Monday, December 18, 2006

Lonely At The Top!

The series against the West Indies was off with the ODI series and for the first time all of us were equally interested in the ODIs since there was the World Cup hangover and also it was against the Windies who we had beaten in the finals there. We had assumed India will fare well, how wrong we were!

The 1st ODI was at the new venue at Srinagar and we watched it live in ‘black and white’ while India were beaten ‘black and blue’.

By the time the 1st test at Kanpur arrived, I was hoping that since Gavaskar discovered some form against the Pakistanis it would be the right time to get his 29th century in front of his in-laws, only I will not be there to see it since I was now staying miles away in Bhopal. I regretted the possibility; I wouldn’t go on to think so after the match!
West Indies won the toss and after the irrepressible Kapil got through the top order, Greenidge carried the tail along and by the time the innings ended they had a formidable score. Now the perfect setting arrived where I was watching the match at my friend’s place since it was a holiday. We had our own heroes with him being a Kapil fan and me being Gavaskar’s. Kapil had been the lone ranger in the attack. Now it was Sunny’s turn. What we had heard on the air-waves 6 months back was staring at us from the TV screen. Marshall, round the wicket into Gavaskar, 2nd ball of the first over, Gavaskar edges and is on his bike - gone for a duck - and me on mine as I trudged off home crestfallen. The ghost of the Caribbean returns to haunt in India too? India inevitably follows on. I’m back at my friend’s place while Gavaskar makes a somewhat better start, gets a boundary and the hopes peep out before ‘that’ spine chilling moment which gives me the shudders even now. Marshall’s delivery (needless to say again around the wicket) which is a blur suddenly jumps up takes Gavaskar by surprise who coils up in an evasive action while the ball (or the blur) takes the bat shoulder. The bat falls off the master’s hands and the ball lobs in the air for Davis to dive forward at backward short leg to pull off the catch. The stadium of 40,000 looks and sounds like a morgue. The nation shakes while the great man picks up his bat slowly and trudges off the ground, pin-drop silence on the TV and in our room. I depart for home, my day ruined; hating Marshall for doing what no one had ever done before. The ‘Fort’ had been violated. I have tears welling up within me. Is this the last we are seeing of the great Master? Will he get ever get past Bradman? Will he be able to get around blunting ‘Marshall-law’ ever? Till then he had failed against only Lillee but wasn’t shell shocked and even there, a century was for the taking before Whitehead did him in at the MCG. Is he no longer the ‘Great Gavaskar’ my hero, my legend? Will he lose his place in the side? Murmurs were already doing the rounds, about the rift between Kapil and Gavaskar the two shining stars of Indian Cricket. Questions! Questions! Answers will have to wait just yet. To top it Jimmy Amarnath the star of the previous season bags a pair!

Couple of days later before the Delhi Test, there are press reports of how the pressure of the record is taking toll on Gavaskar, while the morale of the Indian team is at its lowest ebb. Not able to bear the tension I fall back on dad (then an acknowledged critic of Gavaskar in the family!) who for a change provides solace by stating that ‘he is a great batsman, these things happen, he might work out a way to nullify Marshall’. The test starts on a bright sunny day. The tension is killing as Marshall runs in again round the wicket, sending shivers down in the spine of Gavaskar’s fans. What’s in store? Within moments we know. All the questions start getting answered in a jiffy. I blink my eyes in wondrous disbelief. Hooks, cuts, drives in the midst of a couple of top-edges result in a rain of fours and sixes. The short man of 5 foot and a bit was pulling no punches. Under that skull cap and the panama hat was the sharpest brain that Indian Cricket had ever produced. Even in the autumn of his career he re-jigged his strategy realizing that he had to fight this all encompassing fire with fire, as a result he went to his batting wardrobe and pulled out the hook-shot that had gathered cobwebs since he had discarded it 7 years back for the sake of his team. It was paying dividends and how! For four mesmerizing hours we sat dumbstruck and finally a fitting on-drive off Marshall saw the ball speeding to the boundary to bring up that magical 29th. In his intensity he had not even realized that he got there Vengsarkar had to inform him mid-pitch! The dam of celebrations was ripped open. The commentators were going ga-ga, at one point Jaisimha even saying that the field looked like an ODI type with most men on the boundary, with West Indies left gasping. Finally he got out after tea, but the impact remained for the rest of the match. Seeing him dominate, Vengsarkar feeded off his confidence and opened out and India again after getting the top half of the Windies batting lineup out for less than 200 could not capitalize and in the end had a respectable draw to take home with. Accolades were flowing from all corners of the world, the Don sending his message from Australia, Keith Miller, Len Hutton and many others. Narrottam Puri did a charming interview with SMG and Marshneil on DD. It was like Christmas for me and all Gavaskar fans with the euphoria refusing to die down for the next few days.

After this morale boosting performance the 2nd ODI was played which Gavaskar gave a miss. India put up a better performance though they lost again.

The 3rd Test was to be played at Ahmedabad, another new venue and while Kapil won the toss he put Windies into bat on a dodgy pitch which would come to haunt him later. He of course got India on top with early wickets but the second half again frustrated India and got a respectable score. On a Sunday afternoon again, Gavaskar began India’s reply in the same vein where he left off in Delhi, launching a blistering attack on Marshall, Holding and Co. on a pitch which was playing all kinds of tricks and where other batsmen had failed to really get going with any kind of comfort against the new ball. Gaekwad gave him decent company for some time. SMG on the other hand went breezily past Boycott’s record of most runs in a hurry and on 90 it was looking as if he would get past the Don quickly. Just then Holding bowled an unplayable delivery, pitching just short of length, lifting unexpectedly just around the off-stump which Gavaskar in such form couldn’t but nick. On his way back he gave an earful to the man who had just crossed the sight-screen while the ball was being bowled! An opportunity missed and a rare dismissal in the 90s. India capitulated from there and by the time West Indies finished the pitch was fit for dirt track racing. India had to make 250 odd for victory and there only hope was Gavaskar. Unfortunately that did not happen and India struggled to get past 100. Normalcy was being restored in Indian cricket again. Score line read 2-0 for the Windies but since Gavaskar had got the record and scored a magnificent 90 and had answered the Marshall menace fittingly at least half of the country was happy which obviously included me!

However since the 4th Test was to be played at Bombay, I was pretty sure that Gavaskar would like to make it a historic occasion at the Wankhede, his beloved homeground. Before the test, in one of the many interviews that he had been giving to the hungry media, he mentioned that he would like to enjoy his cricket now, since the record was equalled. Now this was quite a logical statement I thought that since he had been carrying the burden of being India’s premier batsman for over a decade, it is but fair that he does enjoy his batting and play without the entire load on his shoulders. Indian cricket had also come a long way in the past 4-5 years with Kapil Dev the mercurial all-rounder, Vengsarkar was on his way to becoming a great Indian batsman, Amarnath had re-invented himself and in those heady six months twin-tour to Pakistan & West Indies and in the World Cup he was India’s best batsman. Young Ravi Shastri was being proved to be a Gavaskar master-stroke. It was indeed looking good for Indian cricket and it was time the master enjoyed his cricket in the last few years of his career. As a result we also read in the media that Gavaskar was now interested in batting in the middle-order. It was again not a surprise, considering the kind of responsibility he had had to undertake over all these years. But that this would lead to a bitter war on Gavaskar in the coming month was something I had not envisaged.

When the Wankhede Test started with India winning the toss and batting, all of India was buzzing. I caught it on the radio at school while Gavaskar right at the start went for Marshall’s jugular with 2 glorious boundaries. But alas the joy was short-lived as he fell lbw to Marshall. The same story repeated itself in the 2nd innings, only this time he was caught. Watching his second innings dismissal I cursed his bad luck. He was being positive and wanted to dominate and take the sting out of Marshall at the outset just like in Delhi and Ahmedabad, but had been unfortunate on his own backyard. India however did fairly well in the test and had they more time could have given Windies the jitters in the 4th innings. So when the Bombay test ended, SMG was still on count 29 with two tests to go and before the next, there was a matter of 2 ODIs to be dealt with.

The 3rd ODI was to be played at Indore our neighboring town. I had been away from watching cricket at the grounds for nearly two years now. So when my partner in crime suggested that we go over to Indore to watch the match, since we had a place to stay which was at his uncle’s, there was only one answer. I convinced my parents and we were off early morning on the bus to Indore. His uncle was quite influential and was friends with the famous commentator of the day, Sushil Doshi who would get us some prime tickets and both the teams’ autographs to boot and if possible a meeting with Gavaskar. All these incentives only added to the actual prospect of watching a match at the ground. By the time we reached the Nehru Stadium, the stadium was almost full and we sat in the VIP box just above the sight screen and heard that Kapil had won the toss and India will bat. Soon it was a familiar sight, except this was not on TV. “Marshall to Gavaskar”. The master took to the same approach as in the previous 3 tests, which definitely suited the one-day variety. Out came a gorgeous straight drive and just when we were hoping of a Delhi encore, he was out caught behind driving at Roberts. The rest of the day was a bit of a bore, though I did enjoy the brief cameo by Viv Richards and most importantly when we met up with Mr.Doshi during the lunch break and went over for autographs. West Indies won the match and the series 3-0 and we were back to Bhopal the next day. India also went on to lose the 4th ODI at Jamshedpur convincingly but there was a silver lining in Gavaskar’s swashbuckling 83 which he scored in his new found imperious mood. Good I thought with the next test lurking around the corner.

The 5th test at Calcutta began by which time we had our winter vacation on. I had my fingers crossed since this was not Gavaskar’s favourite venue having scored only 2 centuries at the Eden, that too in one single match. India was to bat first again. There were the usual butterflies and the anxiety as Gavaskar took strike to Marshall for the first ball of the match and like a red ball of blur it climbed on to Gavaskar’s ribs and the master in a split second tried to adjust and was almost successful in leaving it down the leg side but not before it kissed the bat on its way to Dujon. A golden duck at the Eden to begin with! India again gnawed away at the Windies top order only for a familiar sight to return. By the time India went to bat again, they were faced with a deficit of nearly 150 all made by the last 2 wickets, which must have been demoralizing as this was the story of the whole series. Gavaskar began in the same vein as it was now expected and what a beginning it was. Spanking square cuts and drives on one knee. Marshall and Holding had to bear the brunt of it as he racked up 20 with 4 imperious boundaries that would make even a Viv Richards proud before the adrenalin just got the better of his judiciousness. A wide ball on the off and he went on his bent knee again and this time while the camera struggled to pan on to the third man or point fence, the ball was safely in Dujon’s gloves. The dream of seeing the 30th century in front of 100,000 people went up in smoke. Instead what came were a shame and a blot on the name of Eden Gardens. A section of my beloved Eden had turned into ignorant hooligans as they did the unthinkable, booing Gavaskar off the ground and this anger and fury only increased as the procession continued right till the next day when India capitulated for all of 90 and lost the test by an innings. The crowd found one man to blame and shower all the abuse on which was its all time greatest batsman who was a double world record holder and had been playing some vintage cricket lately though with fluctuating success. Surely they who had hankered in the past for Gavaskar to play more aggressively were now saying what was the need to do so? What pained me the most was that it had to come at the Eden? Surely the crowd mix had changed, the so called ‘knowledgeable ones’ were not at the ground, I thought. But I fumed at my fellow Bengalis (or Marwaris) who usually made up most of the crowd. How I wished he would give them a fitting reply soon? Good he didn’t get his 30th at Calcutta, the latter doesn’t deserve it. Besides there were 10 other players in the team. Mohinder Amarnath bagged another pair in the test, his total tally from the 3 tests and six innings being a sum of 1 run! There was a joke doing the rounds that time that it was the costliest run by an Indian Cricketer as it was published in the Weekly that Indians were paid Rs.15,000/- per test now!!!

This was a truly tumultuously troublesome period in Indian cricket. There were insinuations in the media that Gavaskar had no sense of responsibility; that his relationship with Kapil was at its lowest ebb and so on. This got also heightened with the absence of Gavaskar in the last ODI where India got clobbered again to make it a whitewash for the Windies and a revenge for the World Cup final loss. Well, not quite! India would rather like to lose 50 ODIs if it brings a World Cup win, one would like to say.

When the series reached its final destination for the 6th Test at Chepauk, India had been battered and bruised with only Gavaskar and Kapil Dev and to an extent Vengsarkar with fluctuating results had been able to answer back. The series was lost and the only interest left was to see whether the little master would be able to get to the peak in the remaining two innings since the next series would be a long wait. The test itself had a wet beginning with no play on the first day and then West Indies batting first after winning the toss and they were kept down to a manageable total. When India began their reply, for the first time in my memory, there was no Gavaskar to open the innings. Instead it was Gaekwad and Siddhu. The feeling in the air couldn’t and wasn’t the same. However, India conjured up to make it an opener like situation. In a blink of an eye, Marshall had gobbled up Gaekwad and Vengsarkar. 0 for 2 and in walked the master as we peered into the black and white screen in front of us. On the way, he heard Viv Richards at slip telling him “it doesn’t matter where you bat maan, the score still zero”!

This was back to the Gavaskar of old, more reticent and measured but willing to play his strokes when the opportunity presented itself. He first mentored a young Sidhu to put up a reasonable partnership, but at the end of the day India was still precariously placed with 60 odd for 4. The next day was all Gavaskar’s. He did survive a confident caught behind appeal in the beginning, but that was the only sniff he gave during the monument that was constructed over the next 2 days. It was an exercise in classical batsmanship and the bowlers had not a chance to dislodge him. Drives, Cuts and the flicks were all used. For a change he used the hook sparingly and it looked formidable. Finally there was insurmountable tension when he got into the 90s. Will it be this time around, it better be I thought or else we have to wait for nearly 10 months before the next series and what better a opposition to get your record breaking century. Unlike in Delhi, a little tap to mid-wicket finally raised the magical figure - the 30th century. Like in Delhi he had another of his protégé along with him this time Shastri who went up to congratulate him. Rather un-sportingly the West Indians didn’t, still sulking over the ‘caught behind’ decision that went against them. With the quality of telecast in those days it was difficult to say whether there was a nick or not and hence after such a feat it would have been only befitting for Lloyd and his men to acknowledge this great feat from the little giant. By this innings Gavaskar had saved India and put the test match beyond West Indies; but he wasn’t finished yet. The next day saw the runs flow ever so serenely and he finally reached his 4th double hundred in his career. This was becoming Gavaskar’s test. Just after tea Kapil continued the innings and finally Gavaskar having threatened the record thrice before surpassed Vinoo Mankad’s record of 231 made 28 years back. Records fell like nine-pins and the test was drawn.

It came fittingly in the last innings of the series and the year. A year which was tumultuous for Indian Cricket and for Gavaskar. He had a decent series in Pakistan but was usurped from his position of India’s No.1 batsman by the end of the season. India won the Prudential World Cup but Gavaskar had an indifferent time and even suffered the ignominy of being dropped during the tournament. However, by the end of the year life had finally turned full circle. He had rediscovered his form, going past Boycott, touching and then crossing Bradman’s 40 year old record and was perched at No.1 again. As it turned out he would get back the captaincy again next year.

This season meant many things to me and many Gavaskar fans. It told me that he still had it in him to put it past the finest of oppositions. He pleasantly told us that when he wanted he could be a swashbuckling batsman matching the best, but as the reactions to his ‘enjoying’ his cricket showed us, that Indian cricketing milieu wanted their pound of flesh they just didn’t want Gavaskar to be an out and out stroke maker. He had to still carry on being Atlas. By the end of the year, it was also giving us a picture of the future. The continuous cricket was taking its toll and thereby his request to come down the order. Opening the batting for a weak team like India had taken its toll. And in the coming days he would like to bat there. Whether that request would be heeded to was something which we could only look forward to with interest as the little master reached the evening of his career.

Rewind on Video

As a Gavaskar I had always wanted to possess the 3 innings of the series on video. Though I had seen these innings ‘live’ on the TV so many years ago, but such momentous occasions they were then that as it usually happens one looks at the finer points only in hind-sight. I was lucky I managed to lay my hands on the 29th and the 30th, though I would have liked to possess the 90 at Motera too. Both are invaluable treasures in my video collection and both the centuries are studies in contrast but only in the manner of the pace of the innings. What is so startling about the 29th is not so much the speed of the run-making but the way that it was made. Perhaps that had to do with the mode of the dismissal in Kanpur second innings. From the outset, Gavaskar brought out the hook-shot a stroke that was only in distant memory for most onlookers. The first two were therefore strokes that were not fully controlled, one sailing over Daniel’s head at long leg and the other going over Dujon, 6 and 4 the result. But thereafter the swivel on the back leg was near perfection and the Marshall thunderbolts suddenly looked innocuous. On the other hand the cover drive and the cut were booming which had even a swashbuckler of his day Salim Durrani swooning in the commentary box. The intent and purpose of the innings was something that comes across the grainy video even till today. However, the 30th was a watered down version of the earlier epic or the Motera innings. After having been rebuked and brickbatted by the media and so called experts for the twin failures at Bombay and Calcutta, Gavaskar reigned himself in at Chepauk and played with controlled aggression and most importantly did not do away with the hook, but played it sparingly. He kept the hook down this time, fetching singles at times. But the judgment outside the off was impeccable and so was the stroke making. A fitting collage of two contrasting hundreds to get past the greatest batsman of all times.

India and Gavaskar now had 10 months of rest to look forward before embarking on another mission and all of them had earned it, none more so than SMG and Kapil Dev the two champions of Indian Cricket.


giribrew said...

Very well written and thanks- as an ardent SMG fan I went through all those emotions once again. It also made me relive those days in Bhopal (yes I was there too and was playing for the MVM college team then!)-right upto the woolly smell and feel of the shawl I draped as I watched the matches in B/W (Weston TV- wonder what happened to them?!). In Chepauk we saw Roberts direct 2 or 3 beamers at Kiri's head- such was his frustration with the Sunny-Kiri partnership. And remember the docile Dujon asking our hero his bat at the close of the epic 236 n.o.?? I envy you for the videos of Kotla and Chepauk- any means you know of getting them- I am not price sensitive(!)- pl help me if you do know. I have the BBC highlights of his 229- ('79 at Oval) and the ABC produced full series video of his poor run in Australia 79-80- inclusive of the run-in with Lilee at MCG- Great innings by Vishy and Patil in that one!
Thanks again for the lovely ride through those days.
Giri (From Bangalore)

Supratik said...

Tks Giri and sorry for replying a tad late. Yes the emotions do keep coming back whenever we give expression to nostalgia. I too have the video of his 221 at the Oval. One of his best. You can get hold of these videos in Pune at Sunny Sports Boutique.