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Gavaskar at 70

In a resource-scarce, insular India of the seventies, Gavaskar stood for the pursuit of excellence on a scale that wasn’t satisfied with anything less than world-class

Among the many things said and written about Sunil Gavaskar’s craft, nothing is more edifying than what David Gower wrote exactly a decade ago. As Gavaskar turns 70 today, one may revisit what the former English skipper thought was the most remarkable thing about seeing the Indian master bat—it didn’t matter to him whether anyone was watching, or whether the occasion was big or small. The craftsman was at work, as single-mindedly as ever.

This is what the former English skipper remembered about Gavaskar’s art: “I have seen him play at matches in the countryside in England with the great and the good sipping their champagne on the boundary edge and keeping the odd eye on cricket. Again Mr Gavaskar will oblige, oblivious to whether or not his art is being fully appreciated. The same technique and skill that served him so well in international cricket were applied to showing anyone who cared to watch how it should be done.”

In a world where the successful and the great—not necessarily the same, though Gavaskar was both—can’t offer anything of value to everyday life situations of the most ordinary of professionals or the failed and the forlorn among them, it was this attribute of him which adds meaning to the obscure fate of their efforts. It tells an artist to produce nothing less than art even when one isn’t sure about anyone seeing his work. It tells a teacher to deliver nothing less than a proper lecture even when there is only one student in the classroom, and it tells a writer to offer nothing less than meticulous writing even when he expects not more than a few random readers to find time for his work.

He stood like a monk on the crease—short, steady with the bat behind well-balanced legs and stoic with no initial movements. There hasn’t been a more graceful stance in view: the monochromic aesthetics of Gavaskar in test cricket whites being enhanced by arm guards and helped by his decision to avoid helmets for the most part of his career.

For cricket followers of seventies and eighties, watching or listening about Gavaskar in his stance at the crease—even if it was on a television screen or radio set—was as much an experience as were the long hours of his rigorous taming of the best bowling attacks in different parts of the world, including the famous pace battery of West Indies, the English-Australian attack and the Pakistani attack.

The moment he erred, it seemed as if it were a violent act—an aberration from the rhythm of technical elegance that defined his stay at the crease. And when dismissed, he walked back quickly to pavilion, somehow repelled by what he had done—misread the ball, slipped a bit in his epic powers of concentration, played an avoidable shot or played it a tad imperfectly or nicked it behind.

By a fair distance, Sunil Gavaskar redefined the idea of a professional cricketer in India—the only fleeting precedent of it was seen in Vinoo Mankad.  In a resource-scarce, insular India of the seventies, Gavaskar stood for the pursuit of excellence on a scale that wasn’t satisfied with anything less than world-class. He mastered playing fast bowling in a country where he neither got fast bowlers to practice against nor fast pitches to play on. Still, his record against best fast bowling attacks in the world—14 hundreds against mighty West Indies, including a debut series aggregate of 774 runs in 1971—was as much a story of his enormous talent as it was of his doggedness and courage.

Perhaps dazzled by his great record against a formidable Caribbean attack, people tend to forget that some of his best knocks came on seaming and swinging English pitches against a quality England attack. None better than his 101 at Old Trafford in 1974. The greatness of the innings has been captured in an essay by Tony Lewis in 1989 edition of The Wisden.

Lewis writes: “Cold north-west winds drove in squalls, bringing only the seventh day of rain in Manchester since mid-February. The pitch was firm and bouncy, Willis, Old and Hendrick were hostile, whacking in the short balls. Underwood and Greig were the slower bowlers, and they gave nothing away. Gavaskar first demonstrated how brave he was. He kept his eye on the ball and swayed either side of the high bounce, but when the ball was pitched up, he was immediately forward to drive it straight. This is where Gavaskar was a better player than Boycott overall. Boycott lost his strokes, or maybe through parsimony, he cut them out; Gavaskar reduced risk, too, but never lost the spring off the back foot which sent him firmly into the drive.”

However, that’s not all. If he was great at countering the ferocity and deception of fast and swing bowling, he was equally good at dealing with the guile of the spin. In the same essay, Lewis remembers Gavaskar, and rightly so, as the best player of spin he ever saw.

“Sunil Gavaskar will be remembered for his rolling walk to the crease, his forearm padded against the fast bowlers. His deflections to the fine leg will remain clearly etched, as will his firm pushes in a wide arc on the leg side, his drives, of course, and his lethal cut to square third man. But I will recall most the best player of spin bowling I have ever seen, always balanced, forever with time whether playing right out to the pitch of the ball or back to watch and wait,” he recollects.

He reserved one of his most unforgettable innings against spin bowling for his farewell test against Pakistan at Banglore in 1987. On a square turner of a track (“a mass of rubble impersonating a pitch” to use Harsh Bhogle’s description of the vicious surface), Gavaskar’s last test knock of 96 against Pakistan spin attack remains a masterpiece of modern batsmanship.

There has been some attempt at sociologically explaining his cautious discipline in batting in terms of a careful India of those decades where the middle class grew up with values of risk-aversion and saving for the rainy day. That’s how some explain his late adjustments to one-day cricket, following his bizarre knock of 36 not-out after batting through the innings. Perhaps that would be failing to see the other side oh his batsmanship.

Except for odd instances, he did reasonably well in later stages of his one-day career, particularly in the last three years as a batsman and the last year as skipper (leading India to Benson and Hedges World Championship triumph in Australia, 1985). One should also not forget that when he decided to curb self-restraint, he was as quick as scoring a 94-ball hundred against fearsome Windies attack at Delhi in 1983.

Amid all that, Gavaskar’s greatest asset was probably his immaculate discipline and power concentration. He rarely lost sight of the ball. Observers of his craft still talk about how he kept an eye on the ball even when he didn’t need to—following it from keeper’s gloves to the point or mid-on fielder to bowler’s hands. And of course, then seeing it to the last possible fraction of a second when the bowler finally released it. There are anecdotes about how careful he was about protecting his eyes. Kapil Dev particularly recalls how he used to avoid camera flashlights or any kind of smoke for protecting his eyes to focus only on the ball the next day.

One may go on to reflect and recall many more aspects of his on-field and off-field presence, including nearly three decades of television cricket commentary and elder statesmanship of the sport. However, it’s the greatness of his craftsmanship that needs to be remembered today in times when the word “great”’ is being devalued with loose use. Perhaps it’s poetic justice that his craft of exquisite tenacity made its way to a song set in a foreign land, as Lord Realtor’s Calypso composition remembered the great man’s masterly knocks in the Caribbean:

“It was Gavaskar

De real master

Just like a wall

We couldn’t out Gavaskar at all, not at all

You know the West Indies couldn’t out Gavaskar at all.”

The most remarkable, however, is the realisation that Gavaskar would play with the same reverence for the craft, even if there wasn’t anyone to whisper anything in appreciation. He enters his 70s today.

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