Sunil Gavaskar, who turns 70 on Wednesday, was the cricketing hero of my childhood. When I began following the game, he was already a legend for his prolific debut against the West Indies in 1971, his crawl to 36 not out of 174 balls in the 1975 World Cup, and his fourth innings century that helped India successfully chase down 403 at Port of Spain in 1976. In the decade leading up to his retirement, which covered my school years, he remained an emblem of dependability, bravery and excellence in a time when there were too few of those around.

He would go out to bat when the red ball was at its liveliest and pitches at their freshest. He had some 20 different opening partners in a 15-year span, the best of whom, Chetan Chauhan, Anshuman Gaekwad and Krishnamachari Srikkanth, each scored at an average of around 30. His own career average in tests and first class games was a touch over 50, unmatched by an opening bat in that era, and rarely equalled in the 21st century when changes in equipment have made batting easier.

The major development was the adoption of helmets to minimise injury, which began in the late 1970s. It is laughable now to recall that, when head protection was first proposed, a number of cricketers and commentators considered it contrary to the spirit of the game. Why should the game’s spirit allow for guarding legs, genitals and hands, but not heads? At the time, though, I looked down on batsmen who wore safety headgear, and esteemed those like Viv Richards and Gavaskar who eschewed it. Gavaskar did so not from misplaced machismo but because he believed an unfamiliar weight on the head would interfere with his reflexes.

Immaculate technique

Those reflexes, combined with immaculate technique, warded off for years some of the most vicious bowlers in history: Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, John Snow and Bob Willis, Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, and, above all, the fearsome West Indians, Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, and Joel Garner. But it was almost inevitable that he would be hit one day, and so it was that at Georgetown in 1983, a characteristically well-directed Malcolm Marshall delivery crashed into the little master’s skull. That he escaped without serious injury was a matter of sheer luck.

Just short of a half century at the time, he gathered his concentration, and hit the next ball straight past the bowler for four. He ended the day not out on 147. After that, he took to donning a somewhat comical skull cap, which would have been about as effective against an express bumper as the helmet on a skydiver, should the parachute fail.

Through the 1970s, India had no pace bowlers, only the gentle offerings of the likes of Madan Lal, Karsan Ghavri and Mohinder Amarnath. The situation improved once Kapil Dev emerged, but he was a lone quality bowler up front and India’s chances of dismissing the opposition twice were always slight. As captain, Gavaskar understandably cultivated a defensive mindset, and though he led his side to more victories than defeats, his record is dominated by drawn matches, often tedious ones.

Falling short in London

It is somewhat appropriate that two of his most epic efforts came in causes that didn’t end in triumph. In London in September 1979, India were set a final innings’ target of 438, a figure never achieved before or since. At 366 – 1, with Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar at the crease and only Chetan Chauhan back in the pavilion after a dogged 80 of 263 balls, it looked well within sight. I was tuned to the BBC’s live commentary on a shortwave channel way beyond my bedtime that night, trying to decipher the flow of play through the hissy signal.

Vengsarkar fell, and Kapil, sent up the order, perished soon after. England dawdled in the field, bowling barely a dozen overs each hour, as they saw a certain victory turn into near-certain defeat. But Gavaskar was dismissed for 221 with the score at 389, and 50 runs proved too tall an order for the remaining batsmen. When the match ended, India were nine runs adrift with two wickets in hand.

In his last test innings in 1987, he made 96 on a Bangalore pitch so conducive to spin that the Pakistani captain Imran Khan bowled a mere five overs in the entire match. Set 221 to win, India fell 16 runs short. Indian players and spectators were less content with near-misses by then, having tasted success at the 1983 Prudential World Cup and the 1985 World Championship of Cricket. Both those victories came in limited overs tournaments, an increasingly popular format in which Gavaskar was never entirely at home.

He retired while still near the peak of his powers, and became a commentator in print and on television, and it is as an expert analyst that anybody under 40 is likely to know him best. His observations are usually reasonable, but it is difficult to be consistently insightful through game after game for decades. I am uncomfortable with his closeness to the Board of Control for Cricket in India establishment, which detracts from his independence.

In the pavilion

In his days as a player, he stood up to the hegemony of Australian and English administrators, but that salutary anti-colonial attitude, which has stayed with him, seems misplaced in a time when India has become by far the game’s largest market and its players and administrators disproportionately powerful and arrogant. None of this detracts from his achievement as a player back when millions of Indians would break their work or take time off between classes to press transistor radios to their ears for the latest updates on a test match, and breathe free once they heard Sunny Gavaskar was still at the crease for, while he was batting, there was always hope.

I met him once, at a match between his club Dadar Union and Sandeep Patil’s Shivaji Park Gymkhana. A neighbour with contacts had taken me to the game, and dragged me into the presence of the great man as he was taking his pads off. I thought he would resent the intrusion, but he appeared not to mind, looking at me attentively and asking a couple of polite questions as he clasped my shyly outstretched hand. I’d like to shake his hand one more time to thank him for brightening so many of my days and those of cricket lovers across the world.