Sunil Gavaskar At 75: Opener, Yes, But An Eye-Opener For Indian Cricket

K Balakumar

Jul 10, 2024, 05:11 PM | Updated Jul 11, 2024, 11:39 AM IST

You can't be an Indian cricket fan and be unfamiliar with Sunil Gavaskar's contributions
You can't be an Indian cricket fan and be unfamiliar with Sunil Gavaskar's contributions
  • Beyond his Test batting feats, Sunil Gavaskar paved the way for cricketers' financial rewards and a professional BCCI setup.
  • During the recently concluded T20 World Cup, Dinesh Karthik and Sunil Gavaskar were on air during one of the telecasts. The freshly retired wicketkeeper was making smart observations on the game and conveying the same in fresh and interesting language.

    The Indian cricketing great's speech, on the other hand, was laboured. He was saying things that we have heard from him for many decades. No real insight, just a bunch of banalities that even ChatGPT would avoid.

    A neighbourhood youngster who was watching the match with me casually asked, with the smug insouciance associated with modern youth, "What has Gavaskar done to be a commentator?"

    I winced and sighed.

    Of course, Gavaskar as a commentator is long past his shelf life. He is just trotting out tiresome cliches and some lame jokes that stretch for effect. In that sense, the guy who was with me had a case to feel irritated and impatient at his commentary. But the question, "What has Gavaskar done?" kind of touched a raw nerve inside me.

    I belong to a generation whose cricketing sensibilities were shaped by the exploits of Gavaskar on the cricketing field as well as his combative spirit outside of it.

    Defensively, I asked the youngster whether he had read about Gavaskar's batsmanship and had any idea about what he was like in his prime cricketing days.

    The youngster, not surprisingly, had little knowledge of the batting great.

    He mentioned stumbling upon a brief mention that Gavaskar had once scored 36* (not out) after batting for a full 60 overs in an ODI World Cup match. Yes, that asterisked inning will forever remain an asterisk in the great man's CV. But he surely was more than that. 

    Not just that youngster who was watching the game with me, most Gen Z cricket watchers seem to have little inkling of what Gavaskar means to Indian cricket.

    During the Indian Premier League (IPL) this summer, Gavaskar had a go at Virat Kohli (for Kohli's outburst against criticism from commentators), and the social media platforms were swarming with Kohli fans trolling Gavaskar with insensitive snark that somehow passes for humour these days.

    Fans fighting pitched battles for their heroes are most common on social media. But most followers of Kohli, it could be seen, had no clue about Gavaskar as a batsman and probably thought he was just one of many other former cricketers.

    Ignorance is not a crime in many cases. But if you're an Indian cricket fan and still unfamiliar with Gavaskar's contributions, then it is almost criminal.

    Best For The Last

    The great man's last Test inning itself deserves a book. Like the Isner-Mahut match or the Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final, it was less a sporting feat and more a tour de force of skill and mental strength.

    In that match in March 1987 against Pakistan in Bangalore (now Bengaluru), on a pitch where batting was an impossible lottery, Gavaskar famously scored 96.

    Even his dismissal was a contentious bat-pad catch that may have been reversed if DRS were around. On a pitch on which no batsman could stay for more than 100 balls, Gavaskar batted tirelessly without losing concentration for 264 balls over 5.20 hours.

    Imagine playing your greatest Test inning in your last outing. That summed up Gavaskar in ways far better than words alone.

    The spin bowling of that Pakistani attack comprised Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed, both honest and earnest spinners, but no real greats of the game.

    But on that pitch, which offered so much spin that even running straight may have been difficult, every slow bowler seemed like a combo of Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan at their prime.

    That wicket is often described as a 'minefield', so full of spinning dynamite that even the great Imran Khan deemed it unfit to bowl in the second innings. On such a wicket, Gavaskar brought all his wares and put on a show that belongs to the world's top-25 batting displays ever in Test match cricket.

    Gavaskar entered Test cricket in 1971 in a blaze of glory that Indian cricket had not witnessed before. Against the mighty and fearsome West Indies, his numbers read: 774 runs, 8 innings, 4 100s, and a 154.8 average.

    For those of us who started watching cricket in the 1970s, these numbers were more memorable than even the multiplication tables we learned in maths class.

    There is nothing new to write about his batting might. When he called time on his career, he was the highest run-getter in Tests — 125 Tests, 10,122 runs — and at that time the man with the most Test centuries, 35, and the first ever to go past the 10,000-run mark in career aggregate.

    Even in ODIs — admittedly not his forte — in his penultimate innings, he scored the then-fastest ton in the 50-over World Cup.

    The man was always mind-over-matter. All through his career, he was consistent and was on top when the conditions got a little tough. That fourth-inning double century (221 at the Oval) chasing over 400 runs belongs in a cricketing museum.

    In the famed tied Test in Chennai (1987), he was again the top scorer for India in the fourth inning with a pristine 90. (The two cover drives that he hit off Craig McDermott post-lunch on that memorable final day had everything — skill, style, authority.)

    But more than a cricketer, Gavaskar was a once-in-a-lifetime person who changed his sport in ways unimagined before.

    It is a tragedy that the peerless cricketer is now the servile voice of the officialdom (the Board of Control for Cricket in India, or BCCI). But at the height of his career, he was the one sounding the bugle of defiance against the powers that be. Filled with righteous anger, he took on the BCCI mavens as spiritedly as he faced Roberts, Holding, or Thomson.

    Enterprising Off The Field

    Gavaskar consistently fought for the rights of the players and never cowed down to the authorities. He was once asked to not write columns as an active player. But Gavaskar stood his ground firmly.

    The BCCI relented a bit and said Gavaskar could write but not on cricket, to which the batsman wrote piercingly in his next dispatch (words to the effect): To expect a cricketer to write on anything except cricket is silly.

    "What else does the Board want me to write about, Fairfax or Bofors?" (The reference was to the two major scandals of the day.) After such a stinging public rejoinder, the BCCI quietly acquiesced. 

    Gavaskar was also the one who showed Indian cricketers that media gigs were a profitable post-retirement option. Right from his playing days, he actively cultivated interests beyond sports and wrote consistently.

    He authored four books without any ghostwriters much before he ended his international career. He was the first Indian cricketer to be a full-fledged commentator after hanging up his cricketing boots.

    To be sure, the likes of M A K Pataudi, Lala Amarnath, Bishen Singh Bedi, and M L Jaisimha did commentary before him. But Gavaskar was the first to take it up as a professional endeavour.

    In his early years, his commentary was insightful and full of nuances. Sadly, it has now degenerated into a bore fest.

    Gavaskar had the smarts to mine the market in a sustained manner for financial rewards for cricketers. He laid the stone for the personal branding of cricketers. He was the first to sport commercial potential in sporting sponsors' logos on the jersey.

    The Rs 125 crore bonanza for the Indian cricket squad after the T20 World Cup win would have been impossible if it were not for the early, committed work of the likes of Gavaskar.

    Led The Way

    Gavaskar was also the pioneer in not blinking against fierce opponents and showed what professionalism was all about on the cricket field. Outside it, he consistently called out the snobbery of the Aussies and Englishmen, who went about cricket as if it were their fiefdom.

    He was never enamoured of their snootiness and kept puncturing their balloons whenever possible. (He declined the prestigious MCC membership in a symbolic show of Indian self-respect.)

    Singlehandedly, he gave the idea of self-belief to both Indian cricketers and the Indian cricketing officialdom. The dominance that we see now comes, in a sense, from the inspirational rise of Gavaskar in the 1970s and 1980s.

    It is known that his brave batting led to Sachin Tendulkar’s emergence. But his no-nonsense approach made Indian cricket come out of the shadows and enjoy its position under the sun. 

    In that way, Gavaskar was not just a great Test match opener but an eye-opener for Indian cricket itself. His contributions to Indian cricket are remarkable and staggering. Don't let the silly commentator that he has become distract you.

    He turned 75 today. A number that would hardly impress him. Nothing less than a century ever satisfied him in cricket. So, here's hoping for 25 more in his life, too. Time to convert those into twos!

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