Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Revolutionary Indian Batsman

Ramachandra Guha in his interesting omnibus ‘States of Indian Cricket’ mentions how his uncle Durai rightly said ‘if Gavaskar was an Englishman he would have been made an Earl by now’.
Rajan Bala, the respected cricket-writer and critic in his book, ‘Glances at Perfection’ writes that Gavaskar was the ‘be all and end all’ of technical perfection in batting. He wrote this book when the modern Indian greats Tendulkar and Dravid had reached their peak.

For a fan like me who had followed the ‘little master’ over a major part of his career and having read and heard most of what has been written or said about him, he was always this and more. As Navjot Sidhu – owner of that bombastic tongue – said on a program on Gavaskar, “If Dravid is the wall, Sunil Gavaskar was a fort”. This statement is no disgrace to Dravid, a giant amongst all time great Indian batsmen, but more to show the true picture of what Gavaskar meant when he played for India.

His records speak for themselves. He was at his best against the West Indies who at most times during his era were the world’s best team and had the best fast bowlers of any era. His record against Pakistan is formidable and that is one bench-mark either side always considered while ranking their batsmen. His record against a tough if not the best team, Australia was again top class. It is only against England that his career record suffers in comparison. Though ironically it was in England where two of his finest centuries came, one in 1974 and the other, the epic at the Oval in 1979. Having watched some of the old videos, it is a mystery why he shouldn’t have scored more runs in England. Many of his 30’s and 40’s got curtailed due to one solitary mistake. Probably that was only to make him look human! His record at home and away was equally good, which meant that he wasn’t just a fair weather player.

His adversaries over a long career, was a virtual list of ‘who’s who’ of fast bowlers! While judging the quality of an opening batsman this has to be the key. He started off in 1971 against a wily if ageing Sobers & that fine seam bowler Vanburn Holder. Over the years against the West Indies he had to face Andy Roberts, Mike Holding, Joel Garner, Wayne Daniel, Winston Davis, Sylvester Clarke, Norbert Philip and above all that ‘monster’ the late Malcolm Marshall, who was undoubtedly the greatest fast bowler of the late 70’s and 80’s. The only West Indian he did not face was Colin Croft. He succeeded against such attacks like no one else. Against Australia he faced off against the formidable Thommo, Lillee, Pascoe, Rodney Hogg – a force for a while in the 70’s, Geoff Dymock – who had some success against India, and towards the end of his career a young but fiery McDermott and the wiry but highly promising Bruce Reid. Against Pakistan he faced up to his respected adversary Imran Khan, Sarfraz Nawaz, Sikandar Bakht – who had a successful tour of India in 1979 and the ‘left arm of God’, Wasim Akram. Against England he had to face up to a long line of fine fast and swing bowlers, most of whom were dangerous in their backyard, namely, John Snow & Price, Peter and John Lever, Bob Willis, fine swing bowlers like Chris Old and Mike Hendrick and the wily Ian Botham. Against New Zealand he faced Richard Hadlee, one of the world’s finest bowlers in his prime, with some success. In fact it was only against Lillee that he did not have much success with a solitary 70 in that famous MCG walkout! Is there any opening batsman who can boast of a better record against such a formidable array of fast bowlers? And without that crucial protective gear – the helmet? Not in this planet at least.

But he wasn’t partial to just the fast bowlers. His record against spin bowlers was equally impressive. He faced up to some great spin bowlers of his time or battled conditions which were far from being conducive. During his time he faced up to Ray Illingworth, Derek Underwood – the last great spinner from England, Lance Gibbs – once upon a time world record holder, Jim Higgs from Australia, Bruce Yardley also from Australia whom he always rated highly and the Pakistanis, Abdul Qadir and Iqbal Qasim. The 96 at Bangalore leaps to the mind, first. But there were many others. It does sound ironical though, despite being an opening batsman, he was probably the finest player of spin of the modern era, and this despite being so short in height. Some of his old videos show the quality of his footwork. He would sometimes end up almost half-way down the pitch after completing a stroke against a spinner. He rarely got foxed by flight. And on square turners he played late as late as one could be. There was always a beauty in his method, which sometimes left onlookers speechless. His batting was a seamless blend of ‘art’ and ‘science’.

What attracted one to his batting was not only his near-perfect technique against both pace and spin, but the whole package as it were. His balance at the crease was beyond parallel. He had all the shots in the book, though when compared to the other Indian great, Gundappa Vishwanath he chose parsimony over lavishness. This was of course necessary, since India in those days was known as a one-and-a-half batsman team. He was always playing for a relatively weak team, with the opposition knowing that if they got past this ‘fort’ the territory was theirs.

His critics, of whom there were quite a few, pointed to this supposed weakness of his, supposed inability to dominate attacks. They often forgot that he was the fulcrum of Indian batting for most of his career. If he went, India would collapse at most times. And he knew that more than anyone else. One who has played cricket at any level knows that if a batsman has to dominate, he would have to take chances and that meant higher risks. Gavaskar could not have afforded to take high risks, especially being an opening batsman. And more often than not he was right.

Somewhere in the first few years of his career, he realized the importance of his own wicket, and hence after a couple of dismissals on the hook he put it away in the closed for 7 long years. He dusted the cobwebs off this shot only when he had no choice, in 1983 against a rampaging West Indies led by Marshall. The result is still fresh in memory.

A principal part of his technique was his balance at the crease. His stance was one of the most picturesque stances that one has seen. The only other that comes close to it in elegance is that of the ‘master blaster’ Viv Richards, which was intimidating. But Gavaskar’s was even more balanced. There was a bit of a ‘rocking’ feel to it. He committed to his strokes very late and that ‘one-and-a-half foot’ shuffle that he introduced in the latter part of his career helped him even more. If there was at all any weakness in his technique, it was his fallibility outside the off-stump to the swinging ball, early in his innings. But one is yet to see a batsman who doesn’t have that weakness! His defence was copybook and virtually impregnable. He read the ball early and rarely missed the flight of a spinner. Above all his concentration at the crease was unmatched. One of the most intense sights at the ground is Gavaskar reaching a milestone and then practicing ‘tunnel vision’ down the pitch, i.e. putting his hands beside his temples and looking down the pitch. It could be demoralizing for the bowlers, in a way. They would better give up thinking of getting him out. Watching it even today, gives me goose-pimples.

In attack, there was no shot that he couldn’t play. He was both proficient on the front foot as well as on the back foot. However, his signature shots were the impeccable straight drive and the flick of his pads. His square cut was second only to Vishwanath’s. It was less ‘rubbery’ in execution but packed more ‘steel’. Towards the later stages of his career, he drove on the up a lot more, included the lofted on-drive and the late ‘dab’ in his repertoire. The latter was a variation of the late cut with not so much a ‘closed’ face of the bat as much as it was a parallel blade.

In one of the chapters of his book on Gavaskar, Ramachandra Guha talks about ‘the two Gavaskars’, Gavaskar the pure batsman and the other the captain as batsman. This was pretty close to truth. Gavaskar with all the weight of expectations on his shoulders did get bogged down at times, especially when he was captain in his second and third stints. This change probably came due to his mistrust of the BCCI and critics at large, who were always ready with their daggers, ready to pounce, were he to fail and India to lose. But over a long period of 16 years of cricket, there were probably three Gavaskars. The young Gavaskar who swung between being ‘stodgy’ and ‘belligerent’. Gavaskar as the captain in his second and third stints when he was very measured and always in self-denial. And then in the intermittent periods and towards the end of his career when he became quite carefree and often dazzling in his stroke-play. But situations also dictated how he played, his last innings being a case in point.
So often in a long Gavaskar innings, one would switch on the radio after an interval and find that his score had hardly moved, where in another instance he would rattle off on a run scoring spree. This often costed the spectator dear, as Guha lamented in his book. Like me, he had never watched Gavaskar score a century live at the ground! Luckily we have some videos of Gavaskar to fall back on.

His batting in the last few years of his career came out in full bloom. The same man who once scored that infamous 36 in his first World Cup match had finally scored a rollicking 100 in his second last world cup match! It was ‘blitzkrieg’. He had finally begun to enjoy his one-day cricket towards the last 3-4 years of his career and all that showed in various phases. Striking the ball on the ‘up’, hitting across the line, words which were taboo to the master, were now a part of his repertoire.

However, there was something which I suspect a true Gavaskar fan always sensed, all through the years, which one has not seen with any other batsman since then. There was a strange detachment that was evident in his batting, as if he was oblivious to what was going on around him. One of the famous things associated with Gavaskar was the fact that he never looked at the score-board while batting. The proof of that was during his 29th century, when Vengsarkar literally had to go down to him mid-pitch to congratulate him after the peerless on-drive that brought him to the landmark. He rarely got flustered by the antics of the fielders around him, as one saw during that famous innings in Bangalare. This probably had to do with two facts, one, his matchless concentration and secondly – and this is only a guess – because he knew that most of India’s fortunes depended upon him. And if he still couldn’t save or win the match for India, he knew that he tried his best. For me, he was one of those rare men, who in my humble opinion practiced at most times, the doctrines of the ‘Bhagwad’ on the 22 yards.

Dozen of his Best

It is difficult to pick only 12 of Gavaskar’s best innings out of such a volume of work that he produced in the era, but it is worth trying. Lists are always contentious, hence this one too will be.

221 at Oval: A fourth innings epic that took India almost to the doors of a near impossible victory. Next best score was 80 by Chauhan.
101 at Manchester: SMG considered this his best century. Need we say more? Only two others got past double-figures!
96 at Bangalore: Arguably the best innings on a snake-pit against top quality spin of Pakistan, where he again took India almost to the doors of victory. The next best were the ‘extras’.
220 at Trinidad: First saved the match for India and then almost won it for them. Next best was 54 by Wadekar. A painful tooth helped him concentrate better!
129 at Delhi: His fastest century of 90 odd balls against a fearsome attack which had decimated India in the previous test at Kanpur. The hook was plucked out of the cupboard.
90 at Ahmedabad: Another epic on a treacherous pitch. A hundred looked certain when done in by an unplayable delivery off Holding. No one else got past 40! India, needless to say lost.
127n.o. at Faislabad: Carried his bat through fighting tooth and nail against the formidable Khan to save the test match. He couldn’t as only Amarnath got past 20!
103n.o. at Nagpur: His only ODI century and what an innings it was. Only 2nd Indian till then to score a 100 in a world cup!
57 at Manchester: SMG rated this as his best test innings technically. Having watched the video it was difficult to find a fault with it, he got beaten only once – when he got out!
102 at Trinidad: Kick-started the famous run chase of 404 with a perfect innings.
205 at Bombay: An attacking innings, rattling up 177 runs in a shade less than 5 hours against the West Indies.
127 at Perth: A belligerent innings against Thommo and Clark, guiding Amarnath to his first test century and almost setting up a win for India.

There could be another dozen that could contend for a place in this list. As one can see in most of the above innings and in many others he ploughed a lone furrow. In some he was lucky to get a little help from his brother-in-law and friends! Such was his impact on Indian cricket.

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