Thursday, November 23, 2006

The season of attrition ... and despair!

By this time I was just beginning to settle down in my school as well as in the neighborhood, making new friends and thankfully most of them by chance or by design were quite serious cricket fans, though not necessarily as ardent Gavaskar followers as me. The only thing that made me crestfallen was the absence of opportunities of playing cricket as there were no clubs and the school too preferred hockey, volleyball and athletics to cricket. I was feeling like being in a different country altogether!

However, the only saving grace was that there was a lot of cricket coming up in the 1982-83 season where I could at least follow the airwaves. I was not prepared for a pleasant surprise from that season on. But more about that later.

The season I thought had a soft launching pad with Sri Lanka, the new test entrants, coming to India for a solitary test and 3 ODIs, their first tour as a full member of the ICC. Gavaskar chose to stay away from the one-dayers recovering still from his injury, with Kapil having his first taste of captaincy. I stayed away from the ODIs too and switched off and on just to catch on the scores.

Then the Chepauk test came and Gavaskar was ready to lead India again. This was also my first test while being in school in Bhopal (the return England trip was during the summer holidays). Hence being the ‘good boy’ that one was supposed to be, I didn’t carry my ‘genie’ the transistor with me to school. Luckily, Sri Lanka batted on the first day. The second and third days were holidays and I caught up with the cricket and as soon as India started batting it was evident that Gavaskar was in a ruthless mood. He had a new partner to shepherd, the young Arun Lal. It was only a matter of time before the master would get his quarter century of centuries and he got there with minimum fuss. I was hoping for a double on the 3rd, but greed has never got anyone anywhere. 155 was what the master got and then Patil played a blinder before India declared. It was astonishing however, by the time the match finished, India were in tatters in the 2nd innings and Gavaskar who had decided to put his leg up and rest his foot, had to come to the middle to save India the embarrassment. The end did leave a sour taste, but I could be hardly bothered with the real season about to begin and the appetizer from SMG was a perfect one!

The last time after India had finished the Pakistan tour, Bishen Bedi lost his captaincy and ultimately his place within 12 months. This time Sunil Manohar Gavaskar was taking India to Pakistan for a 6 match series, after having beaten them 3 years back at home. There was more than the usual buzz before this one as the Indian team was a very good one on paper. The batting as usual and the bowling too was in good hands. The exciting prospects were to have Jimmy Amarnath coming back after 3 years and the young spinner, Maninder Singh, who, if all the media were to go by, was going to be the next Bedi.

The series was starting during our winter holidays and boy did I look forward to it. After getting the 1st one-dayer out of the way which was won by Pakistan, the business end of the series was getting ready to be launched.

The 1st test was to be at Lahore and while I and friends were gearing up for it, we came to know that from the 2nd test onwards the series was going to be relayed live by Doordarshan. This was more than music to my ears. At least I can catch Gavaskar and his men and Imran Khan another of my heros visually for the whole series. It was a novelty. Thus I followed the test on radio and was a little disappointed that though Gavaskar began well he fell 83 when it could so easily have been a hundred. Mohinder did get his and it ended up as a stalemate. High scoring draw and I felt that this was probably going to be another of those dull series with high scores. None of us had the slightest idea of the carnage to come.

Another one-day defeat sandwiched the two tests. And then on to Karachi for the 2nd test. In the meanwhile we were on a short trip to Calcutta and I was more so thrilled to watch it at my aunt’s place where everyone was an avid sports fan and thereby with live telecasts for the first time all across India, it only added to the excitement. Black & white it was but terribly exciting it was, like most novelties are. Then we came to know from Chisty Mujahid that Imran had won the toss and put Gavaskar’s India in to bat. My joy knew no bounds as I wouldn’t have to wait long to see Gavaskar bat. For the others in the house-hold they would get to see Vishwanath sooner rather than later. I being a fair person hoped that both would have a long partnership together!! Little did I, or for that matter anyone know that this was the beginning of the fall into abyss for India and the master and more so for his brother-in-law. He began well and just when he seemed to be settling down, disaster struck. He played the ball down a few yards and took off for a non-existent run and Imran on follow-through picked up and threw down the stumps. Shell-shocked and dumb-struck. My first romance with cricket on TV came unstuck. India capitulated and but for Kapil who went berserk for an hour India could have faced the embarrassment of less than 100 total. With a heavy heart we waited for Pakistan to begin, and then suddenly Madan Lal was the hero as in a span of half an hour he took three Pakistani wickets and left me with hope for the 2nd day. Pakistan made merry and the ‘Pakistani Bradman’ Zaheer made his century and so did Mudassar. Zaheer as was well known would murder any attack that was less than fast, and at home he was invincible and had a special liking for Indian attacks. Maninder who was making his test debut, didn’t threaten but Kapil in monumental effort took 5 wickets but not before Pakistan had taken another 400+ runs off India. The wicket had not given any signs of deteriorating and therefore I had hopes that India will come up with another grand 2nd innings effort to save the test with past masters like Gavaskar and Vishwanath still going strong and the rapidly upcoming Vengsarkar and the come back man Amarnath in the ranks. India’s second innings began on a good note and although Lal went early, Gavaskar and Vengsarkar dug in. SMG was batting at his best. The bowling seemed to have no terror in it and it looked like that a Gavaskar treat was on. He was batting as serenely as ever and the joy of watching him on TV up close was a pleasure. The stance, the footwork, the sureness outside the off-stump, the concentration was there for all to see. At tea India looked as safe as a house with Vengsarkar who relished batting with Gavaskar giving him admirable support. After tea Gavaskar slowly, but surely got to 42 and then came the jolt which would have tested any seismic scale! Imran in what otherwise would have been his last spell for the day came in to bowl to him and the ball swung in the air, then seamed off the pitch and went through ‘that’ fortress and rattled the stumps. A defence as impregnable as that had been breached. Death-knell couldn’t sound any other way. We who were watching the familiar Indian rearguard were stunned for a few minutes before reality could sink in. This was but the opening of the floodgates. In a matter of ten minutes Imran came tearing in again hair flowing, into the other Indian great GRV and I still see it in slow motion, the ball outside the off-stump, Vishy taking his time and deciding to let it go and just then the cannon curled in a took his off-stump away. Spine-chilling nightmare! The dog of war had been let loose. In a matter of half an hour India were blown away. I the Gavaskar and an India fan was shell-shocked and worse. I found it difficult sleeping that night and kept dreaming that all that went in those thirty minutes was just a nightmare. Alas! The next day was for the closing rites and I hardly watched any action. India had lost by an innings and for the first time I had heard the term ‘in-dipper’.

By the time third test at Faisalabad started we were back in Bhopal. I thought probably the change of place back would bring back the luck. Holidays were still on and I could hardly wait for the test to begin. Later I wished I hadn’t! India was blown away again by the mercurial Pathan in the 1st innings. After winning the toss he rightly put India into bat and got 3 key wickets in a jiffy. But surprisingly, after Gavaskar was gone, the late order for a change showed gumption and India racked up a good total. Instead of the two little masters, Mohinder Amarnath was leading the way for a change. In reply Pakistan grounded India to a huge total in quick time, with 4 centuries. It seemed like India’s woes knew no end at the time. Facing a monumental task again, Gavaskar’s India started its sojourn again to save a test match. It was a heroic rearguard if there was ever one by the master. Imran, ably supported by Sarfraz reduced India’s top order into a mess, while the master kept surging ahead on his monkish journey. There have been various clichés that have floated around in the past few years such as ‘bat once, bat big’, ‘playing for the team and not for the self’, ‘first innings centuries are more important than second innings centuries’, etc. Interestingly, if one cuts out the hype and looks at this innings of Gavaskar, one gets to know that while cricket remains an ‘individual team’ game, it also begs it to be a purely team game sometimes. Rocked by his counterpart 3 times in a row, he was determined that he won’t throw it away this time. His defense was even tighter now. He would not let any ball go by without scrutinizing it till it had gone past the stumps. He batted like a monk, yet discriminatingly he hit 19 boundaries in that innings, some of the straight drives still haunt the memory. However, except for the impeccable Amarnath on the fourth day no one had a chance against the marauding men across the border. At the end of day 4 I was bullish (I didn’t know the term then but felt exactly that way!). But unfortunately as soon as Amarnath went early next day, the master himself seemed to give up...only hope, not his wicket! He batted for 7 hours and had carried his bat through, the first and till now the only Indian to do so. I still remember when the young Maninder got out, he stood at the non-striker’s end, furrowed brow and a forlorn figure in the midst of the rejoicing Pakistanis and then sunk into his haunches, while Dilip Doshi came out to bat. If there is an innings that defines Gavaskar as Krishna of Indian cricket this was it. It was to be his second last role of defiance when the ship was sinking. The innings was a chapter in technical excellence and judiciousness. Distressingly, no one else took the cue.

The rest of the series remains a blip. India lost the 4th test at Hyderabad too its third defeat in a row and with it went the series. Gavaskar got a 50 in the second innings but it was too in consequential, especially when Mudassar and Miandad racked up that world record partnership. India wilted while Pakistan went from strength to strength and Imran Khan Niazi was becoming the legend.

The fifth test was rain-marred, though our own Kapil Dev got his own back by claiming a 8 wicket haul and reducing Pakistan to a 300+ total after a long time, while Mudassar chose to emulate Gavaskar in carrying his bat through but in obviously much less trying circumstances.

The last test at Karachi saw another even contest ending in a draw, with Gavaskar closing with another 50 and Amarnath with another 100. That was the pattern for the series in India. For the first time since the 70’s Gavaskar had been upstaged by another batsman in a series and Amarnath was being spoken highly off. One of the best players of fast bowling they said and rightly so. But what about Gavaskar? His toughest series as a captain till date, yet he had a good tour. He had been undone by Imran more often than he would have liked. He had tried every trick in the book as a captain... and failed. Except Amarnath, all the batsmen were walking wickets and expectedly they lost. It was curtains on the career of the great Gundappa Vishwanath; Vengsarkar had been reduced to a wreck, Dilip Doshi had played his last series and my worst fears came true with Gavaskar being sacked as a losing captain against Pakistan. India had lost to a team that out-batted and out-bowled them and even the greatest captain would not have done any better. The only effect possibly of this demoralizing defeat was on Gavaskar’s batting where the burden clearly showed. He managed to come back with his reputation intact but wasn’t the ‘fort’ that he usually was. Another Indian batsman for the first time in a decade had outshone him in a series...Jimmy Amarnath.

India hadn’t had much time to breathe before they set off for the West Indies under the new captain, the mercurial Kapil Dev. I reconciled with the fact and being the optimist thought that now without the cares of leadership the master will return to his very best since he was on tour to his home away from home. His previous two tours had been monumental successes and since I had been two young to follow them as intensely before, it would be quite an experience following a West Indian tour, since the matches started late in the evening and going up to wee wee hours.

By the time the 1st Test at Jamaica started I had got my nerve back and could hardly wait for it. When it did, it was with great joy I received the news that India were going to bat first. Gavaskar had got off well to 20 when Malcolm Marshall got him to nick one and the joy had vanished. India made a respectable score due to the unlikely Sandhu getting a 60 odd. But more surprisingly Kapil in his first test as captain bowled superbly to reduce Windies to a par score. Now late at night, I waited for India and most importantly Gavaskar to rattle on. The commentary itself was a pleasure with Tony Cozier, Dicky Rutnagar and Gerry Gomez, all Gavaskar fans. What followed was a nightmare. A huge roar to go with the blur on the short-wave radio. SMG had lost his leg stump to Holding, first ball!! Groggy in the head, defying slumber this wasn’t the start to the series I had anticipated. To add to the woes India lost the test bizarrely on the last day, Kapil’s inexperience showing clearly.

Recovering from the shock I still didn’t lose hope. After all, the 2nd test was going to be at the master’s backyard, Port of Spain Trinidad. The script however was getting twisted out of sight. India batted first again on a difficult pitch and after running Gaekwad out Gavaskar himself went, his tenure very uncomfortable as described by the commentators. After conceding a huge lead and by the time India went in again, I was praying! I wish I hadn’t. By all description it was probably the worst innings that my hero played on that tour. He was dropped 2 or 3 times before Garner put him out of his misery. He had scored 32. And but for a couple of 100s by Kapil (a spanking one) and the ever increasingly important Amarnath (a responsible one) India could have lost the match. By this time I was getting exasperated. This was a real test. The 4 man pace-battery of Lloyd was riding rough-shod over one of the greatest batsman of the modern era. Marshall by this time had started resorting to the famous ‘round-the-wicket-into-the-body’ tactic which had left Gavaskar considerably uncomfortable. The thing that made me vulnerable as a fan was the fact that this series was not on TV and I had got a little used to watching cricket on TV, with the Pakistan series that was beamed live. At least I could watch rather than hear, about just how bad my hero’s form was?

After the Trinidad fiasco something very important happened. It was the 2nd ODI at Berbice after India having expectedly lost the first. India till then had never beaten the Windies in a limited overs match and hence we didn’t expect anything out of this match either. However, surprise surprise! India came out all guns blazing that day, with the little master in his elements to make his highest ODI score till then a peerless 90 and with Kapil beefing up the scoring rate further India had reached a grand total of 280 odd and then the bowlers backing up admirably to register India’s first ever win against the West Indies. This win was to have far reaching ramifications later on. Unfortunately I didn’t catch this match on the radio so demoralized I was after the tests.

The next stop would be Guyana for the 3rd Test and considering the berbice story, the fleeting hope was growing again. The match itself was a damp squib but not before Gavaskar had got his 27th century on the last day and while he was dropped once, I was extremely jittery while he took his time in the 90s. Once Sobers was crossed I breathed a sigh of relief, safe in belief that the corner was turned. Marshall had tried the round the wicket stuff again but failed this time to affect him.

The last 2 tests remain a fleeting memory with India losing both and Gavaskar terrorized by the West Indian quartet failing in all the 4 innings. At the end of the series I wondered how he did not break down, since I had.

The last two tests of the series were my most harrowing ones of ‘Gavaskar-watching’. I would try to find solace from by best friend who was a Kapil fan but a Gavaskar admirer too. At Antigua in the last test when he succumbed to Marshall, I couldn’t hold back my tears. With tears streaming down my cheek I asked my Dad at dinner table, whether Gavaskar is going to be dropped from the team too, like his brother-in-law and mate Vishwanath was a couple of months back. He gave me a comforting answer; unfortunately I thought it was just that. The selectors were the Ravanas and will get my Ram, I thought!

The next series was going to be actually the World Cup with the next Test Match far away. I too as most Indian fans till then was not too enamoured by the one-day variety and obviously didn’t expect India to do much except fill up the numbers in the English summer of 1983. Good, I wasn’t the betting kind!!


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