Monday, April 09, 2007

A Season of Rewards

Barely after a few weeks of leisure, the Indian team was off for another tour to England, their first in the old blighty after being crowned world champions.

As usual since the matches were going to be during our summer vacations, I looked forward to it, for more reasons than one. India with a similar team to the World Cup looked a promising outfit with the batting being as solid as ever and with Botham out of the series. With the matches being held in the first part of the summer, there was a fair chance of India doing well.

Plus, I figured that this could be Gavaskar’s last tour to England and hoped that having rediscovered his century making ways against Australia, he could sign off from England with a bang. However, I looked forward to the TMS again, since overseas live telecast was yet some years away.

He started off well in the ODIs with a 50 and the result in the Texaco Trophy was 1-1 though India won on better run rate.

The First Test at Lord’s was anticipated by me most eagerly. Could he score that elusive century at the common cricket fan’s Mecca, even if it wasn’t his? England had a decent start and the next day when India ended he was unbeaten on 30 patient runs. Could it be this time? No he fell early on third day, but India did well by running up a decent lead. Next couple of days was all India and when they won the test, I forgot momentarily about the master’s failure.

The Second Test was to be held at Headingley, which was known to the seamers paradise and one hoped the batsmen will back the bowlers so that India could win the series here, something quite unthinkable till a couple of weeks back. India, after winning the toss, began well, particularly SMG looking very sound and just when I thought that he was settled in to play a big one, he faltered, getting caught at the wicket. Vengsarkar, the hero of the match and the tour so far, played a couple of gems and the bowlers created mayhem, ensuring victory. It was a momentous achievement, India’s first overseas series victory in 15 years.

The Third Test at Birmingham was eagerly awaited. I was wondering over the possibility of a white-wash by now! And hoping for a grand finale for Gavaskar since he had threatened to construct a big innings each time and fell in the 30s. It was not to be. England did well in the first innings, though Chetan Sharma, the hero tried manfully. When India began there was a bit of pressure one could make out, but Gavaskar began well again and just when he reached 29 he fell again going for a drive getting bowled. I felt like kicking myself. Thereafter, it looked a dull and dreary test match, when suddenly Sharma turned it on its head and if Kapil had been fit to bowl the tail would not have eaten up valuable time. Hence India was left to score 236 to win on the last day on a slow but dodgy pitch, with Emburey and especially Edmonds in fine fettle. Gavaskar started very well as he had done this whole series and went past 30 for the first time. But just after he reached 50, there was a flutter as four wickets fell for a handful of runs and Indians closed shop after that.

Hence a beaming Kapil Dev had led India to triumph again in England, this time in a test series. Similarly Gavaskar’s indifferent record in England remained exactly that, indifferent.

Many years later when I have watched the videos of those Gavaskar innings, I have wondered why he failed to score a single hundred in six innings where 5 times he got a start and looked solid almost each time. He just had to make a single mistake that would see him get out.

We savored this rare overseas series victory for a while, and then the young Australian side under the redoubtable Allan Border was on our shores. After India’s recent successes I was more or less sure that we would win this series.

The ODI series started with a couple of matches and in the second one Gavaskar showed his intentions with a quick-fire 50, though the score-sheet showed 1-1 (India went on to win the series later by 3-2), while I waited for the first test for it was to be Gavaskar’s 100th consecutive test match, an unparalleled feat till then. It not only spoke about his fitness and stamina, it also said something about his commitment. The last time he missed a test was 12 years back during the West Indies series in 1974-75, precisely the time when I took to him. It had been a dozen years association with the master.

The First Test was to be held in Chepauk and we were back to the DD show again. What came about in the first three days was a complete shock to us. Australia hammered a mammoth total and then had India on its knees. I had hoped for a Gavaskar hundred in this special test, but he played a scratchy innings before he got out and but for a Kapil Dev special, India would have done the unthinkable against this young team, follow-on! At the end of the fourth day, with Australia still batting, a draw looked a foregone conclusion and I had reconciled to a dreary day’s play on the 5th day. Instead a brave Border declared overnight and set India a daunting target of 348 in 87 overs on a fifth day pitch, going for a win. But he had reckoned without the past master of fourth innings. Gavaskar over the next four hours and a bit played an innings of controlled aggression, perfect technique on one hand and savage butchery on the other and when he reached 90 just after tea, he couldn’t keep a cover drive down and was caught. From there, Shastri took on the onus and with Pandit and Chetan Sharma took almost to a win. With only 18 needed of 5 overs it should have been a cake-walk but first Sharma and then More, made a hash of it. By this time we were sweating from head down to toe. Is India going to lose it after coming so close again? The last over was excruciatingly tense. Shastri, the cool customer that he was took two and then a single to tie the scores and when Maninder was adjudged LBW to Mathews, it was pandemonium. The commentators had gone berserk, so had we who were watching the match at a friend’s place. A tie! Only the 2nd one in history. Though I did feel a bit sorry, that SMG had missed out on that hundred but he had played a central part in a historic game as had Border and many others.

After that the Second Test at Delhi was a drab draw, where three days were rained off. In the little time available both teams opted for practice, with Gavaskar getting bowled to Gilbert in the short time.

With the series still level, the series shifted for the Third and last Test at Bombay. Here again, Australia won the toss and batted a marathon. For more than day and half they scored 350 runs before they were all out. India began solidly, as did Gavaskar. It has to be this time I thought, at his home ground and he did finally achieve that landmark on the third day. A near flawless innings even at this age was remarkable. His 33rd and one hoped many more would come in the future. He had been batting well for the last one year, but only three centuries to show all against the Aussies. After a “runathon” by Vengsarkar and Shastri, Australia were given a testing time on the last day, but barring a couple of hiccups they safely negotiated the bowling which had looked toothless with Kapil going through a series for the first time without a single wicket. Sharma wasn’t the same bowler in unhelpful conditions, and the Australians could return home proud.

Many years later I have the tied test and the Gavaskar century in my video collection and sometimes marvel at the kind of technique that he executed in both those innings which at 37 was still virtually flawless, with unwavering concentration he was still the master, though the ‘colonel’ had taken rapid strides to become the backbone aided by the young Azharuddin, after the master bowed out. But that I was sure was at least 3-4 years away. After all didn’t Boycott play till he was 42, and in that light Gavaskar was a greater batsman!

Now we waited for the Lankans to arrive, this time with vengeance since memories of the previous year was still fresh.

The tour started with the First Test at Kanpur, and now with my own cricket season in flow, I didn’t make it to the ground on the first day, but carried the radio to my match. Anyway with Sri Lanka batting first, and batting well, there wasn’t much to be lost. When the second day was lost due to rain and fog, the result was a foregone conclusion. The only interest remained in whether SMG would go on and make that missing hundred here. He had made it at all premier grounds and I have been chasing that dream for the last 11 years, having gone to the ground expectantly each time. This time I decided to do it differently! I went to the Green Park on the third day and by the time India batted, I was extremely nervous though Gavaskar started most confidently and ended the day unbeaten just shy of the half-century. I decided to watch the next day’s play on the telly, lest he disappointed again. Thank God, I stayed back. Out came a Gavaskar special and finally just around tea he had passed the landmark. The crowd went delirious. Their favourite son-in-law had done them proud. He was not finished however and went on to score a monumental 176, laced with the magical and signature Gavaskar drives, flicks and cuts. In the end I was a happy man, he had finally got that elusive century at Kanpur. I did rue it a bit that I wasn’t at the ground but I knew my priorities!

Kanpur also saw the start of the ODI series with the first one played there and Sri Lanka won by a thumping margin, with India shell shocked to 78 all out. I was at the ground this time and saw the carnage, all leaving a bad taste in the mouth. I had hoped for a Gavaskar encore, but that was not to be on a dodgy pitch.

The scene now shifted to the Second Test being played at Nagpur. India went on top quickly and remained there. Gavaskar did not open due to illness but when he came after Amarnath and Vengsarkar had scored centuries, he scored a one-day like 74 dispatching the ball to all corners of the ground that made goose pimples rise. India snuffed out Sri Lanka with the spinners making life hell for the batsmen and India had gone one up.

The Third Test was to be played at a new venue, Cuttack. The pitch turned out to be of dubious quality. Gavaskar went early, but Vengsarkar played a glorious innings and India easily won the match to take the series 2-0. Perfect revenge for the humiliation of previous year!

The ODI series had to be completed and India won all the four with Gavaskar showing flashes of brilliance in most of them.

With the preparatory series out of the way, India now awaited the derby of the season, the series against Pakistan, who were already in town and I could hardly wait to see a resurgent Gavaskar with 34 centuries under his belt now, to take on the men from across the border. It had all the potential to be a humdinger of a series.

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