The week that went by saw Sunil Manohar Gavaskar, one of the greatest batsmen that India has produced, celebrate his birthday. Born on July 10, 1949, Gavaskar moves on to his 72nd year on planet earth with the same purposeful stride that marked his walk to the crease to open the batting for his side. For those fans, including this author, who started following the game in the 1970s, Gavaskar was not just a great cricketer and batsman but was a legend, icon and celebrity, all rolled into one.
His entry into international cricket was also the time when India started winning Test matches on foreign soil against the top sides in the world. His contributions to these successes were immense as were his inputs to the side through the entire length of his career. He was not one suited, both technically and mentally, to the slam bang stuff played in the limited overs matches, but brought about the required changes in attitude and batting style to notch up his maiden century in this format as well before he bid adieu from the game.
He also led the national side till he chose to step down from the captaincy, during the latter part of his career. After his playing days, he managed a smooth transition to the commentary box, where his wit and wisdom made him a much sought-after expert. Thus, Gavaskar belongs to the rare breed of persons who managed to script success in every facet of the game that he chose to involve himself in.
Indian fans of the yore would remember by heart the numerous records that he created during his playing days. However, there are many nuggets about him which may not be known to all. Here is an attempt to list some of the lesser known facts about the maestro.
Duck on Ranji debut
Gavaskar made his Ranji Trophy debut against Mysore (present day Karnataka) during the1968-69 season. But he was dismissed without scoring in the first innings by M S Rajappa, the opening bowler, who trapped him leg before wicket (LBW). Rajappa’s stock ball was the inswinger and after three such deliveries, he bowled one that straightened up after pitching. Gavaskar played for the swing and missed the line completely and was hit on the pads, plumb in front of the stumps. This was not an auspicious start and critics in Bombay (present day Mumbai) harped upon this dismissal to allege that Gavaskar’s selection into the side was on account of his uncle Madhav Mantri being a selector. However, Gavaskar silenced his critics by hitting centuries in the next three Ranji Trophy matches, thus cementing his place in the side.
Gavaskar made his Test debut against the West Indies during the second Test held at Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1971. He scored half-centuries in both innings and was unbeaten with 67 to his credit when India won the match by seven wickets, registering their first ever victory over the West Indies, and that too, on their home turf. But in this Test, the first role that Gavaskar performed was that of a bowler. After the West Indies won the toss and chose to bat, Indian opening bowlers Abid Ali and Eknath Solkar bowled six overs with the new ball, at which point, skipper Ajit Wadekar threw the ball to Gavaskar, replacing Solkar. He bowled one over conceding nine runs and was not asked by his captain to turn his arm over again in that game.
During the tour of England in 1971, Gavaskar was responsible for fast bowler John Snow getting suspended for a Test. In the second innings of the first Test, India were chasing a target of 183 on the last day. After India lost two quick wickets, Farokh Engineer was promoted in the order to join Gavaskar who was batting comfortably. Engineer played a delivery from Snow to square leg and called Gavaskar for a sharp single. Snow changed course in his follow through and rushed towards ball to pick it up and throw down the stumps at the batsman’s end. While doing so, he came in the path of Gavaskar, who was rushing to complete the run.
A collision followed and Gavaskar was sent hurtling down with the bat being thrown out of his hand. Gavaskar somehow managed to get up and complete the run while Snow lost his momentum and could not pick up the ball. He picked up Gavaskar’s bat which had fallen close to where he stood and tossed it back to him and went back to start his run up for bowling the next ball. However, his actions in not apologising to Gavaskar and tossing the bat, instead of handing it over in a polite manner invited the wrath of honchos of English cricket and Snow was handed a one-match suspension! The match finally ended in a draw as the last session of play was washed out.
Rapport with Vishy
G R Viswanath was Gavaskar’s roommate during his first tour and they developed a strong bond of friendship that lasted even after their cricketing careers ended. This was further cemented when Viswanath married Kavita Gavaskar, sister of Sunil, in April, 1978. These two were the pillars that shouldered the Indian batting throughout the 70s, with Gavaskar opening the batting and Viswanath coming in at No. 4 and holding the middle order together. However, these two giants who have a total of 48 centuries between them shared only two partnerships worth over 100 runs in Test cricket!
The first of these came in the first Test they played together - against the West Indies in Georgetown, Guyana, in the third Test of the 1971 series - where they put on 112 runs for the third wicket. The other occasion was during the fourth Test of the series against Australia in 1979 at Delhi, where both of them scored centuries and were associated in a 159-run stand.
Best fielder honour
Gavaskar was known as a safe fielder who usually stood in the slip cordon, where he had picked up many catches. Gavaskar was selected, along with Bishan Singh Bedi and Farokh Engineer, to be part of the Rest of the World side that toured Australia during the winter of 1971-72. Though he had only moderate success as a batsman during this series, he won the award for being the best fielder, a prize that came as a pleasant surprise to him.
When Gavaskar inquired about this, he was informed that Clove Lloyd was easily the best fielder before he was laid low by a back injury. After Lloyd left the series midway through, Gavaskar took his place in the deep and in his own words “did some honest running in the large outfields on Australian grounds chasing and trying to cut off powerful shots”. But such was Gavaskar’s sincerity in this regard that the Aussies were suitably impressed and chose him for the award as the best fielder!
It was a fact that the Queens Park Oval at Port of Spain, Trinidad, was Gavaskar’s favourite cricket ground. He made his bow into international cricket at this venue with two half-centuries and followed this up in the same series by hitting 124 and 220 in the last match of the series, which was also played on this ground. During the tour of West Indies in 1976, he scored 156 in the second Test and 102 in the third match, both of which were played here.
Hence when the Indian side landed in 1983 for a four-Test series, a fan saw no risk in placing a bet that Gavaskar would score more than twice the runs made by the West Indian openers Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes together, in the first innings of the second Test played here. India won the toss and batted first, but Gavaskar, who was going through a difficult patch, was dismissed by Michael Holding for just one run. The disappointed fan gave the money thinking he had lost the bet. But matters did not end there. As fate would have it Balwinder Singh Sandhu dismissed both Greenidge and Haynes for “ducks” when the West Indies batted, thus ensuring that the fan eventually won the bet!
Gavaskar used to bowl whenever captains sought his services in this regard. He could bowl medium pace as well as off-spin and had to credit 22 wickets in first-class cricket. However, in Test matches he could pick up only one wicket, with the victim being Zaheer Abbas, the Pakistani batsman, who was a constant thorn in the flesh of Indian bowlers. In the second innings of the first Test of the 1978-79 series played at Faisalabad, Gavaskar dismissed Zaheer when the batsman was just four runs short of the landmark of scoring a century in each innings.
Zaheer, who had scored a brilliant 176 in the first innings, tried to hit a boundary to reach his hundred in the second knock with an on drive when Gavaskar was bowling, but skied the shot to give a simple catch to Chetan Chauhan at deep mid on. This remains Gavaskar's sole Test wicket. Zaheer, touted Asian Bradman, is also Gavaskar's lone scalp in One-Day International cricket!
Fans of Gavaskar would have many similar anecdotes to tell about the great man which could fill up many reams of paper. Gavaskar won the respect and admiration from millions of Indians for the calm assurance with which he played the game and making us believe that we were in no manner inferior to other sides.
His fearlessness that made it possible to face the fastest of bowlers without donning a helmet and the self confidence with which he looked the opponents squarely in the eye brought us hope during a period when there was little to be optimistic about. It was he who first ploughed the path that was traversed by Indian cricketers of subsequent generations to carry the country to the top slot in world cricket.
Here is wishing the Little Master a wonderful year ahead filled with happiness, good health and peace. And a prayer to Lord to let him serve the game for many more years to come.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)