Sunil Gavaskar – the master Indian batsman

The argument of who is India’s greatest batsman, has been fuelled by the deeds of their modern-day batsmen, primarily due to a huge number- increase in the international matches. Though in numerical terms, he has been overtaken by Sachin Tendulkar (15,921) and Rahul Dravid (13,265) and in aggression and flamboyance by the genius of Virender Sehwag and Virat Kohli, the great Sunil Gavaskar, who turned 70 last month, to many, still remains the best that India has ever produced. 

A torch-bearer, who brought professionalism in the Indian national side in the 1980s and above all earned the reputation of a Pakka Hindustani (a proud Indian), there never will be another Gavaskar. It must be said though that the overwhelming financial control of BCCI of the affairs of ICC, leaves one in no doubt that the Indian cricket is far healthier in 2019 than was the case when Gavaskar retired in 1987.

A right-handed opening batsman, Gavaskar, built his game on strong defence and endless amount of patience and concentration. Standing @ 5 feet and 3 inches, he had the poise and balance, in recent years displayed by Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene. Neat deflections, on either side of the wicket by using the pace of the ball, superbly timed straight drives were the bread and butter strokes for the Indian batting master.

Although he has to his credit the great achievement of being the first batsman to reach 10,000 Test runs, Gavaskar’s greatness did not rest on the sheer weight of the runs scored and countless records that followed. One truly needs to set aside the Indian passion for cricket statistics, to value the true worth of this extraordinary cricket brain. ‘Sunny’ admired all around the world for his opinion, saw his duty to stand up for Indian cricket, more so whilst touring overseas.

Born in Bombay (now Mumbai) on 10th July, 1949, Sunil Manohar Gavaskar, took to the game at school. His maternal uncle (Mamoon), Madhav Mantri, had kept wickets for India in the three matches against England in the early 1950s and as a batsman in the 1st Test at Dacca on the 1954-55 tour of Pakistan. The weak charge of nepotism, as his uncle was one of the selectors, quickly lost its muscle, when a couple of double hundreds to his name, Gavaskar was named India’s Best Schoolboy Cricket of the Year in 1966.

He represented Bombay Schools, in the 1963-64 Cooch Behar Trophy. He walked into the Bombay side in the Rohinto-Baria Inter-University cricket and West Zone Universities in the Vizzy Trophy. His first-class debut, alongside Mohinder Amarnath, arrived when the two were picked for Vazir Sultan Tobacco Colts XI, led by MAK Pataudi in the Moin-ud-Dowlah Gold Cup 1966-67. His Ranji Trophy debut came for Bombay against Mysore in 1969-70.

There was little doubt of Bombay, at the time, being as the powerhouse of the Indian cricket. Not a bad environment to start your career but also quite challenging to contribute in the continuity of the stronghold. Such was the dominance of Bombay that it lifted the Ranji Trophy for a world-record sequence of 15 consecutive years from 1958-59 to 1972-73, before losing to Karnatka, on first innings lead, in the semi-final in the 1973-74 clash.

The 20-year old student of St. Xavier’s College, Bombay, Gavaskar created sensation in world cricket by scoring 774 runs @ 154.80 in his first Test series, away from home. More significant for the fact that it played, a part, in India’s first series win, against the West Indies. Admittedly, the opposition - in the middle of transition with a below-par bowling resources in batting-friendly Caribbean conditions - no one could doubt the emergence of a truly great Indian batsman on the international horizon

Gavaskar was India’s Test players No. 128, since playing its first ever Test match at Lord’s in 1932. He was absent from the opening Test but walked out to open in the second Test at Port-of-Spain, with Ashok Mankad, son of the great Indian all-rounder ‘Vinoo’ Mankad. With a series of scores 65 & 67 not out (including a winning hit), 116 & 64 not out, 1 & 117 not out and 124 & 220, he took toll of the West Indies attack that was in the re-building phase after the retirement of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. A hundred and a double-hundred to his name whilst suffering from a severe toothache, in a six-day Test at Port-of-Spain, bode well for Indian cricket.

The lack of international cricket in the period 1971-75 deprived Gavaskar of progressing, his career, in the manner that is taken for granted by the modern day full-time professionals. It was not until the 1975-76 combined tour of New Zealand and West Indies, when he was named vice-captain to Bishen Bedi, that the Indian opening batsman was offered opportunity to enhance his reputation. From that point onwards, he continued on a record-breaking run-spree and reached the heights no other Indian batsman before him had come close to. Gavaskar’s first Test hundred at home arrived in the opening Test, in front of his home crowd at Bombay, against New Zealand in 1976-77.

In three successive Tests in Australia in 1977-78, Gavaskar hit hundred, each time in the 2nd innings, 113 (Brisbane), 127 (Perth) and a match-winning 118 (Melbourne), against Jeff Thomson, at his fastest, was a tremendous achievement. Though without their leading players who had signed for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, even Australia’s ‘2nd XI’ was a formidable team for India, on its first tour of Down Under, since 1967-68.

Now there was something unusual about all this. A little Indian opening batsman, having learned his craft, on the slow surfaces back home in the sub-continent, with rarely a bowler above gentle medium pace, displaying his craft on the bouncy Australian pitches. With each passing year, Gavaskar took aloft, both his own world ranking and that of the Indian team. It was on this tour that he found his most dependable opening ally, Chetan Chauhan, recalled to the India side, after a lapse of 5 years.

A close study of Sunil Gavaskar, in the period of 1978-79, left one in no doubt that he possessed the most pleasing batting technique. His stance, lining of the ball, feet positioning, back-lift and trigger movements, formed a package that was almost faultless. When on song, no one could rattle his composure as he stood his ground against the pace and fire of John Snow, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Bob Willis, Jeff Thomson and Imran Khan.

The two pacemen, who could claim to have had the measure of the Indian opener, would be Australia’s Dennis Lillee and West Indian, Malcolm Marshall. A compact defensive technique to match the best in the history of the game and no wonder even 32 years after his farewell game, Gavaskar, the pint-size perfectionist from Bombay, lives in the memories of millions of his fans, all around the world.

It was the revival of India-Pakistan cricket, after a lapse of 17 years that prompted the game’s leading photographer, Patrick Eagar to arrive for the 2nd Test at Lahore. Well his expertise behind the remote-controlled camera lens that captured the key moments of the historic Test which otherwise would have been restricted to the local newspapers. From Pakistan’s point of view, the wicket of Gavaskar was simply the most prized scalp and his only cheap dismissal in the series at Lahore (c Majid Khan b Salim Altaf for 5) left, both the crowd and TV viewers, stunned.

Having twice, come tantalising close to three figures when dismissed for 89 (Faisalabad) and 97 (Lahore), he signed off with a hundred in each innings (111 and 137) in the 3rd and final Test at Karachi, to show his appetite for the India-Pakistan rivalry. Gavaskar’s batting in the three-Test series was something to treasure for it surpassed the feats of - Dennis Amiss (1972-73), Glenn Turner (1976-77) and Geoff Boycott (1977-78) - three leading visiting openers to Pakistan.

A fuzzy footage of this Karachi Test, viewed recently on YouTube, brought back some great memories from a truly great series that Pakistan secured 2-0. Two successful run-chases at Lahore and Karachi brought the cricket and cricketers into the limelight, as perhaps never before. All the more sweeter, for it was against their arch rivals. Gavaskar toured Pakistan on two more occasions, each time as captain. He was somewhat subdued in the 1982-83 series, best known for the remarkable bowling effort of Pakistan’s fast-bowling captain, Imran Khan, who 40 wickets in the series. In the 3rd Test at Faisalabad, he became the first Indian batsman to carry his bat 127* (286), but could not save the game for his country.

In the last quarter of his career (1983-87), one came across an unexpected flourish of stroke play from the Indian opening batsman. Burdened with the responsibilities of opening the batting and leading the national side had taken its toll, leaving him exhausted, both mentally and physically. In the first Test series, after being deposed as captain, Gavaskar was completely rattled by the West Indies fast bowlers in the Caribbean. The return series in the winter of 1983-84 which consisted of six-Test matches, he played two brilliant out-of-character knocks : 121 (100 in just 94 balls) at Delhi and 90 at Ahmedabad, to prove to his critics that even at 34, he was the country’s leading batsman, by taking on the world’s best pace attack, led by Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding.

When Gavaskar’s request to be dropped down the order was reluctantly accepted by the team management, for the sixth Test at Madras, little did anyone anticipate that he would play another remarkable innings. Even batting at number 4 did not allow him any breathing space for two of India’s batsmen, Anshuman Gaekwad and Dilip Vengsarkar were out without scoring to bring Gavaskar, very early on. With half the side gone for 92 in response to West Indies first innings total of 313, he dropped anchor and batted 10 hours and 44 minutes to reach an unbeaten 236, at the time, the highest innings by an Indian batsman, surpassing ‘Vinoo’ Mankad’s 231 in 1955-56 and Gavaskar also overtook Don Bradman’s long-standing record of 29 Test hundreds. After an indifferent year with his future uncertain, he was back in the headlines, with a renewed level of energy.

The art of batting in the fourth innings was illustrated by the Indian batting line-up that beside Gavaskar, featured Gundappa Viswanath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohinder Amarnath and Brijesh Patel. India achieved a remarkable and unexpected 6-wicket win when set to score 403 in 10 hours by West Indies captain Clive Lloyd at Port-of-Spain in 1975-76, with Gavaskar (102) and Viswanath (112) leading the way with hundreds. With the 1977-78  series levelled at 2-2, India in the fifth and final Test at Adelaide, were all out for 445, 47 runs short of their target against Australia.

Gavaskar’s classic fourth-innings knock of 221 at The Oval against England in 1979, is a personal favourite of the writer.  Initially an opening stand of 213 with Chauhan (80) was constructed on safety-first basis before in pursuit of a target of 438, he unleashed an orthodox array of drives to bring India to a position of a possibly victory. Following his dismissal, India collapsed and fell just 9 runs short of a win. This effort by Gavaskar was truly a masterpiece innings for he responded to the requirement of the situation brilliantly and moved gears in the most impressive manner in the latter stages of his 490 minutes’ stay at the crease.

Following the retirement of Ajit Wadekar and Mansur Ali Khan, two of the country’s finest leaders, the Indian captaincy was offered to S.Venkataraghavan for the 1975 Prudential World Cup. This proved a short-term appointment for slow left-arm spinner Bishen Bedi, won more votes in the selection process than others with Sunil Gavaskar being named as his deputy on the 1975-76 twin-tour of New Zealand and West Indies. He seemed an obvious choice as a deputy to Bedi, for he had been appointed captain of Bombay in the Ranji Trophy and West Zone in the Duleep Trophy. Now Gavaskar, in his first game as a stand-in captain led India to an 8-wicket win against New Zealand at Auckland with himself scoring 116 and 35 not out.

His first stint in charge as an appointed captain was the 6-Test home series against West Indies in 1978-79 winter. He kicked off the series in a grand fashion by hitting 205 and 73 in front of his home crowd of Bombay, followed with 107 & 182 not out at Calcutta and then totalled 732 @91.50  for the series, proving the point that burden of captaincy was not to have an adverse affect on his batting. India won the series 1-0.

In 1979-80 further success awaited both India and its captain. The Indian pace attack now led by its mercurial Haryana all-rounder, Kapil Dev and Karsan Ghavri from Bombay. It heralded a new era for the India cricket for they could no longer call upon the services of their world-fame spin quartet – Prasanna, Chandrasekhar, Venkatraghavan and Bedi – and instead was taking the field with a more balanced attack that consisted of pace and spin. India beat Australia 2-0 in the six Test series and few months later Gavaskar improved upon his credentials by leading his country to a highly-acclaimed 2-0 victory against Pakistan. A Test series win against Pakistan was to remain the highlights of his captaincy, all the more for the tourists, led by Asif Iqbal, had started off as hot favourites.

In the 1981-82 home series against England, Gavaskar decided to sit on the 1-0 lead following India’s dramatic win in the opening Test in Bombay. The painfully slow over-rates and negative tactics on batting-friendly wickets at least ensured Gavaskar’s unbeaten record as captain, remained intact. Three years later, in 1984-85 in his second stint as India’s captain, following Kapil Dev’s dismissal, he could not get away with similar tactics as the home team after winning the opening Test at Bombay were beaten soundly at Delhi and Madras, bringing an end to his second and quite turbulent tenure as captain.

In what turned out to be his last Test innings, Gavaskar, almost single-handedly won a game for India against Pakistan at Bangalore in the 1986-87 series. In the most horrendous batting conditions, he took his side close to victory but his dismissal, caught Rizwan-uz-Zaman b Iqbal Qasim, in perhaps the most heart-wrenching contest between the two Asian rivals. Treating each ball on his merit and displaying a water-tight technique, he agonisingly fell just four runs short of a hundred. It allowed Pakistan to reach home in a dramatic manner by just 16 runs. Few months short of his 38th birthday, perhaps he had played the finest inning of his remarkable Test career. Gavaskar’s tally of 10,122 runs and 34 Test centuries and 125 Test matches were all international records,

Having failed to reach three figures at Lord’s in his five visits to England in 1971, 1974, 1979, 1982 & 1986 - referred to as Home of Cricket, Gavaskar in 1987 accepted an invitation to represent Rest of the World XI, in a match to celebrate the bicentenary of the MCC. In a typically Gavaskar fashion, sensing the occasion on what turned out to be last first-class appearance, the Indian opening batsman rose to the occasion to score a magnificent innings – 188, against an attack consisting of Malcolm Marshall, Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice.

Though largely accepted, acknowledged and admired for his application and water-tight technique, on some occasions, Gavaskar came under fire for his over-defensive tactics. His innings of 36 not out, occupied no less than 60 overs, in the inaugural Prudential World Cup against England at Lord’s. His 172 off 476 balls against England at Bangalore in 1981-82, did not win him many admirers too, for he occupied the crease, for 708 minutes, the longest in Indian first-class cricket, at the time, in pretty dull and meaningless contest.

In stark comparison, two years prior to that, Gavaskar’s knock of 166 in 593 minutes off 373 balls against Pakistan at Madras in 1979-80, escaped criticism, as Kapil Dev’s 11-wicket haul ensured India a series victory. He is often labelled, too selfish, to influence enough matches. A bit harsh for if India possessed more potent bowling attack, Gavaskar’s innings would have been appreciated more.

As far as ODIs were concerned Gavaskar led India to victory in the inaugural Asia Cup, held in Sharjah in April 1984. His greatest triumph as the India leader, without any doubt, was the victory against its arch rivals, Pakistan. It was the day when even his die-hard critics were forced to admit that Gavaskar had marshalled his troops to near perfection to win the World Championship of Cricket in Melbourne in March 1985.

Once he had been given the license to express himself he did play some notable innings in both forms of international cricket. His 92 in the final of the Australia-Asia Cup in Sharjah in 1986 was a quality knock against Imran Khan and Wasim Akram. He was happy to take a leaf out of his aggressive partner Krish Srikanth in terms of broadening his range of strokes, but the ‘Little Master’ remained incapable of playing ugly strokes. Hallmark of a great player.

Although not in the same league as Vivian Richards or Javed Miandad as far as master ODI batsmen, Gavaskar still managed to reach 50 on 27 occasions before his long-awaited maiden ODI hundred (103 not out of 88 balls with 10 fours and 3 sixes) against New Zealand at Nagpur, in the last group match in the 1987 Reliance World Cup. A most uncharacteristic batting display, by his reputation. Few days later, he had to endure a huge disappointment of getting out in the single figure in the semi-final against England at Bombay, on his farewell game for India, who were hot favourites to retain the World Cup, they first won by beating West Indies at Lord’s in the 1983 Prudential World Cup.

Gavaskar, emerged as Bombay’s most celebrated batting star, since Vijay Merchant, whose career spanned between, 1929-52. Gavaskar ended his career with 25834 runs in 348 first-class matches @ 51.46 with 81 hundreds and 105 fifties. A truly great batsman who held the key to India success, for he amazingly missed out just 4 Test matches in a 16-year international career. All told he reached double hundred on 10 occasions in first-class cricket (including 4 in Tests) with a career-best score of 340 whilst representing Bombay against Bengal at Bombay in 1981-82. A very capable slip fielder, who snapped up 293 catches, including 108 in the Tests.

Off the field, during his playing days, Gavaskar was great fun as a practical joker of the Indian team. He mixed well and showed the greatest respect for both the opposition and the past players. Amongst Pakistanis he developed a relationship of mutual respect with Zaheer Abbas, Asif Iqbal, Imran Khan and Javed Miandad and more recently with Ramiz Raja, as a fellow commentator. He joined Pakistan team in the post-World Cup celebrations in Lahore in 1992. His only Test wicket was that of Zaheer Abbas, whom he had caught by Chetan Chauhan for 96, to the delight of the Indian team, at Faisalabad in the 1978-79 series.

Gavaskar, an articulate and fair-minded figure, continues to grow as one of the most respected cricket pundits, in world cricket. He has been invited by ICC and has always been close to the heart of Indian cricket including the Indian Premier League. As a wise old man he has not pursued the hot seats in the Indian Cricket Board or the management job of the Indian team and instead has remained a powerful voice in the Indian media, initially editing a weekly.

He had started writing columns in his playing days and continues to do so to this day as was also present in the Media Box, during the 2019 World Cup in England. Although just a phone call away, he has very shrewdly chosen to keep a distance, from the day-to-day running of the affairs, instead focussing on his multi-million dollar contracts with all the leading cricket broadcasters in the world. Gavaskar, to his credit has stayed away from any major scandal of corruption that has often rocked the image of the Indian cricket.

As the most decorated Indian cricketer of his time, Gavaskar was named Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year (1971), awarded Arjuna Award (1975), Wisden Cricketer of the Year (1980), Padma Bhushan (1980), ICC Hall of Fame (2009), C.K.Nayudu Lifetime Achievement Award (2012) are some of the more prominent acknowledgements of outstanding services to the game of cricket.

Gavaskar, married with one son, Rohan Sunil Gavaskar (1976), left-handed middle order batsman, who also played for Bombay and represented India in 11 ODIs in the period 2003-04. His sister Kavita married to his friend and Indian middle order batsman, Gundappa Viswanath.

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