Sunil Gavaskar was different. He was different from every Indian cricketer who had come before him. Not so much in terms of technique or cricketing education or the way he carried himself but different in the kind of impact he had on the world game.
There had been many great Indian cricketers before Gavaskar. From CK Nayudu to Lala Amarnath, from Vijay Merchant to Vijay Hazare, from Vinoo Mankad to Polly Umrigar, from MAK Pataudi to Erapalli Prasanna. But none of them shook up the world order like Gavaskar did.
As the late Madhav Apte, who played for India in the 1950s, once told this writer, “We would enter the match not looking to beat Don Bradman or anything like that. The records were the last things on our mind. We wanted to give a good account of ourselves. At the most, we hoped to score a century or a double century if it was really good. That was the ceiling of our imagination.”
Before Gavaskar came along, Indians played for the love of the game. They lived for the simpler joys. Beating the batsman in flight, inducing a false shot or beating a great batsman with the arm ball, playing the late cut, the straight drive, the wristy flick and even the perfect front-foot defence. Just doing these things right was enough to make them happy.
The perfect start
But Gavaskar was different. His imagination had no ceiling and his first series set the tone for his career. Against the West Indies in 1971, he made 774 runs at an average of 154.80. No one, not even his skipper Ajit Wadekar, had expected this of him.
Only KD Walters then had ever scored a century and a double century in one Test. His aggregate of 774 was only five runs short of Everton Weekes’ aggregate of 779, the highest in a series between the two countries. No batsman had ever scored as many runs in his very first Test series. Only Bradman against South Africa in 1931-’32 and India in 1947-’48 had a better average. At just 21, Gavaskar, who had never been out of his country expect to Sri Lanka, had launched himself into superstardom.
It perhaps seemed fitting that as India made history with series wins in West Indies and England, newspapers and fans all over the world were talking about the new ‘Indian’ Bradman.
He could block out pain, as he did during the Barbados Test against the West Indies in 1971.“I was under orders from the manager. I couldn’t even take a pain-killing injection to relieve the pain,” he later said, explaining that it could have made him drowsy. But not once did he think about giving his wicket away. Rather, the Mumbaikar chose to be ‘khadoos’, he chose to persevere, he chose to put a price on his wicket. Gavaskar ended up with 220, made in eight hours and 49 minutes. A double century in just his fourth Test.
Not always smooth sailing
As good as Gavaskar’s start was, the next few years weren’t as easy. He did not average 50 in a Test series for five years after his first tour. There was a lot happening off the field: his first Test captain Wadekar retired. Pataudi came back for a bit. And then, Bedi took over. Different captains, different demands and not the easiest thing for a youngster to adjust too.
But this is where, once again, Gavaskar showed he was different. He was one of the first specialist openers India had ever had. Even Vijay Merchant had only taken over the position at the age of 26.
Gavaskar buckled down and concentrated as only he could. He also needed to work on his flaws on his own. His powers of concentration were so immense that he would lose track of everything else.
“I was blessed with concentration, Gavaskar told The Hindu years later. “Even today, if I am in a crowded room with a lot of noise around, and if I am reading a book, I would be able to do so without being disturbed. That’s a blessing. If your concentration is there, it becomes much easier. You are able to think with a much cooler mind... cricket is a mental game.”
His resurgence post 1976 could be attributed to these very same qualities – concentration, dedication and the will to succeed. In the five years that followed, he played cricket all over the world and averaged less than 50 only twice. It was consistency that was nothing less than mind-blowing.
Most Indian batsmen would give a glimpse of their genius, play a breathtaking innings and then disappear. But not Gavaskar. If he would get stuck in, he would really get stuck in. It set him apart but it also inspired others to play like him. This was him setting the standard.
He would build his innings with meticulous care, limiting himself to drives through the covers, past the bowler, and between mid-on and mid-wicket. Nothing extravagant. Nothing that would give the bowler a chance.
But, of course, there were days when he would flip a switch.
His 205 against West Indies at Bombay in 1978 was an outstanding example. It came off 342 balls and included 29 fours and two sixes. When in the mood, he could unleash shots all around the wicket.
Gavaskar vs the world
|v Sri Lanka||7||600||176||66.66||2||3|
|v West Indies||27||2749||236*||65.45||13||7|
Seven years after his debut, Gavaskar went past Umrigar’s tally of 3,631 runs to become the leading Indian run-scorer in Tests. But on November 13, 1983, when he surpassed Geoff Boycott’s tally of 8,114 runs to become the leading scorer in Test cricket, Indian cricket changed forever.
Less than a month later, he scored his 29th Test century against the West Indies – equalling Bradman’s record for most in Test cricket. The West Indies bowlers, led by Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall, were in the mood for some short-pitched bowling but Gavaskar (pulling, hooking and cutting) got to his half-century off just 37 balls and took a further 57 balls to reach his ton. It was a blistering counterattack.
Gavaskar's overall stats
He would go on to score many runs and five more centuries before his career ended (he held the record for most centuries and most runs in Test cricket when he retired) but as he had shown throughout his career, Gavaskar would not cow down to anyone and that again is how he was different.
Indian cricketers tended to be nice, gentlemanly fellows but if he felt wronged, he would let you know. It didn’t matter whether it was the administrators, the umpires or even the opposition players – if he had something on his mind, he would voice it.
If he was just a talker, it probably would not have cut it. For they are a dime a dozen. But Gavaskar was so much more. He wasn’t just empty rhetoric. He was someone who could walk the talk and do it in such a manner that it inspired so many more to take up the game.
We often speak about what the 1983 World Cup triumph meant to India but the value of a career as distinguished as that of Gavaskar is as immense if not more. It wasn’t a flash in the pan, it wasn’t a brief burst of genius, rather it was steady, consistent light that allowed India to get out of the darkness and find their way to the outside world; to join the big league.
In this day and age, young Indians growing up have plenty of batting role models to look up to. But if you were growing up in the 1970s or ‘80s, there was just one. That role – of being an idol – came with a pressure of its own. But neither the pressure nor the situation could, to borrow from Lord Relator, ‘out Gavaskar at all’.