Sunday, May 27, 2007

Last Hurrahs!

The Pakistan series was a draining one like it usually is, both for the players and fans like me. To top it, India had encountered a heart-wrenching defeat in the Bangalore test and the reigning double world champions had then taken a battering in the one-dayers. Gavaskar’s 96 in the losing cause still rankled.

There was no cricket coming up before the World Cup, so we had time to get over it and I was sure the team would too. As a result I got engrossed in the remainder of my non-descript cricket career which was on its last legs, with any hopes of my etching out a career in cricket dying a fast and natural death. The last season hadn’t been good for me, though this one was proving to be quite successful.

Soon the summers came and our season was also coming to a slowdown when I read in the media that MCC was planning for its bicentenary celebrations and as a result, an unofficial test match would be played between MCC and the Rest of the World at Lord’s in August. The teams were going to be a mixed lot. MCC were to be represented by all those players playing for England and its counties and the Rest of the World would be represented by the best of the World. This made for an interesting prospect.

MCC would be captained by the then England captain Mike Gatting and having a galaxy of stars like Greenidge, Gooch, Gower, Shastri, Marshall, Hadlee, amongst others. Only Botham was missing due to injury and was replaced by the capable Clive Rice. Rest of the World was to be captained by Allan Border and contained Haynes, Dujon, Richards (later replaced due to injury by Vengsarkar), Miandad, Imran, Kapil Dev, Walsh and Sunil Manohar Gavaskar. It was thrilling to know that 16 years back Gavaskar had represented in the last ROW series in Australia and now in the evening of his career he was still considered the best in business to be a part of this galaxy of greats.

The match was played from the 20th to 25th August 1987 and though it wasn’t telecasted in India, BBC’s ‘Test Match Special’ came to my rescue when I tuned in on the first day to realize that it was broadcasting the match. MCC batted first and piled up a huge score in a day and a half, on the back of hundreds from Gooch and Gower, though Greenidge missed out. Gavaskar and Haynes came out to bat for the ROW facing up to Marshall and Hadlee. A dream contest! In fact in the very first over there was a huge appeal for LBW against Gavaskar by Marshall that umpire Bird negated. After that, it was an exhibition. Marshall at his best first snuffing out Haynes and then Vengsarkar, from round the wicket, followed by the spinners coming to fore, Shastri and Emburey. It was anything but a festival match. Gavaskar facing up to the thunderbolts against Marshall, the wile of Hadlee, the lively medium-pace of Rice and the spin duo with equanimity, came up with some brilliant and classic shots of vintage. When the day ended he was not out on 80 and all the commentators were in raptures about this little man. He had never scored a 100 at Lord’s. It was never his favourite ground, which raised quite a controversy over the years, but one could sense that he wanted it to get it this time since it was a big occasion.

Late that night while tuning up to BBC’s Sports Roundup I was waiting for a review of the day’s play, when the news slipped in. Gavaskar had announced his retirement from Test Cricket at a press conference that evening! This was going to be his last five-day match! I felt like being hit by a lightning. This must be a joke, one of his pranks with the media. Unsure of what it meant I went to sleep, only to get up the next morning to read the papers which confirmed the news. Reality struck me then. The unthinkable will be unfolding in front of my eyes in a few days time. Sunil Manohar Gavaskar would never come out to open the innings for India in a test match again. There was a small matter of a World Cup coming up in a few months after which he would be hanging his boots from all cricket. It was a fact hard to digest. The day was spent pottering around before the match started again and now I was getting nervous over a first-class game in which Gavaskar must be trying to score a hundred in front of a packed Lord’s crowd. He did eventually score a monumental 188.

I have since watched the innings on video. At 38, the master was imparting a lesson, so much so, that for a day and a half he was the cynosure of all eyes at the hallowed grounds of the MCC. Allan Border, the captain, later had said that this innings should be shown to at academies as a lesson for young cricketers. He couldn’t have been nearer to the truth.

The match ended on 4th day with Gavaskar in the second innings losing his off-stump to the great Marshall, two great adversaries closing their rivalry with 1-1 score line!

Over the next few months, I kept pondering over the momentous decision that my hero, the original purpose for my getting to be a cricket fan, a player, an opening batsman, had taken. I hoped and hoped that he would reverse this decision in the coming months. Probably the board would talk to him. Maybe his captain and team-mates will get him to reverse the decision somehow. It never happened when suddenly the World Cup was upon us.

This was the first world cup being held outside England and there were a lot of expectations from India, it being held in the sub-continent this time. In addition, all Gavaskar fans hoped that he would get a well-deserved farewell with a successful World Cup and the trophy.

India’s campaign began against a rejuvenated Australia that dished out a cracker of a match. Aussies creamed the Indian bowlers to build up a total of 270, huge as per the standards of the day. When India came out to bat, I wanted to see Gavaskar’s approach, and it was heartening that he went hammer-and-tongs at McDermott to score a 37 of 32 balls before he was out. India went close but lost way in the end to go down by a solitary run. We were disappointed but quite sure that India will go a long way in the tournament, considering it was only the first match.

India won against New Zealand and then came the Zimbabwe match which was the end of the first leg of league matches. Knowing that SMG had a missing element in his CV – a 100 in ODIs – I was hoping that he would score one this time, but Zimbabwe batted first and were skittled out for a low score which put paid to my hopes though Gavaskar got a quick 40 odd again.

The return matches in the league started against Australia, again. Gavaskar playing a strokeful innings again, got to his 50, and then suddenly got out, again denying himself a century. India won the match resoundingly and thereby making reasonably sure of a semi-final spot.

The next match against Zimbabwe saw a bit of controversy. India won chasing again, though Gavaskar unlike his recent forays played a slow innings – another 50 – though India won the match easily. In a post match interview Kapil strangely decided to castigate Gavaskar, without taking his name, for slow batting and costing India on the run rate.

India had made the semis but wanted to avoid playing Pakistan who were on top of their game in Pakistan.

So when the India vs New Zealand match started and New Zealand batted first India had to win at a run-rate of 5.25 to top the group and avoid Pakistan in the semis. The Kiwis put up a good score of 221 which was curtailed by Chetan Sharma’s hat-trick, somewhat of a redemption for the ‘last-ball-six’! When India started we heard from the commentators that the little master was suffering from fever, but had come out to bat, nonetheless. In the next 3 hours we watched spell-bound, what was to be, the last Gavaskar magic. A beautiful, yet clinical decimation of the Kiwi attack where we saw gorgeous cover drives and the lofted on-drives, along with the trademark glances and flicks. In a matter of 85 balls he had scored the fastest one-day century by an Indian, his first and to be the only one. Though he did seem a bit nervous when he was stuck for a few balls on 99, but what a 100 it was. One cover-drive sticks in the mind where a ball from Willie Watson pitched on length and Gavaskar committed on the front foot, altered his balance at the last moment and sent the ball scorching through the cordon with immaculate poise and beauty. India won comfortably within the target run-rate and topped the group to face England in the semi-finals at the Wankhede.
What the hell on the earth, was my hero retiring for? He could play for another 3 years, at least, I thought. Maybe if India wins the World Cup he would change his decision, I played with my mind.

The first semis were played between Pakistan and Australia and just as Gavaskar, Imran had also decided to retire from the game and all Pakistani and Indian fans dreamt about an Indo-Pak final for a fitting tribute to two of the greatest from the sub-continent.

But dreams die first. While the ladies stand at the Gaddafi chanted ‘Chalte Chalte, Mere Yeh Geet Yaad Rakhna’ Pakistan were losing and before long Australians had taken the first berth in the final. There were celebrations across the border.

Now it was India’s turn to face England on 5th of November at the Wankhede Stadium. This was going to be SMG’s last match in his hometown. Can he get a big one here for a farewell, all of us wondered? Kapil won the toss and decided to chase, relying on the batting form of India. This was probably the first error India made. Thereafter, we watched perplexed from thousands of miles away, Graham Gooch sweeping England on to a considerable total of 254 at the end of 50 overs. Srikkanth opened with Gavaskar and the little man started in his recent vein, with a boundary. Now in the third over, Philip DeFreitas into Gavaskar - the master walks into his drive - meets thin air – the ball finds the gap between bat and pad – timber – 50,000 dumb statues at Wankhede & 20 million in front of the TV screen. Sunil Manohar Gavaskar trudging back to the pavilion, from the hallowed greens at Wankhede, out for 4. I was disappointed, but the optimist within said, he has another innings to go; he will renew his association with the Eden, with a big one. But who did know, that the old bogie of India ‘after Gavaskar, there is none’ would come back to haunt them again. After Srikkanth and Sidhu the new wonder at the World Cup had steadied the ship, both fell. Azhar, batting well carried on, but wickets by then had started falling at regular intervals. When Kapil committed hara-kiri on 30, India’s chances were dwindling. With our hearts in mouth we watched, as the lower-order fell away one by one and when Shastri was stumped out last, India had lost by 35 runs. It was our neighbours’ turn to rejoice now. On 8th of November the Indian version of a final ‘Bus Drivers vs Tram Conductors’ was played out in front of a packed Eden.
Reality dawned on me quickly – Sunil Gavaskar, India’s greatest batsman had played his last cricket match. Could this be a joke yet? I desperately hoped so. He surely had a couple of years of quality batting left in him. His last test innings was an incomparable 96. His penultimate first class innings was a 188. His second last international innings was a 100 of 85 balls. The World Cup was a testimony of it. What would I do from now on when a cricket match is on? The game was bigger than an individual I had read and heard, but will cricket, for me, be the same again? Will I follow the game with same verve? I didn’t have the answer then.

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