Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Gavaskar Impact on Indian Cricket

Much as I was enamoured by his batting, Gavaskar meant much more to me and Indian Cricket. This is a realization that dawned on me while he was still playing, and more so after he had called it a day.

SMG meant many things to many people. For some he was the ‘blue eyed boy’ of Indian cricket. For some, he was the saviour, ‘after Gavaskar there is none’ being the byword. In the 70’s & mid 80’s in middle class India, we needed and had heroes to look up to. Mine – and I suspect for most – were Sunil Manohar Gavaskar in cricket and Amitabh Bachchan in the movies. The country was still in the grips of the ‘license raj’ and the ‘quota system’, where bureaucracy ruled. It was still struggling to come out of the ‘socialist’ mindset and any merchandise ‘Made in Japan’ in our possession would make us proud. Majority of middle-class Indian household still knew only ‘bank fixed deposits’ and ‘life insurance’ as the only available mode of savings! Making a living through the daily grind was the way of life. Indian cricket mirrored all this till the late 60’s.

In this back-drop the advent of Gavaskar was like fresh air. He was the ‘growth oriented’ mutual fund which most of the time gave handsome returns. Here was an Indian cricketer who refused to go down without a fight. He would look the opposition in the eye, refusing to blink. These were still the days where the cricketing powers were with the MCC along with Australia, who more often than not had the condescending attitude that is usually reserved for lesser beings. Gavaskar, in many ways apart from his batting, stood up against this attitude as he continues to do even now. He always spoke his mind and thus landing up in several controversies. But he was also, unlike any cricketer before or after him, was a multifaceted man. He wrote several books during his days and the first one ‘Sunny Days’ till date remains perhaps the finest autobiography written by an Indian cricketer, and he didn’t ghost write it! Later on in his career after TV had arrived in India he ventured into several cricket programs called ‘Sunil Gavaskar Presents’ showing his penchant for the media role which he has donned successfully since then. He encouraged several youngsters in the team and guided them through the initial phases of their career. He grasped the commerce of cricket much before anybody else did. He fought for players rights and often got on the wrong side of the board for this. Though some of his detractors cried foul, calling him a mercenary, this argument falls flat on its face, as when he had the chance of going to Packer, he backed out since he wanted to play in the official form of the game for his country.

As a player, the impact of his batting has already been talked about, but his impact on other areas was equally important. He was a great slip fielder and became the first Indian to take 100 catches in Tests. Rarely does one remember him dropping catches in slips even during his later days. His fitness, along with Kapil Dev, was legendary, playing the most consecutive games for India. He missed just 3 tests due to an ‘external’ injury during a career spanning almost 17 years. He was supreme in ‘cricket fitness’.

At an early stage in his career, he was earmarked by Tiger Pataudi as his logical successor for Indian captaincy. But due to the strange ways of the Board he had to wait for three years of Bedi’s reign, before he could don the mantle as Indian captain. His captaincy skills, which were evident even in his younger days, have been spoken highly of, by most. Even in the early days when he would stand in for Bedi during a match opponents noted his intuitiveness. Tony Greig, MCC captain of the 1976-77 tour to India talks about this in his book where he mentions, how every time Bedi left the field, Gavaskar would take over and post a silly-point to our great spinners and that would worry the English batsman. They would wish Bedi to come back and take the silly-point off and give them respite!

When he became full time captain, he immediately put emphasis on fast bowling, which was helped by the advent of Kapil. He was instrumental in guiding Kapil through his formative years. However, strange were the ways of the BCCI, as it is now. They never gave Gavaskar the long rope which he thoroughly deserved; hence his reign was a very fragmented one. He probably didn’t trust the BCCI after the first time they removed him as captain for the 1979 tour to England, even going on to call them ‘court jesters’ later!
His captaincy essentially was based on the philosophy of ‘safety first’. He came across as very hard-nosed captain, thereby first making sure that India doesn’t lose and then going in for the kill if the opportunity so arose. As a result, he drew flak from some quarters who labeled him as a ‘defensive’ captain. What such critics forgot was that, his becoming captain also signaled another cusp in Indian cricket – ‘spin’ era to ‘medium-fast’ era – where he only had one match winning bowler in his team, the one and only Kapil Dev. By this time Kapil was operating both as a strike and the stock bowler and there was only so much that he could do. The great spin quartet had been decimated in Pakistan and were a spent force by the time he took over, where he had no other option but to apply this ‘safety first’ tactic, which sometimes cost him a win or two, but saved many more, interspersed with some notable victories.
His last stint in captaincy goes to blow this myth of being a defensive captain where he led India to that famous and comprehensive victory in the B&H World Championship in the one-day version of the game. And his captaincy was masterly as the venerable Richie Benaud himself stated. Handling a young Sivaramakrishnan, the leg-spinner in the ODIs was an example of this fact. Till then leg-spinners were the bane of one-day cricket. Gavaskar brought it into fashion, taking into account the large Australian grounds that India played on. This along with the World Cup victory in 1983 ranks as India’s two biggest moments in one-day cricket. In test matches there were several proud moments that Indian cricket gave us under Gavaskar’s captaincy. Some of the notable ones were the victory in Auckland against a strong New Zealand side in 1976, the famous series victory against an even stronger Pakistan side in 1979 and that MCG win in 1980.
There was controversy too, such as the supposed ‘tussle’ for captaincy with Kapil Dev. We as outsiders will never know the full story, but from all accounts, the major blame for this must lie with the board. Kapil was 10 years junior to Gavaskar in age – and in India, seniority matters even today – and 8 years junior in cricketing experience. Hence it is quite likely that Gavaskar was not given the due respect he deserved. He was unceremoniously removed from the captaincy after the ill-fated Pakistan tour in 1982-83. India was simply outclassed there and any other captain wouldn’t have fared better. Kapil on the other hand was an outspoken character and with his ‘dodgy’ English made statements that would rub any senior cricketer the wrong way. As a result, from reports it was apparent that there was a rift between Kapil and Gavaskar during the West Indies series in 1983 which the media blew out of proportion. After all Gavaskar had a successful series and scored his record breaking centuries. Kapil after the landmark looked decidedly happy when on a TV interview to Narottam Puri said “I am happy because he (SMG) is an Indian who has got the record, and he has done it under my captaincy”. The genuine happiness was for all to see. It is bewildering that so much was made out of that rift. A year later Gavaskar was blamed by most for being influential in dropping Kapil from a test match at Calcutta. The respected Rajan Bala’s book elaborates how Gavaskar wanted Kapil restored before the test, but the board put its foot down! I elaborate the above because it just goes to show that even if both of them did not see eye to eye on many cricketing matters, it necessarily does not mean that they were going at each other’s throats. Both knew the value of the other and Gavaskar being the senior statesman gave full support to Kapil Dev in the latter’s second stint at captaincy. The fact that their relationship has endured was when we witnessed Gavaskar being the first one to get up and congratulate Kapil Dev on the latter being declared India’s greatest cricketer of the 20th Century.

There was another allegation against Gavaskar being parochial and partial towards Bombay cricketers and didn’t help cricketers from other part of the country. This argument again falls flat on its face. Initially and for the first half of his career, virtually half of the Indian team was made up of Bombay cricketers. As a result it is quite obvious that he, coming from Bombay must have been closer to Bombay players. It is well known, the moral support he gave to Sudhir Naik who according to reports was crestfallen after the ‘theft’ fiasco on the disastrous tour to England in 1974 and Gavaskar was then just 24! Apart from helping shape several careers of cricketers from West Zone, he was instrumental in getting Mohinder Amarnath back for the Pakistan tour in 1982. Even in the earlier part of his career he was close to several players from the South and his early relationship with Bedi was of great friendship. Then how can he be branded partial to Bombay cricket? Many youngsters got their first chances under his captaincy and not all of them were from Bombay. The only questionable selection made during his tenure was probably that of Suru Nayak for the 1982 England tour where Nayak was a miserable failure. An error of judgment or two over 17 years is not a crime!
Even after retirement, he was known to have passed on his vast knowledge of the game to several youngsters, none more so to his protégé and successor to the throne, Sachin Tendulkar. Even in the recent past, it was a well known secret that he stood behind the deposed Indian skipper Sourav Ganguly in the latter’s bad days after the spat with the recently departed coach Greg Chappell.

Even from the distance, he always came across as an extremely strong-willed man. He was the anti-thesis of the usual Indian sportsman. An Indian sportsman was supposed to be just an entertainer. His only duty was supposed to be playing for India and not worry about rewards. He was supposed to play for the country as if he was on national duty and not even think of making a good living out of it. He was supposed to be a gullible sort of a chap who should be at the mercy of the cricket watching public and the Board playing the role of the patron. We were suppose to ‘love’ our sportsmen not necessarily ‘respect’ him. Gavaskar came and changed all that. Hence where the crowds loved their ‘Vishies’, ‘Chandras’ or their ‘Kapils’, SMG was a different kettle of fish. He was not a royalty like ‘Tiger’ but neither was he the ‘sentimental’ favourite of most. He was the one they ‘respected’, even sometimes grudgingly. He made sure that he would get his way even at the cost of being unpopular at times. He in his head-strong way even took on the crowd at times, most famously at the Eden where he had some tumultuous times during the 80’s. He promised after the England test in 1985, that he would never play at the Eden again. Right or wrong, he kept his word.

Over the years, Gavaskar appears to have mellowed down and is guarded about his opinions. Through his weekly columns he comes across as more of a world cricket observer than an Indian cricket critic. His commentary is more in the lines of Benaud, speaking only when it matters and his elucidation on the technical aspects of the game is non-pareil. He has though sadly, but not surprisingly, stayed away from being involved in any official capacity of the board, appearing only sporadically in various committees and was instrumental in restructuring the Ranji Trophy – for the better – a couple of years back. One though feels that given a free reign he could have delivered much more for Indian cricket, drawing on his immense knowledge of the game.

As recently on the 75th anniversary of Indian cricket while drawing up the Indian team of the past 75 years, Erapalli Prasanna a member of the panel which selected the India’s Greatest XI, commented while nominating Gavaskar as the captain of the all time greatest India XI, “He is such a good CEO, like of any organization...”. He couldn’t have been closer to the truth.

In one word, the ‘Little Master’ over his long and distinguished association with cricket had gone on to become the ‘Grand Master’ of Indian Cricket.

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