Note: This article was originally published in January, 2019.

Sunil Gavaskar knows a thing or two about facing fast bowlers in hostile environments. The mention of tough pitches, though, takes the former India skipper and opener back to the 1976 Test at Sabina Park against the West Indies.

Gavaskar, now 69, gets up from his chair and takes an imaginary guard before crouching into his stance on the Sabina Park wicket from hell.

“Anshuman [Gaekwad] was hit on the head in the first innings and couldn’t come out to bat in the second innings. So a young Dilip Vengsarkar was sent out to open the innings and he wanted to take first strike. But I told him I would do it,” said Gavaskar.

Gavaskar added: “Dilip was reluctant but I convinced him. The first ball pitched on a good length and flew over my head. I was short. So I survived. Dilip is taller and he had a more upright stance. It would have hit his head. As soon as I avoided the ball and Dilip had his tongue out... it could have been him.”

Johannesburg and Perth weren’t exactly Sabina Park but they were tough pitches in a year when the bowlers rose to reclaim ownership of Test cricket. There was uneven bounce, there was pace, there was swing, there was seam and there was spin.

In Tests in 2018, a bowler took a wicket every 27.37 runs and at a strike-rate of 54.7. Both numbers are the best for a calendar year since the start of 1960. Towards the end of the year, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli showed that there is perhaps light at the end of the tunnel but only if the batsmen were prepared to be very patient.

Gavaskar, who covered the Australia series as a commentator for Sony Pictures Networks India, reckons that this is an approach that the rest of the world would do well to follow. In a free-wheeling chat, the opening legend speaks about the way to counter tough conditions, the technique needed to do it and the mental make-up that will give the batsmen a chance of finding success.

Excerpts from the conversation:

2018 — a great year for bowlers, a tough year for batsmen. What would you put it down to?

I think to a great extent, it is down to the influence of the limited overs format by which I mean that the bat speed of the batsmen is that much higher. So a batsman is looking to play at a lot more deliveries, they are jabbing that much harder at the ball because you want to get the ball off somewhere. So it is more a question of mindset. Can the batsman make that transition between formats? Can they change their mindset? The ones who can are the ones who are successful. You have guys like Virat Kohli, Steve Smith or even a Kane Williamson… Joe Root… the top batsmen in the world today… all of them have the ability to switch between formats and the ability to quickly adjust their bat speed as well. They are the ones who are consistently scoring the big runs. For a lot of others, that inability to make the little adjustment makes a big difference.

Secondly, there is the difference between the white ball and the red ball. The red ball moves a lot more. The white ball — the Kookaburra ball — moves a little but not as much as the red ball. And the red ball moves a lot longer. So in white-ball cricket, you tend to think that you can start to play your shots after 4-5 overs, it might not always be off the middle of the bat, there might be a few edges involved but you will get runs. The red ball keeps moving for a little longer and therefore you have these early wickets. But I think the bigger challenge is clearly the bat speed. The batsmen are just going too hard at the ball and that is what is causing the problems.

So the success that Kohli, Smith and the others are having across formats can be put down to the uniformity of their technique?

Basically, your game remains the same. The only real change they are making is the bat speed because in Test cricket or first-class cricket, you have a little bit more time. You can take it slow and it will do you no harm. In ODIs, on the other hand, there aren’t as many close-in fielders. The edges can go for runs. In Test cricket, you don’t have the same opportunities. An edge could hurt you more. So when the ball is doing something, if you can just play as close to the body as possible instead of pushing out, you will have a better chance of success.

Coaches in the maidans talk about parents coming up to them and asking them to teach their kids to hit the big shots. What was a typical net session for you… what were you looking to get out of it?

I keep talking about upbringing… cricketing upbringing. Like the upbringing that our parents give us of saying ‘please, thank you, sorry’, in batting also there was a cricketing upbringing we had where we were told not to hit the ball in the air. We are not talking about up in the air… we are talking about six inches above the ground. Occasionally, you don’t time the ball and it will do that. And if you did that in the match and got out you were unlucky or you got it through the gap and got some runs. But if you did that in the nets… if you played the ball slightly up… the coaches would note that. First and foremost, there would be a disapproval and then, at the end of the entire net session, you were sent on a punishment round — two laps around the ground with the bat held above your head. So with that kind of upbringing, when we had to first play ODIs, our thinking was: ‘How can we hit the ball in the air?’

It was ingrained in you to not hit the ball up in the air. That was how you were taught. The process was that you see the shine off the ball. The ball is moving, the ball is swinging while it is new… you try and wear the shine off. You try and tire the bowler out. And then, after an hour or so, when the ball is not moving and your feet are, your eyes have got used to the light etc, then you expand the range of your shots. Those were the things we were taught. And we were always taught to never be happy with a hundred. Always score and store for a rainy day. When your form is good, just cash in. Don’t give it away.

When you look back at your era, would you say that you were lucky you had only one format to contend with in the early years?

Yes, I would say that. And mind you, even if we had only one format early on, when the second format came in, the difficulty for all of us was that it was still red ball. I think till the 1992 World Cup, all the World Cups were red-ball cricket. The first three World Cups were 60 overs. No field restrictions either. But the red ball was the key. So yes, I think we were lucky that our cricketing upbringing was such that it taught us to play in a certain way. We had the examples before us - not from watching because you only got to watch the Tests matches in your city or if somebody told you that the Indian News Review is showing that one minute of cricket snippets. Then, we would rush to the movie theatre. Often, we would miss it because it went from one theatre to another.

So whatever we saw on the ground was where we picked up whatever we needed to or from the players before us… Polly Umrigar, Vijay Manjrekar, Dilip Sardesai, Chandu Borde… these were the stalwarts who would talk to us about how they began, about how they built their innings. And you could clearly see that their whole thing was mid-on, mid-off — to play as straight as possible, to play in the ‘V’. And then slowly get to extra cover, mid-wicket. And then cover as they settled in. That is something your learnt from.

During the recently concluded Australia tour, Cheteshwar Pujara made a very important point of trusting his defence. How did you work on that aspect of your game?

The coaches would make sure that when we went in to bat in the nets, the best of bowlers were there and they were given the new ball. And that is where the value of some of those coaches was unquantifiable.

Cheteshwar is absolutely right about trusting his defence. It means that when the good ball comes along, you are going to be able to stop it. It shouldn’t get you out. Once you have that confidence, you should be able to negotiate the good ball and then you can look at waiting for the bad ball in Test cricket so that you can score off it. But then again, this is a matter of constant practice.

Like I said, the old coaches were fantastic. They would pay for the balls out of their pocket, they would take your around from match to match because they loved the sport. There was no business of coaching classes where you paid money to be part of that. You just went and practised and the coaches would give you equipment and help. Their dedication actually rubbed off on you. Their love of the game also rubbed off on you because they taught you the values of the game, they taught you what the game is all about. You didn’t want to let them down.

One of the stories that I have read about you is how you would often keep getting bowled in the nets because you wanted to find out where your off-stump was…

(Laughs) Yes, I would be trying to leave the ball. Yes. That is the one thing that every batsman strives to know — where is your off-stump? So you either play the ball or you don’t play the ball. That is where batsmen do get out. If you don’t know where your off-stump is, you either get caught behind or bowled when the ball is doing things. So yes, I have had situations where I have thought that the ball is straight but it has nipped back and knocked the off-stump out but thankfully in international cricket, it has happened maybe a couple of times but not often.

But what about your marker…

Well, the guard you took was to make sure that when you took your stance, your right eye was in line with the off-stump. Some people took middle stump guard because they were taller and stood a little more upright. And that was the marker. Your right eye was actually the one telling you that this is the one to play and this is one to leave. And often — it is a situation that not a lot of batsmen pay attention to — the difference is very, very slight — your head moves just that little bit. When your head moves towards mid-off and cover is the time when you play at deliveries outside the off-stump and get caught. You want the head to be exactly where the bowler is going to be delivering the ball. If your head and your right eye is there, you are more likely to know which ball to play and which to leave. The moment it is aligned towards mid-off, you will play at balls outside the off-stump. So that was the thing you always wanted to do.

For example, someone like a Rahul Dravid or a lot of the Karnataka boys after Dravid… they tuck their chin into the left shoulder. That way their head remains straight and it doesn’t go towards mid-off.

But as we talk about Karnataka boys, there is the other [KL] Rahul who seems to be going through a horror patch. What do you put it down to?

I think it is a combination of poor technique and mental frailty. He is short of runs, so he is short of confidence. I’ve said it before but I think he is going to be the next big thing in Indian cricket and I do believe he still has the capability of becoming the next big thing if he just solely focuses on his batting and a couple of things that seem to have crept in. He is a tall guy, he is six feet. So for him, I believe that shuffle where he goes around the off-stump with the back foot is not helping. The next movement is around the fourth and fifth stump with the front foot, which is what is making him play the off-stump and getting caught. Because of the initial trigger, he thinks he can reach those deliveries. While the ball is still new and moving away, he is not in a position at the start of the innings to play that shot. Secondly, when he is trying to leave the ball or defend, there is a chance of the ball taking the inside edge and going onto the stumps.

I think what he really needs to do is figure out his preliminary movement. Sachin [Tendulkar] had a slight front foot movement… not even front and across. Just slight front foot movement. He got his momentum to go forward or back from that. But your balance still remains the same. In Rahul’s case, the balance doesn’t remain the same because when he goes on the back foot and then onto the front, the balance has moved so much to the front that he is unable to make that late adjustment.

So he needs to do two things in my view. One, he needs to just go back. Not back and across. Leg-stump to leg-stump. He needs to go just back which is exactly what I remember telling the other Rahul (Dravid) when he was also going back and across. And I think he put it in. Secondly, you are going to get loads of advice from a lot of people but at the end of the day, you have got to filter it out and take what works for you.

But I think if he manages to go just back, it will give him a better idea of where his off-stump is. He will then know that he is chasing deliveries that are well wide of the off-stump. Look at the number of deliveries, he has got out chasing on the sixth stump. On the fourth stump is understandable. But he gets out on the fifth and sixth stump at the start of the innings and that is why he needs to make that adjustment. Then, the front foot is still on the off-stump.

Do you sometimes get the feeling that too many players are just trying to hit their way out of trouble… even in Test cricket?

That again is the effect of the limited overs format. All the batsmen believe they can now hit the ball into the crowd. Today, with the kind of physical conditioning they do, they are much stronger… much fitter and they have the confidence that they can hit their way out of trouble. So that is why they attempt that because that is what they are used to.

Even in limited overs cricket, if they are struggling at the start… being hit on the pads or being beaten… a couple of straight hits from the middle of the bat and they are suddenly flowing. So that is what they think they can do in Tests as well. The attitude has changed. The mental approach towards a problem has changed.

But do you think given how the pitches played in 2018, we might see batsmen turning back the clock and batting time?

Yes. You will find that. Even when Virat got that hundred [in Perth], it wasn’t bang-bang-bang. He was taking his time at the start of the innings, he made sure when the ball was moving, he was getting in line… he was playing for ones and twos. So I think it is still there, the consistently great players are the ones who show the patience to wait for the bad ball. At the end of the day, it is a five-day game. Your team bats four and a half sessions, you shouldn’t lose. The trick in Test cricket is to bat between lunch and tea on Day 2 and you’re alright.

What is the difference you see between the openers of today and the openers of your era?

The biggest difference I see is the bat speed, which is a lot higher… they go hard at the ball. And secondly, because they are going harder at the ball, it sometimes makes them forget where their off-stump is. Those are the big differences to me.

But do you think they care about the off-stump as much as players in your era or do you think they take guard in a manner that allows them to play more shots?

The guard has changed to a great extent. We were all either leg stump or middle. Today, they sometimes even take an off-stump guard. I remember suggesting the same to Virender Sehwag. I said: “Viru, just stand on the off-stump but don’t play across the line. Stand on the off-stump and everything you will want to play is fine. But square leg ko mat khelna [do not play to square leg].” I remember calling him and Viru being Viru thought someone was playing a prank and then he recognised my voice.”

But I remember him applying it and it worked. So, it can’t be an everyday solution. You have got to find the guard that suits you best.

Do you think there is now a need to specialise for particular formats?

If you are a very good Test batsman, you can be a good ODI batsman. Not necessarily the other way round. Because I think as a Test player, you will be able to control your bat speed. The limited overs player may not always be able to control the bat speed. But it can be done. Virat Kohli is an example, Steve Smith does it too, David Warner, Joe Root, Sangakkara… they have all got the hang of the bat speed required for the specific format. And that is what needs to be done. Not easy but it can be done.

There has been a lot of talk about how good this Indian team is and where it stands but do you think, without a solid opening pair, it can attain the kind of domination that the West Indies and Australian teams had?

If India get a consistent opening pair, they will be the number one team for at least the next half-a-dozen years if not more. Their middle-order takes care of itself. Their bowling attack is absolutely fantastic. They have a great combination of new ball bowlers and spin. So only the opening spot is uncertain at the moment. But with the way Mayank [Agarwal] has shaped up, it looks promising. It is still early days for him though. Sometimes, people don’t know much about you when you have just made your debut but then information and data about you gets into the system. But I believe we are going well.

Rahul is just one good innings away from getting back to big form. I do hope that he spends some time with Rahul Dravid and even with Gundappa Viswanath. Vishy is a marvellous student of the game in terms of technique. He was such a natural. One always tends to think that natural players don’t put much thought into their game but when you talk to the West Indians… Rohan Kanhai, Garry Sobers, Clive Lloyd, Vivian Richards… the naturals as such, you realise how much thought they put into their cricket. And so did Vishy. I am hoping that Rahul will use his time to go to the other Rahul.