This column had spoken about the changing relations between players and the press last week. By a strange coincidence, the week that went by saw a testy exchange of letters between a prominent sports journalist and one of India’s all time great batsmen over an episode that took place more than four decades ago. As both the present interaction between the two and the incident that took place are interesting subjects in their own right, they need a detailed recall.
Suresh Menon, presently the editor of Wisden India, contributes a weekly column to The Hindu daily. In his column published during the week that ended on June 5, he had written about ambidextrous cricketers. There are not many who can bat and bowl with equal proficiency with both hands and the article made an interesting reading. In the last part of this piece, he mentioned about Sunil Gavaskar batting left handed during the second innings of the Ranji Trophy semifinal between Bombay and Karnataka in 1982. The article ended with the observation that many Karnataka players believed that batting left handed was a tantrum thrown by the great batsman.
Gavaskar, not one to take things lying down, promptly responded to this remark by writing to Menon. In his letter, Gavaskar claimed that batting left handed was part of a deliberate strategy to negate the turn that Raghuram Bhat and Vijayakrishna, the two Karnataka left-arm spinnners, were getting on the wicket. He also mentioned that when a right-arm bowler came on to bowl, he switched over to batting right handed so that “the turning ball would hit my body and not take the edge”. Gavaskar emphasised that this was a “tactic” which was deployed successfully and met with approval from Bhat himself. Though this letter contained a couple of taunts that could have been avoided, Menon was man enough to publish it in his column next week, which is how the outside world came to know of this correspondence.
The incident had created a furore and one needs to know the background against which it took place to understand its relevance. Ranji Trophy matches used to be played hard during those days and the games at the knockout stage, especially those involving top teams, used to draw huge crowds as well. Bombay, the defending champions, travelled to Bangalore to take on Karnataka in the semifinals in March, 1982. Bombay were led by Gavaskar and had in their ranks eminent players such as Dilip Vengsarkar, Ravi Shastri, Sandeep Patil, Ashok Mankad and Balwinder Singh Sandhu. Karnataka, under Gundappa Viswanath, were an equally strong side with the presence of internationals Roger Binny and Brijesh Patel besides Sudhakar Rao, Vijayakrishna and Bhat, all formidable performers in domestic circuit.
At this juncture a word needs to put in on the importance placed on the matches by the players themselves. Bombay were the undisputed champions of domestic cricket, having won the Ranji Trophy a record 15 times consecutively from 1958-59 till 1972-73. Their winning streak was ended by Karnataka in 1974 and the rise of Delhi as a top side towards the late 1970s ensured that there were two teams that could give Bombay a run for their money. Further, Bombay cricketers were mentally tough and used all tricks available in the books and some even outside them to win matches, which did not make this side a popular one either with other sides or with spectators outside their home turf. The aggressive approach of Bombay players was matched by their counterparts from Delhi, which lent an extra edge to the proceedings in games between these two sides. However, the more docile nature of South Indian players, coupled with the presence of a a gentleman like Viswanath at the helm, ensured that matches involving Karnataka and Bombay were played in relatively calmer atmosphere.
Gavaskar won the toss and elected to bat on a pitch which was expected to offer turn to spin bowlers. Bombay made a comfortable start and the openers put on 62 before Gavaskar was caught by Viswanath at slip off Bhat's bowling. Those were the days when players used to write for sports magazines and Gavaskar had written how surprised he was when the first ball bowled by Bhat turned and jumped. He immediately looked towards the dressing room where Shastri waved back to him in glee indicating how happy he would be to bowl on this wicket! Bombay recovered after the fall of Gavaskar and Vengsarkar as Ghulam Parker and Sandeep Patil batted well and put on a 101-run stand for the third wicket.
The course of the game underwent a sudden change when the Bombay total reached 183 as Parkar, Ashok Mankad and Suru Nayak were dismissed off consecutive deliveries by Bhat. While Parkar was trapped leg before wicket, Mankad edged one that turned and jumped to Viswanath at slip and Nayak was bowled neck and crop as Bhat completed a hat-trick. Though Shastri stayed at the wicket and helped Patil add 52 runs for the sixth wicket, Bombay could not recover from this reverse and their innings folded up for 271. Patil, with 117 runs to his credit, was the top-scorer.
When Karnataka batted, Bombay mounted pressure, making the batsmen struggle. After opening batsmen Binny and Srinivasa Prasad were dismissed, Jayaprakash and Viswanath steadied the innings and took the score to 133 when the former was dismissed caught at forward short leg off the bowling of part time off-spinner Mankad. In fact Mankad was pressed into service by Gavaskar as Shastri and Ravi Thakkar, the frontline spinners, were having a poor day. Mankad struck again soon to dismiss Viswanath when umpire Rajen Mehra gave him “out” to a vociferous appeal made by Bombay players for a catch at forward short leg by Vengsarkar.
During his playing years, Viswanath had earned a reputation for being a “walker”. In other words, he was known to walk without waiting for the umpire’s decision if he believed he was out. And he had never questioned a decision given by an umpire. But, on this day, he broke this habit and stood at the crease for a couple of seconds with his hands on his hips before starting to walk towards the pavilion. Whether this was on account of disappointment over getting dismissed or due to displeasure caused by an incorrect decision would never be known. But, this had the effect of sending a message to the crowd that he was not happy with this decision of the umpire. They started throwing chairs onto the field and when the players ran towards the pavilion to take refuge, manhandled the umpires, forcing the game to be stopped.
When play resumed, one could see that Bombay players were in a state of shock. They just went through the motions while Patel, Sudhakar Rao, Kirmani and the tailenders piled on runs. Karnataka innings finally ended at 470. The match was as good as over as there appeared little chance of Bombay even wiping off the first innings lead, let alone post a target for the hosts. But what followed at Chinnaswamy Stadium on that day was something out of the ordinary.
Bombay batsmen appeared to be taking their side to the safe shores of a draw when Bhat struck again in the second innings. From 126/2, they collapsed to 139/5, when Gavaskar, who did not open the innings citing a injury, came out to bat. But to the surprise of all and sundry, he took guard as a left hand batsman and started batting. By now Bhat had again run into devastating form and wickets started falling like nine pins. And when the ninth wicket fell, with the total at 176, it appeared that Karnataka might heap the humiliation of an outright defeat over the visitors.
But Gavaskar remained unfazed and carried on batting left handed. He was the very picture of concentration and poise as tackled the unpredictable turn and bounce that the pitch offered to Bhat, while at the same time guarding last man Thakkar. He did bat right handed during one over bowled by Viswanath, when he scored 14 runs to take his side overcome the deficit in first innings. In another unique act, he did not bat till the end of the day. When less than 10 minutes play remained, he declared the innings closed, thus ensuring that Karnataka could not bat again while his side still had one wicket remaining.
Gavaskar’s action in batting left handed drew widespread criticism. Many condemned it as an act of churlishness, aimed at denying due credit to the Karnataka side. But the fact remains that Bhat and other bowlers could not dismiss him even when he was bating left handed. It is difficult to accept Gavaskar’s argument that this was a deliberate tactic as no one else in Bombay side was allowed to adopt this “tactic” and there existed many other tried and tested methods to tackle spin bowlers on a turning track. Lay public believed the version that this was a “Gavaskar tantrum”, akin to the near walkout at Melbourne in 1981, which only he could throw and get away with.
Incidentally Gavaskar was to play one of the finest innings in modern cricket history on the same ground five years later, in the last Test of the series against Pakistan. On a minefield of a wicket, he tackled Tauseef Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim, the Pakistani spinners, to score 96 on what turned out to be his last appearance in Test cricket. He did not try batting left handed during this match, but instead put his head down and displayed extraordinary levels of concentration and flawless technique to take India close to a victory before he was dismissed. This only shows that Gavaskar possessed the technical brilliance to play the best of spin bowlers in the world on tough tracks, without resorting to “tactics” such as batting left handed.
The promptness with which Gavaskar reacted to the article by Menon and the strong words used in his letter show that this incident continues to rankle the great batsman even though more than 40 years have passed since. Indian public accepted the greatness of Gavaskar as a batsman and cricketer and took in their stride the occasional instances of “odd behaviour” from him. Gavaskar would do well to recognise this fact rather than retaliate to every journalistic viewpoint contrary to his own stand.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)