July 10, 2009

Sunil Gavaskar gave India a newfound respect in international cricket

By H Natarajan

He was India's greatest batsman but Sunil Gavaskar's legacy to Indian cricket goes beyond batsmanship. He instilled in the Indian cricketer a pride, and ushered in an era of professionalism. His authoritative presence earned India a newfound respect in international cricket, and its cricketers the means to a good living.

When Gavaskar came into the Indian team in 1971 players got Rs 750 per Test; by the time Gavaskar moth-balled his kit, it had increased by at least ten times. Today's cricketers have Gavaskar to thank for their astronomical match-fees.

Gavaskar stood up for what he believed in and didn't have any qualms about taking on the establishment or the established: recall him calling the selectors court jesters, his firm stance against umpiring in Pakistan, and his face-off against Dennis Lillee in Australia.

More often, however, his bat did the talking. In 1971, Gavaskar was a 21-year old lad on his maiden Test tour. By the end of the Caribbean tour in 1971, the world saw evidence of a cricketing legend in the making: he made an astonishing 774 runs from four Tests. He was a key figure in some of the fourth innings epics in cricket history: 102 out of 406 for 4 in Port-of-Spain - the highest by a team to win a Test; 90 out of 347 against Australia at Madras in Tied Test II; and 221 out of 429 for 9 in a historic draw against England at the Oval in 1979.

Gavaskar was consistent against all opposition and in all conditions. He played in what could be called the Golden Era of fast bowling, when coming up against the likes of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Imran Khan was routine. The traditional struggle of India's flat-track bullies overseas even against average bowlers should put Gavaskar's worth in perspective. Significantly, he never wore a helmet in his career.

Gavaskar's overseas average is better than that at home, while 18 of his 34 hundreds have come abroad. He finished with 13 hundreds against West Indies a figure most batsmen would be happy with against all comers. The most memorable among those 13 must be the blistering 94-ball century at Delhi in 1983-84 that saw him catch up with Don Bradman's tally of 29th Test centuries.

Initially Gavaskar looked out of sort in one-day cricket but he eventually adapted. He led India to victory in the world Championship of Cricket in 1985 and over shadowed his partner Krishnamachari Srikkanth at Nagpur to score 85-ball hundred in the 1987 World Cup.

The maestro's sense of timing was immaculate. His last Test innings was also arguably his finest - 96 in the fourth innings on a beast of a wicket at Bangalore against Pakistan in 1986-87. In his penultimate one-day innings he struck a century. In his final first-class match he made 188 against a World Xl at Lord's on the occasion of the MCC Bicentenary. His exit was as delightfully scripted as his entry. It was a fitting goodbye from the Kohinoor among India's cricket jewels.

(The above article appeared in the Outlook magazine dated July 8, 2002 when Sunil Gavaskar was one of the nominees for the Electrolux Kelvinator Wisden Indian Cricketer of the Century Award. The article is reproduced in the author’s blog as a tribute to Gavaskar on his 60th birthday)