I was hearing and reading for the first time the allegations of regionalism and parochialism against Gavaskar, as if he were the one man selection committee.

Nonetheless, as usual I waited eagerly for the start of the series. In fact I had always looked forward to an England series during my school and college days since they were so convenient to follow, after hours!

However, sandwiched between these two series was a very interesting event in the Ranji Trophy semi-final between Bombay and Karnataka. Bombay was on the verge of losing it by an innings and I remember Gavaskar coming out to bat late in the 2nd innings. I was following it on the radio, a little sad that Bombay was losing (naturally I supported the team that the master played for). All of a sudden there was some confusion; Gavaskar had decided to bat left-handed!! Listening to the commentators I was perplexed as to what was going on. Slowly it sank in. Raghuram Bhat, the Karnataka and later India spinner was pitching it in the rough outside the right-hander’s leg stump and spinning it viciously. So to negate that away spin, Gavaskar decided to manufacture his own method and started batting left-handed. For the next hour I listened enthralled how he by turns played left handed to Bhat and right handed to other bowlers. ‘They couldn’t out him at all’ Lord Relator would have sung again, if he had seen it. The match was drawn. He could still surprise me (all of India, really) with new things. This was some ambidextrous-ness. However, some illiterates started a little campaign (like many other failed ones) to tarnish the great man’s image, saying, of all things, that he was being petulant and churlish!! For me, there was never a bigger joke than that. Instead of hailing it as a rare novelty to cherish, critics had a go at Gavaskar for having developed a ploy to save his team from an innings defeat. We Indians...... I thought, exasperatedly.

Back to the return series against England, this started with 2 one-day matches, with both being won handsomely by England. They were now being led by Bob Willis, the most penetrative bowler in the previous series. Fletcher had been discarded after the loss at the hands of Gavaskar’s India the previous winter. Thus England had gained revenge for the shock defeat in the one-day series earlier in the year. Gavaskar did not show any particular signs of great form in these matches, but the real ‘tests’ were just about to begin.

The series kicked off at Lord’s as usual and India lost the 1st test of an overseas series as usual. India in reply to a mammoth England total began their first innings disastrously, but Gavaskar did not. He was like a fort, impregnable for more than 3 hours but he finally fell to Botham for 48, the highest score of the innings. India followed on and Gavaskar fell again. This in my living memory was the first time that Gavaskar had got out twice in a day! What chance did India have after that? England were left with 60 odd to get, which they did, but not before a vastly mature Kapil Dev, all fire and brimstone, knocked over 3 Englishmen with vengeance.

The 2nd test rests in my memory because of the rain, but more because of the spellbinder that Sandip Patil exhibited at Old Trafford. Gavaskar did little in the only innings that India played and with this his tour ended and how!

In the 3rd test at the Oval, England ran up a huge total, with Botham doing the maximum damage, not only with his double hundred but also when on the first day, he drilled a fearsome shot into the silly-point, which was unfortunately being manned by the Indian captain, and it resulted in the obvious, a fractured leg. After that I lost interest in the game, contemplating on to what serious repercussions this injury would have on the old man. A nice birthday gift, two days before his 33rd!

Thus the series was lost by an identical margin by which India had won just 5 months earlier. A fruitless tour for the master himself, but then the consolation was that he got a chance to bat in only a test and a bit!

With an England-centric season shrugged off, I hardly could wait for the next season to begin which was to feature a full-fledged tour to Pakistan, through to the master’s second home, West Indies and finally culminating in the third edition of the World Cup. That, a series of bollywood-ian twists were in store over the next 9 months, I had no inkling of, nor did most Indians.

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