Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Catastrophe and regaining thunder ‘Down Under’

After a satisfying closure to the 1984-85 cricket season which ultimately brought crowning glory for my hero, I got engrossed into my cricket season which was turning out into a very prolific one, making a reasonable name for myself in the city and getting invited to play for various teams apart from my own, of course. In short I was getting to be a cricket glutton!

Meanwhile, after a relatively long break of 6 months an under-cooked Indian team set out for its first official tour of Sri Lanka under Kapil’s captaincy. This was the last of the test match playing nations where Gavaskar was yet to score a test century, as there was none played before. I hoped that his test batting form would return and the century making spree would start.

The Sri Lanka series was a forgettable one for India and an inauspicious start for both SMG and India. It wasn’t televised to begin with. So it was back to the radio commentary with Balu Alaganan, J.P.Narayan, Murli Manohar Manjul and Sushil Doshi again. Gavaskar strangely batted in the middle order, with a chance given to Lalchand Rajput to make a mark as an opener with Srikkant who had a mixed outing. India struggled in the first test and then when we thought that they were getting in the groove, promptly went on to lose the second. It was catastrophe to say the least and very disappointing for an Indian fan like me. Luckily we were still without cable tv, internet, etc. or else the cricketers would have had a tough time coming back home. Hence India went ahead and lost the series. Gavaskar batting mostly at No.5 wasn’t the same thing. He scored a couple of 50’s and a 49 and got steadily better as the series went on. But the umpiring as we read and heard was quite abysmal and Gavaskar in the second test at Colombo was given out stumped for only the 2nd time in his career of the bowling of Ranatunga, when he was well within the popping crease. But one just couldn’t reconcile with the idea of the master batting in the middle-order and I hoped that somehow he will decide and get back to the No.1 position that belonged to him and the team was comfortable with.

India were to tour Australia again that winter after 5 years to play 3 tests and the annual triangular. The test series which began first were not telecast on TV again and it was back to early mornings inside the blanket with the radio. The Australians were regrouping under Border and the next generation while the next generation of fine Australian fast bowlers was getting into the act. McDermott, Bruce Reid and Merv Hughes were making their mark at this time.

The 1st test was at Adelaide and India held the upper-hand. Australia batted first and had a good first day but after that it was all India. I was delighted when I heard SMG coming out to bat with Srikkant at his customary position and though he had to retire, he came back on the truncated 4th day and when play ended he was unbeaten in the 90s. I hoped he would complete the century the next day he had played quite flawlessly except for a solitary chance of McDermott on the 2nd day. He ultimately scored a monumental 166 and remained unbeaten. He had finally broken through and registered his 31st century. With rain playing havoc it was a drawn test.

The 2nd test at MCG saw Gavaskar fail in both the innings and most importantly, India lost a chance to win the match due to bad weather and some inept tactics, especially on the last day when the last pair batted for more than an hour and then the batsmen scored 59 runs in 25 overs and then the post tea session got rained out. Gavaskar in the 2nd innings made an inexplicable 8 in an hour before he got out. The others too batted at a snail’s pace and the test was drawn. India had looked a gift horse in the mouth.

The 3rd and final test was to be at Sydney and it started gloriously for India, with Gavaskar and Srikkant in a rollicking stand. Gavaskar’s was an innings of two parts. On the first day he was brilliant, though a bit chancy with a couple of his catches going down, as did Srikkant’s. On the second day however he and Amarnath both batted a little slowly but India still managed to end up with 600 on a featherbed. Gavaskar ultimately scored another phenomenal 172. India almost pulled off a victory due to an Aussie collapse.

The series ended in a draw which could have easily been 3-0 with a bit of luck and favourable weather. Gavaskar thankfully was back at his prolific best. He had now scored a hundred at all Australian grounds by scoring ones at Adelaide and Sydney, where he had missed out on the earlier tour in 1977-78. Though the failure to win a series in Australia rankled but Gavaskar’s return to ‘century-way’ consoled me. He had scored 2 centuries in short time after a gap of 2 years!

The ‘one-day’ transformation

The season down under then shifted to the B&H tri-series featuring New Zealand as the third team and we were relieved to know that DD was to show all the India matches live.

India’s first match of the series was against New Zealand at Brisbane and India after fielding first, was set a score of 260 to win, a stiff target in those days. Gavaskar, thankfully, came out to bat with Srikkant and for the next half-hour I was numbed as most of the SMG fans must have been. If Sunil Gavaskar the one-day captain was invented the previous season, the batsman was ignited in this match. Ewen Chatfield, the mean miser of the Kiwi bowlers started his spell and the little master went after him like a cop after a thug. In a spell of 17 balls Gavaskar carted him for 4 boundaries and huge thwack over mid-wicket for 6 to score 27 of 17 balls before Chatfield got his revenge by removing Gavaskar’s middle stump. Srikkant had not even scored half of those! It turned out to be a fairly successful series for Gavaskar though he did not employ the slam-bang method in all matches and in fact bettered his ODI best with a fine 92 at Sydney against Australia. Mid-way through that innings it looked like that he might get to his first one-day century but that was not to be. He got bogged down a little towards the last 15 overs and ended up being stranded on 92. Nonetheless I was quite happy with his consistent performance in a one-day series.

India’s one-day season culminated with the bitter Australasia Cup in Sharjah, which has since become famous for the match of the ‘Miandad’s Six’. However, Gavaskar was the man of the tournament there again. He scored a brilliant 70 odd against Sri Lanka and then a fine 92 in ‘that’ final to take India to a substantial total which should have seen them through the match but for Miandad. Sharjah had become a favourite haunt for SMG by now, as he had shown with two half-centuries in the Sharjah Challenge Cup before traveling to Australia, though the story this time ended bitterly for India and as a result of that six the jinx against Pakistan in Sharjah on a Friday continued for the next 15 years.

Though, like most, I was shell-shocked by the result the season was for rejoicing for the quintessential SMG fan. He had got his century meter running again and after a decade of that ignominious 36 n.o. at Lord’s was getting acknowledged as an accomplished one-day batsman. Not a bad feat for a 37 year old man and the lesson for most of us was that it was never too late to change!

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