Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sunil Gavaskar, Amongst Indian Greats

It is not that, India didn’t have good or great batsmen before SMG, but he was the one who took it to another level and brought deserving, if grudging, respect to Indian batting. Some of the yesteryears greats like Col. C.K.Naidu, Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare and Polly Umrigar, amongst others have had folklores written about them. Indeed they were great batsmen in their own right. But they suffered a considerable handicap. Either they played too little Test cricket or played during times when India struggled to even draw test matches. Some of them showed flashes of brilliance, but were not consistent enough to be taken seriously by critics world-wide. In fact at times the western media would sneer at Indian batsmen, commenting on their discomfiture against fast bowlers, and how they would sneak towards the square-leg umpire when they faced a fast bowler on song.

However, Indian era of batsmanship will always be broken down into two eras B.G. and A.G. Gavaskar remains the cusp on which Indian batsmanship and Indian cricket as a whole turned a new leaf.

The first proof of that lies in the statistics.

Before Gavaskar, India’s test record stood as follows:

Tests Won Lost Tie/Draw
116 15 49 52

Series Won Lost Draw
28 5 17 6

During the Gavaskar era, India’s test record was:

Tests Won Lost Tie/Draw
130 25 35 70

Series Won Lost Draw
33 10 16 7

Figures mostly don’t lie and in this case it shows up starkly. Before Gavaskar made his entry into Test cricket, India had only won 12.9% of the tests and lost a whopping 42.2% times. During the Gavaskar era the India won 19.2% of the times and the loss percentage came down to 26.9%.

Before SMG, India had won only 5 series (out of which only 1 was abroad) and had lost 17 of them out of a total of 28. During the SMG era, India won 10 series and lost 16 out of a total of 33.

Obviously all these victories and avoidance of defeats did not and could not have come because of one man, but Gavaskar’s contributions in Indian wins and his rearguard action in many of the matches where he staved off defeat for India are numerous and the marked difference between the stats of B.G. and A.G. are there for all to see.

Gavaskar brought respect to Indian batting. He brought in belief that Indian batsmen could stand up to the fast men – there were lots of them during his era – and look them in the eye. And astonishingly, he did this without donning the helmet, which is a given in today’s cricket. Moreover, he played all of his matches, barring a few in the last couple of years in the demanding opening slot.

He was the first great opening batsman from India since Merchant and he took the world by storm as the former had in his short career. He did not have a stable opening partner for more than half his career and only had a steady partnership with Chetan Chauhan for a few years. He however, by all accounts, enjoyed a great partnership with Srikkant the swashbuckling – if inconsistent - batsman from Madras. But this did not deter him to play his solos for years on end. By the early 80s with Vengsarkar maturing into a fine batsman and the resurgence of Mohinder Amarnath, he could relax once in a while to play the way, which I feel he would have loved to, given the opportunity. However, there were only a few series where he was overshadowed by any other batsman in the team. One can think of the West Indies series of 74-75 where Vishy was the talk of the town, while SMG was out injured, the twin tours to Pakistan and West Indies in 1983 where Amarnath rose briefly like a colossus to take the honours and the 1986 series against England where Vengsarkar reached his pinnacle.

He was the guiding force for most Indian batsmen of his time, mostly youngsters. He mentored the young Vengsarkar, Shastri and Sandeep Patil, amongst others. They flowered during his time. Even the comeback of Mohinder Amarnath was largely due to the serious backing that he got from Gavaskar before India left for Pakistan in 1982.

However, there was often an allegation against Gavaskar, from some vested quarters – and wrongly at that – about him being a selfish batsman or a batsman playing for individual records. Neither statistics nor facts substantiate this. Most such critics take the myopic view or are plain ignorant. It is amusing to note here that at most times Gavaskar was the boy on the burning deck. With no disrespect to other Indian batsmen of his time, it was plain that in most of the long innings that he played for India, he was virtually the last man standing. In this there is an ironic, but true parallel with the modern master Tendulkar, who also like his mentor, at his peak was the lone man who was battling when the other fell like nine-pins around him. Batting is about partnerships and if atleast one or two don’t perform around the main batsman, even the latter at his best can’t do much. Couple of such examples would elucidate the point further. Let’s take the Karachi test of 1978-79; Gavaskar scored a century in each innings and yet India lost! He scored 111 in the first innings when the next best was a 59 from the then tail-ender Kapil Dev at No.9 and in the second innings when he scored 137, the next best was a 53 from Mohinder. In Faisalabad four years later, it was the same story; Gavaskar in the second innings carried his bat through for 127 not out battling for 7 hours, the next best was Mohinder again for 78 – no one else crossed 20. The famous Oval test is another case in point; while he scored 221 the next best was an 80 from Chauhan and then zilch. There are many such instances which clearly go to show that his effort as an Indian batsman was monumental and peerless. If at all, there was only one instance which one can remember where Gavaskar played for an individual goal, that being his 28th century at Bangalore against Pakistan on the 5th day when the match was destined to be a draw. But one struggles to find another such instance where he played just for himself.

He set a new benchmark for future generations of Indian batsmen to achieve, albeit an arduous one. Sachin Tendulkar was the chosen prodigy. For half of his career he too like Gavaskar ploughed a lone furrow, with flashes of brilliance from others here and there. Azharuddin, all grace and timing, was at most times a fair weather batsman, and it was only during the second half of the nineties with the advent of, first, Dravid and Ganguly and then Laxman and Sehwag in that order, did he find some support. The influence of Gavaskar on Tendulkar was palpable. The original master, by passing on his Morrant pads early in the latter’s career virtually passed on a legacy, which Tendulkar has carried manfully. Both were short men. Tendulkar was more naturally talented and more aggressive – perhaps a natural culmination of the Gavaskar legacy – but had the same mastery over the common strokes like the straight drive and the flick of his legs. Dravid is the latest Indian batsman to achieve all time greatness; however, he has had it the easiest amongst the three. There is another myth, which some sections of media are trying to propagate in this battle for ‘India’s greatest batsman’, mentioning the term ‘match-winner’ for a batsman. Except for instances that can be counted on the fingers of our two hands, in the entire cricket that has been played in the world till now, most tests have been won by bowlers. They wish to propose that Dravid is India’s biggest ‘match-winning’ batsman. A look at most of matches that India has won since Dravid reached top flight as batsman in the early part of this century, one would observe that he has either supported or has been supported by at least one of the other three in such momentous occasions, if not more. Be it Headingley 2002, Calcutta 2001, Adelaide 2004 he had either Laxman, Tendulkar or Ganguly giving him a good hand. A situation that didn’t exist at most times with Gavaskar or Tendulkar. Dravid forms the holy troika of Indian batsmen, but he is not greater than the other two.

In fact Dravid himself is more from the Gavaskar school, with his game firmly based on a sound defense and a wide array of strokes to go with it. Dravid like Gavaskar improved as a one-day batsman as the years went by and both of them were more than useful batsmen in the limited overs form of the game.

For batsmen who were a notch or two below these three great ones, the Gavaskar influence is unmistakable. When a dasher like Sehwag says that he gives the first hour to the bowler and then seizes his opportunity, he is talking the Gavaskar language!

This is the reason why this writer calls Gavaskar the cusp between Indian batting ages. Indian batting is far more resilient, ambitious and self-confident than what it was till the 60s. The signs therefore are there to see, where the post Gavaskar era has had India win more matches than even the Gavaskar era, which is a natural sign of progress. However, despite winning more matches in the last 20 years, India is still to achieve some of the great feats that the Indian team of the 70’s and 80’s achieved. India during the Gavaskar era won 2 series in England and 1 in West Indies, while drawing 1-1 against a formidable Australian side. In one-day cricket India won two world championships in 1983 and 1985. Compared to that the Indian side of the 90s drew a blank in both tests and one-dayers, while their record in the first decade of the 21st century is considerably better. India won their first series in Pakistan in 2004, a historic series against Australia in 2001, albeit at home and reached the final of the World Cup in 2003. The overseas victories against Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and a lowly West Indies in 2005 need to be discounted. Restricting India’s performances in Test Matches – the real yardstick – one of the major factors for India not doing well abroad has been the lack of a solid opening pair or half. Various openers have been tried in the last 20 years and except for Sidhu for a brief while in the early 90s and Sehwag over the last 3 years, no one has gone the distance.

So where does Gavaskar fit in amongst the greatest Indian batsmen? Such ranking always sets the cat among the pigeons, but I will stick my neck out for Gavaskar at the top of the pecking order followed by Tendulkar and Dravid. This, simply because the master was the pioneer of modern Indian batting. Secondly, he scored all, but a few of his runs at the top of the innings which in the context of the fast bowling quality that he had to face - and with out a helmet – keeps his nose ahead of the two other worthy torch-bearers of the flame. Though Tendulkar and Dravid have a better average and some better statistics to show, but the difficulty of Gavaskar’s job is to be understood from the fact, that despite being blessed with one of the better techniques of modern cricket, Dravid has always backed out opening the innings, barring a couple of occasions. Not for nothing cricket historians and followers maintain that to pit an opener against a middle-order batsman, one needs to add 5 runs to the former’s average! However, as a one-day batsman though one would have to put Gavaskar behind Tendulkar who has all the records to his name. But then when there is talk of great batsmen, Test cricket is the yardstick or else, without any disrespect to his one-day record, we would be considering Michael Bevan as one of the world’s all time great batsmen!

Let me end this treatise with a comparison – from Polly Umrigar bench-mark to the Sunil Gavaskar bench-mark was a giant leap to Mt. Everest. Anything done to surpass that would be a struggle. Even with the enormous talent that Tendulkar possesses, it became a monumental struggle for him to get past the colossus that was Sunil Manohar Gavaskar.

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