Sunday, June 16, 2013

Excerpts from Indra Vikram Singh's book 'Don's Century' ..... 22 - Chapter 7 : PEERLESS RUNGETTER AND OTHER MASTERS OF THE WILLOW (27. Sunil Gavaskar)

Gavaskar’s arrival was indicative of the fact that Indian cricket had come of age. The spin quartet of Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Bishen Singh Bedi were at the height of their powers. Gavaskar showed that fast bowling could not only be tackled but also scored off, in a prolific if not dominant fashion. Before him, Indian batsmen, with some notable exceptions, had the dubious reputation of stepping away to leg when confronted with genuine pace, and floundering against swing. Gavaskar changed it all.

There was a new captain at the helm, Ajit Wadekar, on that path-breaking tour of the Caribbean in 1971, ending at least for the time being the Pataudi era which had also begun in the West Indies nine years earlier. The signs were ominous as India won the second Test at Port of Spain by 7 wickets. It was India’s first victory over the West Indies in six series, home and away, and helped clinch the rubber, with the other four Tests drawn. Gavaskar scored 65 and 67 not out on debut, and gave solid starts in both innings along with Bombay (now Mumbai) colleague Ashok Mankad.

Two other Bombay stars made it a habit of pulling India out of troubled waters. In the first Test at Kingston, with India tottering at 75 for five, Dilip Sardesai (212) and Eknath Solkar (61) put on 137 runs to help raise a respectable total of 387. With no play on the first day, the follow-on could be enforced in the four-day Test with a lead of 150 runs, and Wadekar in his maiden Test as captain inflicted this ignominy on the hosts. The ageing Rohan Kanhai and skipper Garfield Sobers brought back memories of their halcyon days in a match-saving fourth-wicket partnership of 173 runs. Kanhai scored 56 and 158 not out, and Sobers 44 and 93. It seemed that the experienced middle-order would have to see the West Indies through, for the bowling was depleted, with Sobers having to bowl long stints.

It was not to be. Sobers and Kanhai did not fire in the second Test, and Clive Lloyd was a disappointment through the series. India won the Test with ease, heralding one of the happiest phases in their history, and marking the beginning of the end of Sobers’ days as leader. The brilliant side that he had inherited from Worrell, and which flowered under him in the mid-sixties, had all but disintegrated. In that triumph at Port of Spain, after Gavaskar’s promising debut, once again Sardesai (112) and Solkar (55) added 114 for the fifth wicket to give India a handsome first innings lead. Then as Wadekar, in a master-stroke, brought on the tall left-arm spinner Salim Durrani who castled Lloyd (15) and Sobers (0), India were on the road to victory. Gavaskar ultimately brought up the win in the company of Abid Ali.

That was the point when Indian cricket earned its self-respect, and emerged from the shadows onto the world stage. The man to show the way was the little opener. Rarely has one man done so much to change the fortunes of a nation’s sport. Inevitably, Gavaskar’s maiden Test century came in the next innings. He scored 116, once again laying a solid foundation to the Indian innings along with Mankad, and helping India take the first innings lead. It took an unbroken 170-run fourth-wicket stand between Charlie Davis and Sobers, unbeaten with 125 and 108 respectively, to save the day for the West Indies. Sobers’ declaration provided the opportunity to Gavaskar to score his third sixty. This time he clocked up an unbroken century stand with Mankad, worth 123 when stumps were finally drawn.

The only innings in which Gavaskar failed in the series was at Bridgetown when he was caught at mid-wicket off debutant paceman Uton Dowe for 1. Yet again Sardesai (150) and Solkar (65) retrieved the situation, this time from an even more abysmal 70 for six, faced with a huge West Indies score of 501 for five declared. Sobers had scored a monumental unbeaten 178 and put on 167 for the fourth wicket with Davis. On this occasion Sardesai and Solkar were associated in a 186-run partnership. The tailenders held on with Sardesai to save the follow-on. Sobers set India a target of 335 to win in a little over five hours. The run chase was never on and Gavaskar, in his own words, played “purely a defensive innings” of 117 not out, though he did fire a few rousing shots including a hooked six off Dowe. The Test was saved.

On the eve of the six-day final Test, again at Trinidad, Gavaskar developed severe toothache and spent a sleepless night. He had to wait for his troublesome tooth to be extracted till the Test was over and was denied pain-killers even at night on the plea that they would make him drowsy during play. Mankad had fractured his right wrist fending off a Dowe snorter in the second innings at Bridgetown, and his replacement Kenia Jayantilal broke his thumb in the intervening match at Dominica. As a result Abid Ali accompanied Gavaskar at the top of the order. Sobers, under pressure to square the series, opened the bowling, sending down a torrid spell. Abid Ali fell for 10 and Wadekar for 28. Gavaskar and Sardesai then put on 122, the little opener batting through the pain to score 124.

Sobers was indeed a determined man. He hit up 132, putting on 183 for the fifth wicket with Davis (105). West Indies piled up 526, a lead of 166. The pressure was on India. Gavaskar was now weak and worn out, still in pain, unable to eat or sleep properly, and having fielded for long hours in hot and humid conditions. Sobers was again sharp with the new ball, trapping Abid Ali early. Wadekar, though, helped Gavaskar add 148 runs.

The battle lines were drawn on the fifth day as Gavaskar soldiered on. He completed his second century of the Test to a huge ovation, with some of the spectators invading the pitch. He began the final day on 180, in very poor physical condition. And when he cover-drove Dowe to bring up his double hundred, all hell broke loose. The delirious crowd hoisted him high and literally played around with the little fellow. It was only the second time in Test history, after Doug Walters’ 242 and 103 against the West Indies in 1968-69, that a hundred and double hundred had been scored in the same game. Gavaskar had progressed to 220 when he finally chopped a ball on to his stumps. The next highest was Wadekar’s 54. Now at last Gavaskar could get his tooth extracted. It was a painstaking effort, literally, that ensured a landmark series triumph for the country. 

The West Indies needed 262 to win with time running out. In the end their ninth-wicket pair hung on precariously to eke out a draw. Such was Gavaskar’s memorable, and phenomenal, initiation in Test cricket. No one had scored so many runs, 774, on first appearance. That was in just four Tests, and his average of 154.80 would have made Bradman proud. The entire cricketing world was now talking about this 21-year-old. Over the next sixteen years Gavaskar earned the admiration and respect of players, critics and fans alike, and came to be rated as one of the greatest opening batsmen ever.

It might not have been a top-class West Indies bowling attack and Sobers may have dropped him on a couple of occasions, but Gavaskar displayed a wonderful technique, a wide range of strokes, patience, determination, resilience and a tremendous will to battle on in the face of acute physical discomfort. Surely, this little young man was out of the ordinary.

His great predecessor Len Hutton paid Gavaskar the ultimate tribute, naming one of the chapters of his book Fifty Years in Cricket, ‘Gavaskar and Other Greats’. Hutton wrote: “I have the feeling that if he had been born English or Australian, many of the better judges would have been tempted to bracket him with Bradman. Gavaskar is not as good as Bradman, but very close, which automatically puts him in the very highest class of batsmen of all time. He is a small, compact man, thicker set than Bradman, but of a similar height, and, like all the true champions, can play off both feet with equal facility. He uses a medium-weight bat and hits the ball hard enough with precise accuracy to beat the fieldsman, but not hard enough to knock it out of shape. He cuts, pulls and drives the half-volley beautifully, often through mid-wicket, and to back his natural accomplishments, he has the concentration, willpower and temperament of a record-breaker. I admire too, the positive and quick movements of his feet and the almost feline grace with which he gets into position to deal with the bouncer.”

That was high praise indeed from one who was a great opening batsman himself. Hutton rated Gavaskar’s 221 at the Oval in 1979 as one of the best double centuries he saw, which “should at the very least be bracketed with Stan McCabe’s 232 at Trent Bridge and Wally Hammond’s 240 at Lord’s (both in 1938).” That was certainly one of Gavaskar’s finest innings, as technically perfect as it could get.

In the fourth innings India needed an unprecedented 438 to win in 500 minutes. At stumps on the fourth day, India were 76 for no loss. There were 362 required in 360 minutes on the final day. Even the Indian fans, despite Gavaskar, thought it was improbable. Gavaskar and his partner, Chetan Chauhan batted on untroubled. By lunch they had taken the score to 169. When Chauhan was taken by Ian Botham off Bob Willis for 80, they had put on 213 runs. Dilip Vengsarkar joined his Bombay teammate. He too batted fluently. At tea India were 304 for one. Now there were 134 runs left.

I remember there was a large group of us who had booked tickets for a late night cinema in New Delhi. Ever the cricket diehard, I was not going to miss this one. I took my radio along. There I was in that dark theatre with the transistor pressed against my ear, straining to listen to BBC’s Test Match Special with the volume low. I did not follow much of the movie, with my mind’s eye far away in London following each ball as intently as Gavaskar would be watching it.

The movie began around the time the first of the twenty mandatory overs, in the last hour, was bowled. Just prior to this a worried English captain Mike Brearley had slowed down the over-rate. India were 328 for one; 110 needed at five-and-a-half runs an over. Gavaskar brought up his double century. With 12 overs left the score was 366 for one. Vengsarkar fell for 52, and then Kapil Dev for a duck. Gavaskar sailed along in the company of Yashpal Sharma. Then at 389, in a bid to raise the tempo, he lifted his on-drive just a bit and was gleefully snapped up at mid-on. Gavaskar’s innings was one of the epics of Test cricket.  A few more wickets fell, and in the end India were left 9 runs short of victory, England two wickets. It was a draw, but if draws can be so exciting, who needs results? Twenty-nine years on, I remember that magnificent knock vividly, though for the life of me I cannot recall the name of the movie. Maybe some day I will ask the young lady who was sitting next to me that exhilarating evening. Even today I can feel the thrill.

That is the joy of Test cricket, of following the deeds of great players, and indeed listening to good radio commentary. Radio commentary stimulated the mind, worked up the imagination, and transported one to a distant land. Live telecast is not always a good substitute, for instance you cannot watch it with a movie showing up ahead on a wide screen, nor while driving or in the middle of a forest or meadow. Internet, by comparison, is flat soda.

After the euphoria of his maiden Test series in 1971, Gavaskar took nearly five years to reproduce the kind of form expected of a top-ranking batsman. During that phase he appeared in four series, scoring 693 runs in 13 Tests at an average of 27.72, with one hundred, which was rated as one of his best, on a green wicket against a quality English attack in bitterly cold Manchester in 1974. Gavaskar resurrected his career during the tour to New Zealand in 1975-76 when he captained, and won, his first Test at Auckland in the absence of the regular skipper Bishen Singh Bedi. That was the Test in which the left-handed Surinder Amarnath emulated his father Lala Amarnath by scoring a century on Test debut. Gavaskar himself got a hundred, putting on 204 with Amarnath. Prasanna took eight wickets in the second innings to set up the victory.

Gavaskar’s love affair with Sabina Park, Port of Spain, was to continue in the series that followed. Returning to the venue of his heroics of five years earlier, Gavaskar scored 156 in the second Test. Had rain not washed out the first day’s play, India would have surely won the game. Incessant rain in Georgetown forced the next Test to be staged again at Port of Spain. West Indies, already 1-0 up, dominated the Test. Skipper Clive Lloyd declared his second innings at lunch on the fourth day, after Alvin Kallicharran had completed his century, setting India 403 to win.

Only once had a Test been won by a team scoring over 400 runs in the fourth innings. That was by Bradman’s Invincibles at Headingley in 1948 with The Don himself scoring a big hundred. Anshuman Gaekwad helped Gavaskar raise 69 upfront. Mohinder Amarnath came in, and at stumps India were 134 for one, with Gavaskar on 86.

Now there were 269 runs left with 9 wickets in hand, and the whole day’s play. The pitch was also holding up well. At breakfast in my New Delhi college, a cricketing mate and I agreed that India could, or rather would, do it. And so it turned out. Gavaskar brought up yet another hundred at Sabina Park, but fell soon thereafter for 102, with the total at 177. Amarnath (85) and Gundappa Viswanath (112) put on 159, and Brijesh Patel fired the final shots in his unbeaten 49. India won by six wickets, to draw level in the series.

Lloyd’s captaincy was now on the line. Having received a 1-5 drubbing at the hands of the Aussies only a few months earlier, this defeat had shaken the faith of the supporters. The infamous bloodbath of Kingston followed, and the West Indies clinched the series. Gaekwad was struck a frightening blow on the head, bringing back the nightmare of Bridgetown 1962 when Nari Contractor was hit by Charlie Griffith.

Such was the impact of Gavaskar’s batting on Indian cricket, and he certainly shook the West Indies then. He equalled Bradman’s record of 29 hundreds at New Delhi during the 1983-84 series against the West Indies. In the next Test at Ahmedabad he overtook Geoff Boycott’s record Test aggregate. It was in the sixth and final Test of that rubber at Madras (now Chennai) that Gavaskar hit up his, and at the time India’s, highest Test score of 236 not out, thereby bringing up his 30th century. Sick of squaring up to thunderbolts throughout his career, Gavaskar asked to be allowed to bat at no. 4. Imagine, then, his shock when the fearsome Malcolm Marshall dismissed Gaekwad and Vengsarkar off successive balls in his second over without a run on the board.                                              

I recall the scene very clearly - Gavaskar rushing out to bat under his white floppy hat, the quaint skull cap peeping out, hurriedly putting on his arm guard and gloves. The first ball that Gavaskar received from Marshall was short and bounced chest high. Gavaskar got right behind and played a model back foot defensive stroke. Instantly, and instinctively, one knew that he was going to score big that day. Vivian Richards wandered past Gavaskar after Marshall had completed the fiery over, drawling ,”Maan, wherever you baat, the score is still zeero!” It told an eloquent tale.

At Ahmedabad, in the fourth Test against Imran Khan’s Pakistani touring team of 1986-87, Gavaskar climbed cricket’s Everest, becoming the first batsman to score 10,000 runs in Test matches. It was an unforgettable moment as he cut off-spinner Ijaz Fakih and ran head down with his bat held aloft. This was the second hitherto insurmountable peak that the little man had conquered after the 30th hundred.

There was now just one Test left, the fifth and final one of the attritional series, which had so far provided no result. It was played on a rank turner at Bangalore. India needed 221 to win in the fourth innings. As the ball jumped and turned square, Gavaskar played one of the great Test innings. He battled on, finally being caught for 96 off one that leapt, technically one of the finest innings ever played, sure-footed and precise of strokeplay. This was to be the last time that Gavaskar was seen in the Test arena. If Bradman fell four runs short of a hundred average, Gavaskar fell four short of a hundred in his final Test innings. He finished with an unprecedented 10,122 runs at an average of 51.12 and 34 hundreds in 125 Tests, holding a record 108 catches for India until Rahul Dravid took more. He scored hundreds in each innings of a Test thrice, a record that was emulated by Ricky Ponting. Gavaskar’s feat included a century and double century in his fourth Test.

In one last display of brilliance, Gavaskar scored a magnificent 188 at Lord’s that summer in the MCC bicentenary match against the likes of Marshall and Richard Hadlee. His driving and cutting were models for youngsters to emulate, a superb exhibition of exquisite strokeplay.

Whenever Gavaskar is remembered there is immense nostalgia for his masterly technique. Yet his exemplary courage played an equal role in his huge success. Never were there so many fast bowlers as in the 1970s and 1980s. Gavaskar tamed nearly all of them. He scored 13 Test centuries against the West Indies, and let not anyone tell you that some of these were in his debut series, when their pace attack was not world-class, or during the Packer years when the greats had switched loyalties; for Gavaskar scored hundreds against them all - Roberts, Holding, Garner and Marshall.

Indeed he scored mountains of runs when pitted against almost all the other legendary pacemen: Sarfraz Nawaz, Imran Khan, Bob Willis, Jeff Thomson, Richard Hadlee, Ian Botham and Wasim Akram, among others. The only great he did not collar was Dennis Lillee, whom he faced in only three Tests. In the last of those he had got to 70 in the third Test at Melbourne in 1980-81 in an opening stand of 165 with Chetan Chauhan, but got infuriated at being given out leg-before to Lillee when he inside-edged the ball on to his pad.

That incident when he almost took Chauhan off the ground with himself was evidence of the proud performer that Gavaskar was. He had failed in all the previous five innings of the series. Now when he had fought hard and was on course towards that elusive hundred, and knew that he had been deprived by a poor umpiring decision, he exploded.

It was an aberration, as was that crawl in the first match of the World Cup at Lord’s in 1975; when he called the selectors “court jesters” in 1979; and when he wrote that vitriolic article against Bishen Singh Bedi during the Lord’s Test of 1990. Just as he stood up to the most frightening pace bowling, Gavaskar has always shown courage of conviction to stand by what he has felt is right. He stood up for Indian umpires against the condescending attitude of the English and Australians, displaying, not surprisingly, contempt for Australian umpiring. After three bad experiences with the Calcutta crowd, he refused to play in the 1986-87 Eden Gardens Test against Pakistan when on the threshold of his 10,000 runs. Offended by the officious behaviour and cricketing ignorance of a security guard at Lord’s, Gavaskar refused to accept membership of the MCC when it was first offered to him, calling it just another club. He has always stuck up for Indian players when they have been unfairly targetted by foreign media.

Having written extensively, including four books, been a commentator and presenter right since his retirement 24 years ago, and later actively associated with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and International Cricket Council (ICC), along with his tremendous achievements on the field, Gavaskar has perhaps been the most influential man in the game after Bradman.

(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email

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