Most present day followers of cricket in India could be forgiven if they assumed that Kapil Dev was the first fast bowler in the country to enter the hallowed “100-wicket club” in Test cricket. Cricket historians might write about Mohammed Nissar and Amar Singh, who did India proud while bowling with the new ball in the pre-Independence days. But after the country became independent, spin bowling took the upper hand for the next three decades to such an extent that pace bowling became almost extinct in our country.
It is widely believed that it was the advent of Kapil in 1978 that changed this gloomy scenario and paved the way for a new generation of fast bowlers to emerge. But in the years immediately prior to the arrival of Kapil and during the initial phase of the career of this great all-rounder, there was a medium-pacer who was capable of bowling at a reasonable speed and possessed enough weapons in his arsenal to be treated with respect by batsmen across the globe as to pick up more than 100 wickets in Test cricket. He was Karsan Devji Ghavri, the left-arm bowler, who played international cricket for India for nearly seven years from December, 1974, onwards.
After making his first-class debut for Saurashtra during the 1969-70 season, Ghavri moved to Mumbai four years later in search of greener pastures. This move served him well as Mumbai was on the look out for a good medium-pacer to bolster their bowling department, while playing for the top side in domestic cricket brought Ghavri to the national limelight quickly. An impressive performance against the touring West Indies side while turning out for West Zone in November, 1974, further strengthened his case before the national selectors. This was followed by a poor show by the medium-pace unit of Abid Ali and Eknath Solkar in the first two Tests against the West Indies, which India lost by huge margins. When the selectors sat down to choose the side for the third Test at Kolkata, they decided to give a new look to the team and made five changes, one of which was the drafting in of Ghavri to the squad.
Ghavri did not make much with the bat and picked up only one wicket later. But, in the second innings, he gave admirable support to Gundappa Viswanath when the match was evenly poised placed on the morning of fourth day. Ghavri had walked in to join Viswanath before draw of stumps on the third day when India had lost 6/192 runs and managed to survive that evening. Lloyd let loose his fast bowlers on the Indian batsmen on fourth day and Andy Roberts, Bernard Julien and Vanburn Holder went all out to separate the pair. Though Viswanath was in top form and tackled Roberts and Julien with ease, he was troubled by the cut and seam bowling of Holder. But displaying a temperament and maturity that belied the fact that he was only a debutant, Ghavri took upon himself the task of tackling Holder and managed it capably. The pair added 91 runs for the seventh wicket and helped India cross the 300 mark in the second innings, which helped the hosts to win this closely-fought test by a margin of 85 runs.
Another similar performance followed in the next Test at Chennai, where Ghavri helped Anshuman Gaekwad add 68 runs for the eighth wicket in the second innings to help India set a target of 255. India won the match by 100 runs to square the series 2-2. In the last Test at Mumbai, Ghavri bowled 35 overs and picked up 4/140. Thus, by the time the series ended, Ghavri had proved his mettle with both bat and ball, besides showing an ability to maintain his cool during difficult situations, and was hailed as one of the “finds” of this series which the visitors won 3-2.
One would have expected that Ghavri would be an automatic choice when India played the next Test. Unfortunately, this was not to be as he was dropped from the squad that toured New Zealand and the West Indies in 1975-76. This was ostensibly on account of a poor spell of bowling against England in the inaugural match of 1975 Prudential World Cup. He was brought back into the national side during the 1976-77 season, when New Zealand and England toured India. He played in five of the eight Tests and his performances, both with the bat and ball, were nothing to write home about. But in the last Test against England at Mumbai, he picked his maiden five wicket-haul in Tests; but surprisingly, this came when he was not bowling medium-pace but sending down slow left-arm spin!
This practice of playing Ghavri only occasionally and keeping him in the reserves for longer duration continued during the tours of Australia in 1977-78 and Pakistan in 1978, where he could play in only four out of the eight Tests. This could have been on account of skipper Bishan Singh Bedi having equal or more faith in the abilities of Madan Lal, who was Ghavri’s rival for the single spot of medium-pacer available in the squad. The entry of Kapil during the series against Pakistan saw this place go to him and it was only when Sunil Gavaskar took over the captaincy in December, 1978, that Ghavri could finally get an uninterrupted run in Test matches.
Ghavri came into his own during the Test series at home against the West Indies in 1978-79, and was the highest wicket-taker, with 27 scalps from six matches. He and Kapil, who took 17 wickets, formed a potent pair of fast bowlers who troubled the batsmen no end, thus finally relegating the spinners to the background for the first time since the 1940s. The two continued their good performances during the tour of England that followed. However, by this time Kapil had grown to become the spearhead with 16 wickets to his credit, as against Ghavri’s tally of eight.
Ghavri continued in his role as an efficient support bowler to Kapil during the 1979-80 season wherein 13 Tests were played. Though his wicket-taking abilities showed a decline during this season, with there being only one five wicket-haul in the Golden Jubilee Test against England, he came good with the bat on many occasions. He made a career best score of 86 against Australia in the last Test of the six-match series. But more importantly, he rescued India, who were tottering at 69/8 in the first Innings of the Kanpur test against Pakistan with an unbeaten knock of 45 and helped to take the side to a more respectable total of 162. Similarly in the last Test at Kolkata, with fate of the game hanging in the balance, Ghavri played an unbeaten 37 that helped India to reach a total of 205 and prevented Pakistan from pulling off an upset win.
When India toured Australia in 1980-81, Ghavri had a good outing. He picked up a five wicket in the first Test at Sydney that the visitors lost by a big margin and mounted a rearguard action in the last innings of the second Test to help India to avoid another defeat. In the last Test at Melbourne, after Australia were set a target of 143, Ghavri bowled a memorable over during which he dismissed John Dyson and Greg Chappell off consecutive deliveries. The wicket of Chappell, who had scored heavily during this series, was the critical one that made India believe that they still stood a chance of winning this game, which they ultimately did, by a margin of 59 runs.
Injuries bogged down Ghavri during the New Zealand leg of this tour and he could play only in the second Test of that series. Still, he was in the reckoning to be Kapil’s partner with the new ball during the home series against England in 1981-82. However, selectors sprang a surprise by replacing him with Madan Lal, his old nemesis. The fact that Madan Lal was among the wickets in domestic cricket during the previous season might have tipped the scales in his favour. Though skipper Gavaskar made clear his displeasure over this decision of the committee, the axe could not be avoided. Madan Lal grabbed this opportunity with both hands and picked up 5/23 in the second innings of the first Test of that series, thus cementing his place in the side.
Ghavri faded away from the domestic cricket scene after that. He did not make any serious attempts at making a comeback to the national side. This could have been on account of the fact that he was already into his 30s when he lost his place or due to a lack of inclination towards maintaining physical fitness through regular exercises. He played his last first-class match during 1984-85 season. Later, he served a stint as selector of Mumbai Ranji Trophy side and was also involved in the activities of the Mumbai Cricket Association for a brief period.
In the final analysis, Ghavri was worth much more to the side than the 913 runs and 109 wickets that stand against his name in Test matches. He chipped in with both the ball and bat at critical moments, besides playing second fiddle to Kapil during the final phase of his career. He possessed a bouncer that was difficult to read besides the stock delivery of left arm pace bowlers that swung away from right hand batsmen. As a batsman, he was accomplished enough to play as per the requirements of the side. The fact that his most memorable innings have come against the best bowling attacks in the world stands as testimony to his abilities with the willow. Though he was not treated well by the selectors, except when Gavaskar was the captain, he did not let that stand in the way of performing well whenever given the opportunities.
Followers of cricket in India during the 1970s will not forget Ghavri. His name brings to mind fond memories of the phase when the national team resurrected itself from the depths it had sunk to in 1974 and evolved into a side capable of holding their own in Test cricket.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)