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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Sunil Gavaskar - India's cricketing Olympian

So I return to my PC, typing furiously.

The Italian contingent has just gone by - amidst huge cheers - but I'm not really interested.

I feel cheated - after almost an hour of waiting, THIS is what I get ?

"Anju Bobby George" the BBC commentator labours to pronounce - as if it does not sit easy on his tongue. I wonder why. To me, it is as British-sounding as any other British name. In an obvious attempt at humour, he adds "If you've heard that name before, tell me !" He then goes on in a tone that I consider suspiciously patronising "Well, she did come third in the World Championships last year so I suppose you've got to say she's got a chance". That was it - India gone, next country please.

I did not count - but it was probably 5 seconds.

What am I talking about? The opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics, of course. Where every country has its turn walking down the track, waving to the crowd. Like possibly millions of Indians worldwide, I have been waiting impatiently for the Indian flag but Athens has already started its Olympics with its own unique flavour - the roll of honour is, as is traditional, alphabetical - but this time it is according to the Greek alphabet. I try to think frantically beyond "alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon..." and, after some straining, give up. On a Friday evening, after a tough week, the Greek alphabet is not exactly a challenge my already considerably battered brain cells are looking forward to. I rationalise - after all this is only the opening ceremony - India will have its moment of glory, it will not miss out.

And then what I have described above, happens.

Come on, Anju - for my sake - and for the sake of a billion others – DO SOMETHING!

You probably think I have lost it. What has all this got to do with Sunil Gavaskar?

Be patient - I'll come to that in a moment. Staying with Athens, if India got five seconds, compared to the massive cheering for Australia, it's not entirely unexpected. India might pick up the odd medal but it is hardly likely to set Athens ablaze. Ever since I can remember, India has more or less just made up the numbers at the Olympics. Every time I have hoped and cheered, every time I have been let down.

Over the last thirty years, I cannot remember many truly spectacular Indian sports personalities. People for whom one could, with some exaggeration (and borrowing from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar), quote "He doth bestride us like a colossus".

On the plus side, we can say the situation has definitely improved in recent years. Today Indian cricketers have thrust India in the limelight. Leander Paes and Bhupathi have done India proud in tennis. Gopichand has won an All-England title in badminton. And, of course, we have, possibly THE star attraction of most world chess tournaments, Vishwanathan Anand.

But this is all recent. Back in the seventies, there was a world snooker title for Michael Ferreira, there was an All-England title for Prakash Padukone and, of course, there was that unforgettable hockey World Cup of Kuala Lumpur in 1975. The country went crazy with Ajitpal Singh, Govinda, Aslam Sher Khan, Mohinder, Varinder, Surjit, Harcharan, Ashok Kumar, Michael Kindo and all the other heroes. Sportsweek magazine featured one player on its cover every week - this went on for several weeks (I suspect they sneaked in repeats - in a country starved of sporting success and at a time when hockey still had its pride of place in the national sports hierarchy, who cared?).

But, achievements in other sports notwithstanding, most of India was (as it still is) obsessed with cricket. And here, India had, like water, found its own level. The heady days of 1971 - with series wins in the West Indies and England, had given way to the harsher realities of 1974 (cynically known as "summer of 42". The more knowledgeable amongst you will understand this, the others must excuse me for not attempting to explain. Thirty years after the event, it still hurts).

And this is where Sunil Gavaskar comes in (not here exactly but I thought I better mention him, else you might lose your patience – like I did with the Athens roll of call).

For all the talk about India having the world's best spinners, the fact is that throughout the 70s and for a part of the 80s, India, in cricket, was considered one of the weakest teams in the world. (This was in the days before Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Only New Zealand was considered possibly weaker). Which is why, when India sprung the odd surprise - like successfully chasing the 400-plus to beat the West Indies at Port of Spain, it did not sit very well with the opposition. Clive Lloyd could take a 1-5 hammering from the Aussies in the mid-seventies but losing to India a few months later? - a big no-no.

Throughout the seventies, if one analyses India’s poor performances, on the face of it, it would appear that the batsmen and bowlers were probably equally to blame. Often the bowlers lacked the killer instinct to finish off the game. But, having lived through each game of that period, I can remember far more instances where batsmen just did not give the bowlers enough to bowl at. Or worse still, they couldn't even chase a very ordinary total, or survive just the last day of the Test. Navjot Singh Sidhu would've had a field day, commentating on Indian batting of that era – his "bicycles in the cycle shed" metaphor would've been aptly over-used.

And this is where Sunil Gavaskar comes in. No, this time he really does.

There were two batsmen of that era who stood out for India. Sunil Manohar Gavaskar (a.k.a Sunny) and Gundappa Ranganatha Vishwanath (a.k.a Vishy).
Both little masters. Sunny was 5'4", Vishy 5' 2" or so. In the mid-seventies they even got related when Vishy married Sunny’s sister.

One of the favourite pastimes of Indian cricket-lovers in those days was comparing Sunny and Vishy. They were different in style – Vishy’s strokes were often square of the wicket – on off- and onside. His favourite was the square cut, although he had an absolutely delectable flick shot (and a glance shot to match). The fielding captain, who'd have typically packed the field on the offside, would be left in despair.

Sunny, opening batsman that he was, had to play a much straighter bat – he'd often play in the arc of mid-off and mid-on. His favourite was the straight drive past the bowler – he played it with absolute authority.

I can go on and on about both these players but for the rest of this article, I'll talk only about Sunny. (He is the opener – it is his turn to bat. Vishy, at No. 4, will have to wait - although I can assure him that, in keeping with those times, it will be a short wait).

Much has been written about Sunny. By writers with far more credentials than me. They often tout his statistics to prove their point. Although these are very impressive, I will not dwell too much on this – those interested in knowing more about Sunny’s records can “google-search” them anywhere.

I will also not compare Sunny with any other players – not of his generation, not of any generation. It may make this article less interesting – but it would be unfair on him, and on the ones he is compared with. All I will say is that in 1976, Sportsweek came out with a cover story on the three best batsmen in the world – Gavaskar, Richards and Greg Chappell. Although it did make a case for each of these to be the best, I think it did not conclude on any one – a wise decision. Choosing any one of these would be grave injustice to the other two.

My narrative on Sunny is personal – it is my tribute to a man who made me in my younger days , and millions others, proud to be Indian. On the field, he was a proud Indian himself – he would never give up the struggle, however hopeless it looked. Even today, he is a proud Indian – some of his criticism of the current Indian side has not gone down very well with them (like his comment about them being “chokers” , but anybody who knows Sunny from his stubborn playing days would realize where he is coming from). He is a perfect ambassador for not just the game of cricket, but for sport in general.

For me, he has been in my life for as long as I can remember. In my childhood, he was every Indian cricket lover’s most treasured possession. We would be at school, trying to get score updates. Everytime we'd hear the score and learn that a wicket had fallen, we'd pray it wasn't Sunny. Most of the times, it wasn't. Much like Ken Barrington for England, Sunny wore India on his chest when he went out to bat. He was too respectful of the task he had and the responsibility he bore, to let India down.

Among the reasons I hold Sunny in very high esteem, is the fact that he achieved what he did, opening the batting for India. Everybody knows that an opener’s job is a very tough one – the wicket is usually green, you don't know how the ball will behave in the first over of the day, and it takes one ball to behave strangely to see you back in the pavilion. A middle-order batsman has the slight advantage of judging by the fate of those before him. Added to this is the responsibility an opener carries – he knows if he gets out, he immediately hands over psychological advantage to the bowling side. There is no bigger boost for a bowling side than to get an early breakthrough.

Now to something else – Sunny's critics.

Let’s face it – if you are famous, you tend to attract criticism. It is difficult for people to accept somebody wholeheartedly – it is almost against human nature. Like they say, “nobody kicks a dead dog”. But, when your playing days are over, often this criticism sticks even harder with your image. With the passage of time, with less and less of you to go by, there is a high chance that future generations see this image of you and all your exploits on the field – however laudable at that time – fade into the background.

I am not suggesting that Sunny’s performances are ever going to fade into the background. They are far too many to suffer this fate. But his records will be broken. As batting averages continue to swell like the Ganges in monsoon, his once stupendous average of 51 may well be overtaken by many.

Not that Sunny would care. He knows what he has achieved for India. He is not answerable to any of his critics. But there are many images of him that are constantly portrayed to today’s cricket loving public – and some of them are definitely not positive.

As somebody who has followed his entire career closely, let me give you my take on him.

First I need to clarify that I am not a blind worshipper of Sunny. For all my huge admiration for him, I think he may have had his failings. At the zenith of his power, he had tremendous influence in selection matters. Some decisions of that period did strongly suggest a not-entirely-kosher selection process (especially since some of the beneficiaries were from Sunny’s zonal team, West Zone). Having said that, many selection decisions of those days raised eyebrows - speculating about Sunny’s role in this would be akin to vindicating the selectors themselves – and that would be wrong. It was their call – and they need to be answerable for their decisions.

Now, onto some mud on Sunny’s face that needs clearing. There have been a few stories – from his playing days – that have gained momentum after his retirement. I will challenge each one of them.

First, that Sunny was a selfish player – playing only for records. I have never heard such nonsense in my life. First of all, to play for records, you have to be in the luxurious position of being able to do so. Let’s not forget that most of the times Sunny was fighting with his back to the wall – trying to save the game for India. On the odd occasion that India indeed had this luxury, Sunny still played for India’s interests. Those who claim he was selfish need only to look at Calcutta, 1978-79 against West Indies. Sunny was captain – he'd got a century in the first innings and , together with Dilip Vengsarkar was cruising along with a massive 344-run partnership in the second innings. He was batting on 182 – a few overs and he;d have got his double hundred – second century in the match. (He would have become the only player to have got a century and a double century in the same match on two occasions).

But since it was nearing the end of the fourth day, and he was pressing for a win, he chose to declare – and get a bowl at the Windies that evening. As things turned out, on a nail-biting fifth day, the Windies just about managed to save the game by the skin of their teeth, ending at 197/9. It was very disappointing for most Indians as they felt Sunny could as well have gone for his double hundred the previous evening. However, Sunny had absolutely no regrets about his decision – he said it was the right thing to do. It was just a pity India could not finish off the job. Selfish? I should think not!

Second, that Sunny was a very defensive captain – he never took risks. Come on – Sunny did not exactly have the Indian side that Ganguly has today. He opened the innings – when you see wickets falling like ninepins at the other end, you can be forgiven if your first instinct is to save the game. All his career, right down to his very last game, he was fighting to save India. Often he did not succeed – but never for want of trying. Sure, he may have taken a defensive position at times – but his teammates had not exactly vindicated his confidence in them, had they?

Third, that he was a slow batsman. Some even call him boring. They immediately cite his 36 not out as the example.

Sunny will be the first person to admit that the 36 not out innings was “horrible” in the context of limited-overs cricket. Perhaps in the context of any cricket. It was one of those innings which he himself jokes about nowadays – instead of avoiding the subject. At that time, much was made of it – as if India lost the match because of this innings. I myself listened to the commentary of that innings and, while his batting made no sense at all, in my opinion, India had long lost the game when England ran way with a huge 330-odd score, with Amiss hammering Ghavri all over the place. No excuse for that slow innings, but let's not make a big deal of it.

I'd say Sunny was a very responsible batsman, always aware of the expectations from him. He played one loose shot early in his career, hooking carelessly and getting out. For the rest of his career, he cut the hook out of his repertoire of strokes. And, for those who think he had a limited range of strokes, think again. He was technically brilliant, he had a wide variety of strokes, both on the offside and the legside. He chose to play in the arc between mid-off and mid-on most of the times, offering the full face of the bat. All the strokes he didn't play were those he chose not to, because of his sense of responsibility. And, he was definitely not a slow scorer. He wouldn't play rash strokes, but he'd punish any ball slightly loose – but you don’t get many loose balls, when the bowlers are on top. And why are they on top? Because they've taken a few wickets. In those days, run-rates were anyway much less than today and, if you exclude marauders like Richards, Greenidge and Lloyd, Gavaskar’s run rate wouldn't compare too unfavourably with many others of that time, considering his opening role and team position.

And lastly, one of the biggest criticisms about him. That much of his success came against weak bowling attacks. Much is made of the fact that against the relatively weak Windies attacks of 1971 and 1978-79, Sunny made hay while in 1982-83, facing Marshall, Holding and co, he was suddenly exposed to genuine high-quality fast bowling and his average was suddenly not-so-impressive. Similarly in the 1980-81 series against Lillee, Sunny had a poor showing while he bullied a B-grade Aussie team in 1977-78.

I really wish Sunny had played Marshall and Lillee much more in his career than he did. I feel he would have silenced many of his critics. I believe Marshall was the most dangerous bowler in the world in the 80s – to be facing him (with or without helmet) would be any batsman’s worst nightmare. Marshall, without the advantage of height that Garner had, still had the ability to get the ball to rise off the pitch and come straight at the batsman’s throat. Yes, by his own lofty standards Sunny did not have the most successful of series against Marshall in 1983. But in the early and mid-80s, Sunny’s form did dip a bit compared to his form in the 70s. This happens to any batsman. It had nothing to do with facing Marshall. That most top players chose to go to World Series Cricket in the late seventies for huge sums of money thus impoverishing Test cricket, is not Sunny’s fault. He chose not to go – he preferred to play Test cricket for India (note this aspect of his character too). The bottom line is, he played whichever bowlers were bowling to him at that time. If they were not the best of that country, he could not be blamed for it. And what people conveniently forget, is that Gavaskar did play Imran very well in what was Imran’s dream series in 1982-83 in Pakistan against India. Imran himself admitted as much.

So, I will not accept the line of reasoning that since Gavaskar did not play top-quality fast bowling all his career, he could not play top-quality fast bowling.

Now to something completely different. Throughout his career, Sunny played a number of memorable innings. He has often quoted his 57 at Manchester in 1971 as his favourite. A bit ironic considering he has 34 hundreds. It is very difficult for me to pick one of his innings – there are so many gems. But, purely for quality, magic, pitch condition, match situation and the drama of the dismissal, I would choose his very last innings – an absolutely magnificent 96 against Pakistan at Bangalore in 1986-87 – a match that India lost by 16 runs, and where Sunny was controversially given out. Apparently the next day the umpire admitted that his decision might not have been the right one. This, in an India-Pakistan game. Rubber-deciding game. Gavaskar on 96. Last Test innings. They don’t come much more dramatic than that.

If after this long blog, you are still skeptical about Sunny, fine. Don’t take my word for it. Here is what some illustrious players had to say about him. They cannot all be wrong.

Sir Don Bradman : “I would have been proud to have played cricket with him."

Viv Richards : “I personally would like to say that Sunny Gavaskar is the best. His record speaks for itself."

Ian Botham : “The Indian combines Boycott's steadiness and Greenidge's ability to keep the runs flowing."

Mike Proctor : "If I have to bet on someone making a hundred in a match, he is the one most likely to achieve it."

Imran Khan : "His perfect technique makes him the most difficult batsman alive to dismiss."

Sir Len Hutton : "If I were to recommend a schoolboy to copy a modern master, I would go for Gavaskar."

Sir Colin Cowdrey : “A pocket-sized battleship armed with an impenetrable defence and astonishing gunpowder. The bigger the battle, the better the performance."

Mohinder Amarnath : "You cannot compare Sunny with anyone. For him batting was everything. He didn't want to fail or throw away his wicket. He had perfect technique, perfect temperament”.

Andy Roberts : "He had scored tons of runs against all countries but not one against India,which has the weakest attack.It speaks volumes about his greatness."

If all these great players feel this way, who am I to argue?

So let’s end this criticism now and appreciate and respect what we have.

This article has suddenly lifted my spirits. Just discussing Sunny tends to do that to me.

I hope Anju is reading this article – or any of the Indian participating contingent currently in Athens.

It is a matter of pride to represent your country.

If you feel that way, you give your best.

Now if only Anju or any of the others can pull off something fantastic, wouldn’t it be great for Indian sport?

Sunny would wholeheartedly approve.

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