Celebrating Sunil Gavaskar
Yesterday, July 10th, marked Sunil Gavaskar's 56th birthday
. I managed to locate, with the help of a friend, a piece I had written about him six years ago, on his fiftieth birthday, for a website dedicated to students from India at my alma mater. Ok there's a bit of hyperbole there, but this was six years ago. My article follows ...
Sunil Gavaskar turns 50 today, and what an innings it has been. Undoubtedly one of the best opening batsmen of all time, and probably the best in the post war era. His record speaks for himself, over 10000 runs and 34 centuries. The runs were made against the best bowlers in the world, from the West Indian quick assembly line to the mean speedsters from Down Under to the Pathans from across the border. Wherever Sunny went, there were runs made.
And yet, on this very day 50 years ago, it could have all gone so wrong for Indian and World cricket. After Sunny's birth, there nearly was an exchange of babies with a fisherman's newborn baby. Luckily Madhav Mantri, Sunny's uncle had spotted a birth mark on Sunny a while ago and when the baby in the cot didnt have it, there was chaos. He was ultimately located in the cot where the fisherman's wife had kept her baby..
At 21 he made his test debut against the West Indies in the famous 1970-71 series. He didnt play in the first test and came into the team in the 2nd test. And what a debut series it was. Scores of 65, 67*, 116, 64*, 1, 117, 124 and 220. Seven hundred and seventy four runs in 8 innings. As amazing a debut as has ever been. In fact I think it still is a world record for a batsman in his first series. The Sunny Legend had begun. So much so that a poet in Trinidad (Lord Relator) composed a poem which went on the lines of
'He stood there like a wall
We just could not out Gavaskar at all'
More tours, more conquests, more runs. In the 1976 series in the West Indies, India chased 406 at Port of Spain to create a world record which stands to this day. The two men who fashioned the win were Sunny Gavaskar and Gundappa Vishwanath, who were later to become brothers-in-law. In the 1975 World Cup, came the first blot on Gavaskar's career, 36 made in the first match against England. India had to chase 330+ to win and ended up with around 120. It was a poor performance, which Gavaskar was to later explain to an inquiry committee as being a situation where he suffered a 'mental block'. Sunil Gavaskar's record in England isnt as good as his record elsewhere. In fact Underwood claimed that Sunny was his bunny !
He nearly made amends for it 4 years later, in England. At the Oval test, India were set 438 to make in 500 minutes, India made 429 before the match was brought to a close because the time was up ! Sunil Gavaskar made 221, an absolutely superb innings.
In 1980/81, India toured Australia. Gavaskar was in poor touch in the series. In the last test at Melbourne, he was on 70 having put on a 160 run partnership with Chetan Chauhan when he was adjudged lbw to Lillee. Gavaskar thought he had nicked the ball and was walking back to the pavillion when Lillee said something nasty. That snapped Gavaskar and he forced Chauhan to walk off the field. Luckily sanity prevailed with the manager intervening and the test went on. Set 150 odd to win, Australia were bowled out for less than 100 thanks to a magnificient 5/28 by an injured Kapil Dev.
In 1983/84, the West Indies visited India after being upset in the World Cup final. Malcolm Marshall was bowling at his peak. The West Indian team of the 80s was surely one of the best ever. Marshall had more or less established a superiority over the Indians in all the games. In the test at Delhi, Gavaskar's 121 was his 29th test century, overtaking Don Bradman. In the test at Ahmedabad, Gavaskar launched into Marshall,making 90 runs in around 100 balls or so. The stage was set.
At the Madras test, Gavaskar had dropped himself down the order at #4. But Marshall struck twice in the firstover to have Gavaskar walking out. Viv Richards told Sunny 'Maan, its no use if you come in at #4 or opening, you're still out here in the first over'. Sunny made 236*, the game was saved. It is still the highest test score made by an Indian.
The captaincy kept shuttling between Gavaskar and Kapil after this series. In the 1985 Benson and Hedges World Championship of Cricket, India swept aside all the opposition to win the tournament. Gavaskar was seen in a new role as a middle order batsman and an extremely aggressive captain who in fact used Sivaramakrishnan in the last overs of the innings ! Gavaskar's forte has always been his timing and what a time it was to announce his quitting the captaincy.
In the 1986/87 test series against Australia, the first test was played at Madras. Needless to say, everyone knows why this match would go down in test history. India were set 348 to get in a day. Gavaskar and Srikkanth put on a wonderful 150+ opening partnership. Then wickets started falling. But Gavaskar went on and he was out at 90. Border says that it was a great innings and he believed that Gavaskar would in fact win the game for India, which was his 100th test in a row. It was not to be. In fact neither team won the game !
In the 1987 World Cup, Gavaskar scored his first ODI century, off 82 balls, which remained a record until Azharuddin made a 64 ball hundred a few years later. However Gavaskar's last oneday wasnt in the final of the World Cup, but the semifinal, where he was bowled by DeFreitas. The master had taken his bow, but there was one act left.
The 1986-87 series against Pakistan will be rememberd forever for one test match, the one at Bangalore where India lost by 16 runs. Sunil Gavaskar played what is possibly the best innings on a poor batting track making 96 as India chased 220. What a way to bow out. In the same series, at Ahmedabad, by turning Ijaz Faqih to third man, Gavaskar became the first batsman in test cricket to make 10000 runs. A little known fact is that Gavaskar in fact batted left handed for a couple of hours in a Ranji Trophy game against Karnataka because Raghuram Bhat (left arm spinner) was consistently exploiting the patch on the right handed batsman's legstump.
In the MCC BiCentennial match at Lords, Gavaskar also scored his only century there, though this wasnt a test century of course. This was a great response to the MCC members whose rules had meant that Gavaskar couldnt enter the ground because he was in the wrong attire and was sent back by the doorman without any chance of an explanation. He later even declined life membership of the club.
The most enduring memory for me, of Gavaskar is the way he was the only one in the Indian batting lineup of the 70s and 80s who could face up to the best bowlers in the world and get runs consistently against them. Amarnath and Vishwanath were very good players of pace but they were highly inconsistent.
Gavaskar has had various roles since his retirement, as a model, a writer, a cricket program presenter, a commentator the manager of the Indian team for a couple of matches (when Wadekar was ill in the mid 1990s) and as the Sheriff of Bombay. There is little doubt that it was Sunil Manohar Gavaskar who ensured that the opponents didnt take India lightly. There indeed is little doubt that Gavaskar is truly India's best sportsman of all time.