February 16, 2014

Gavaskar's stunning entrance

For Indian cricket fans of a certain vintage, the Caribbean summer of 1971 was the most glorious of all

Sunil Gavaskar: unflappable, and technically unmatched © Getty Images

Nothing can equal the thrill of listening to the unprecedented batting exploits of Sunil Gavaskar as he amassed 774 runs in the four Tests he played in the West Indies in 1971 - if, like me, you happen to be someone who watched cricket through the 1960s and '70s.

We were by then used to being let down time and again by Indian batsmen who often flattered to deceive. The batting had revolved largely around the courage of the captain, MAK Pataudi, and flashes of brilliance from the supporting cast, which included the likes of Ajit Wadekar and the mercurial Salim Durani, with Chandu Borde no longer around to lend it a semblance of stability. Dilip Sardesai had promised much but his best was yet to come.

Happily the first Test of that Caribbean tour at Sabina Park saw Sardesai at his best as he hit a powerful 212, with the next-best score coming from Eknath Solkar, who made 61 in a total of 387. India enforced the follow-on with a first-innings lead of 170 to the complete puzzlement of the rival captain, Garry Sobers. Rain had reduced the match to four days and you only needed a lead of 150 in a game of that duration to put the opposition in a second time. With Rohan Kanhai (158 not out) and Sobers (93) in roaring form, the match was comfortably drawn, but India had gained the confidence that they could challenge this West Indies side in a post-Wes Hall-Charlie Griffith transition period.

Gavaskar, the young prodigy from Bombay University, made his debut in the second Test, in Port-of-Spain, and straight away played a winning hand in India's first Test victory in the Caribbean. West Indies had been bundled out for 214 in the first innings by some superlative spin bowling from Erapalli Prasanna (4 for 54) and Bishan Bedi (3 for 46), with support from medium pacer Syed Abid Ali, who got rid of the dangerous left-handers Roy Fredericks and Clive Lloyd.

Opening the innings with Ashok Mankad (44), Gavaskar made an impressive 65. With Sardesai (112) continuing his great form, and Solkar contributing a valuable 55, India took a lead of 138, and then went on to dismiss the opponents for 261. This time S Venkataraghavan was the star bowler, with 5 for 95, while Durani, who is said to have snatched the ball from the captain, Wadekar, got rid of Lloyd and Sobers, and then nonchalantly returned the ball, as if to say his job was done. Gavaskar made light of the easy target of 124, remaining unbeaten on a fluent 67.

GR Viswanath was the favourite batsman for many of my generation, but most of us would reluctantly concede that Gavaskar was the master batsman without equal

Promising as the start to Gavaskar's Test career was, little did any of us know what was in store. The Little Master made scores of 116 and 64 not out, 1 and 117 not out, and 124 and 220 in the next three Tests, breaking all manner of records in the process. India managed to win the series on the strength of their Trinidad victory in the second Test, as each of the other games ended in a draw. A champion batsman had arrived on the Indian Test horizon, the likes of whom we had never seen before, certainly not since the days of Vijay Hazare, Vinoo Mankad, Rusi Modi, Polly Umrigar and Vijay Manjrekar.

Though his contribution to India's triumph in England the same summer was not significant, Gavaskar impressed the experts with the purity of his technique. Back in India, he did not make too many runs in the series against Tony Lewis' Englishmen, or even in the unofficial Tests in Sri Lanka that followed. On the disastrous tour of England in 1974 (the infamous "Summer of 42") he made a grand start with 101 and 58 in the first Test, but faded away thereafter.

He missed most of the 1974-75 home series under Pataudi against West Indies with an injury he sustained in the first Test in Bangalore. Coming back for the final Test in Bombay, he made a fluent 86. His gradual return to his rightful place in the pantheon of great modern Test openers began during the 1975-76 New Zealand tour and grew to full bloom in the West Indies with his scores of 156 and 102 in the two back-to-back Tests in Port-of-Spain. India's unlikely triumph in the third Test, chasing a target of 403, however, provoked the launch of a four-pronged pace attack by Lloyd, a captain desperate to put West Indies on the top of the cricket world.

While the rest is history in terms of West Indies' subsequent domination of world cricket, Sunil Manohar Gavaskar had more than arrived as arguably the greatest post-war opening batsman in the world.

GR Viswanath was the favourite batsman for many of my generation of cricket lovers in India, and I was no exception, but most of us would reluctantly concede that Gavaskar was the master batsman without equal, for his superb technique, immense powers of concentration, unflappable temperament, and astute cricketing brain. Some of us would go so far as to say that purely as a Test batsman, he was superior to the other Little Master, Sachin Tendulkar. Even if we may struggle to win that argument, we can always boast that we witnessed the birth of the most exciting phase of Indian cricket, thanks to Gavaskar's astonishing batting in 1971.

V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ashok on February 21, 2014, 1:50 GMT

    @Raju_Iyer: Please read my comments in the context they were made before making sweeping remarks. If you read my input properly it is about Gavaskar, the Cricketer. The real architects of the Indian Cricket like Merchant, Hazare, Umrigar, ets. were superb Cricketers but barely made a living out of Cricket. They played Cricket for the Love of the game. In fact Budhi Kunderan was so poor that he had to borrow even the WK gloves when he first appeared for India in Tests- a superb WK/Batsmen, died in poverty, abroad. During Gavaskar playing days, the Cricketers were all amateurs- paid pittance when they played in Tests. Today Cricket provides a livelihood to Cricketers hardly above the Club level. I compared to Captain Dhoni's earnings because he is he highest paid Indian Cricketer. Capt. Gavaskar was the Top class batsman in the World at that time! Sign of the Time.

  • Raju on February 20, 2014, 4:35 GMT

    @ Nampallly : What has Dhoni's earnings in IPL got anything to do with Gavaskar's genius? Typical of Indian fans, can't stomach other's successes!This article was about the greatness of Sunil Gavaskar the batsman, some of his actions as a captain or even as a player under Venkataraghavan were not ideal, but let none of them detract from the fact that he was the first "Record-kar" before "God" aka Tendul-record-kar arrived...

  • Harsh on February 19, 2014, 5:36 GMT

    I must state that as a pure match-winner G.R.Vishwanath was ahead who posessed the prowess of a magician.Gavaskar and Vishwanath rolled one could well have comprised the perfect batsmem.Gavaskar was the technician,Vishwanath was the composer.It would have been a great combination of technique and concentration with artistry and creativity.

    I must also state that certain critiques point out that Gavaskar did not make his centuries against the best West Indian pace bowlingas he dominated the weaker attacks of 1970-71 and 1978-79 excluding the likes of Garner,Holding,Roberts and Marshall at his best .Gavaskar also missed the Packer supertests.This is significant.Neverthless Sunny superbly tackled Imran Khan ,Malcolm Marshall and Ian Botham at their peak from 1979-84.His 90 at Ahmedabad on a bad track against West Indies in 1983-84 was sheer mastery..Gavaskar posessed more concentration than any batsmen ever and when batting resembled a buddhist monk meditating.

  • Harsh on February 19, 2014, 3:55 GMT

    What sometimes went against Sunil was his inability to step the gas and win matches by dominating the bowling.However never forget the pressure he faced and his epic role in saving so many test matches and winning some.His 166 versus Pakistan in 1979-80 at Madras comes to my mid where his marthon knoch won an important game for India.His 221at the Oval in 1979 and 96 at Bangalore in 1987 could well have beeen the best innings ever in a winning 4th innings run chase with a bit of luck.I do not think Tendulkar would have equalled Gavaskar facing the great bowlers Gavaskar did,that too without headgear and opening the batting.

    For the best opening batsmen of all time Gavaskar's best rivals are Jack Hobbs,Len Hutton and Barry Richards.Adding first class cricket Hobbs would rtae as the best opeer of all time and arguably Barry may have edged Suniul in his era.

    I still do not think Bradman may have surpassed Gavaskar facing those phenomenal attacks if you remember the bodyline series.

  • Harsh on February 19, 2014, 3:48 GMT

    Sunil Gavaskar is arguably the best test match batsmen of all time.I find it hard conceiving any batsmen warding off the great Carribean pace quartet without the aid of a helmet like Gavaskar,let alone opening batsmen.Toady even the likes of Andy Roberst and Gary Sobers rate him above Tenduulkar with Sobers rating him above even Viv Richards ,Lara and Tendulkar.No great btasmen scored so prolifically against truly great pace bowling as Gavaskar who championed opponents like,Andy Roberts,Imran Khan,Ian Botham with the technical precision of a surgeon.His 221 at the Oval in 1979 that morally won the game for India arguably ranks amongst the top 2-3 best in a 2nd innings run chase.His 96 against Pakistan in his final test innings at Bangalore on a broken pitch with the ball turning square is something I do not envisage the likes of even Bradman or Tendulkar playing.Notably Sunny has about 3 innings featured in Wisden's 100 best.Technically he was 2nd to only Len Hutton.

  • Arnab on February 19, 2014, 3:16 GMT

    Spare a thought for Kenia Jayantilal. Along with Gavaskar, he was picked as one of the debutant openers. His scores in the warm up games leading to the first test were - 33 and 56* (President's XI), 21 (Leeward Is), 59 & 122* (Guyana), 40 & 76 (Barbados) and 65 (Windward Is). Gavaskar's scores were - 82 & 32* (Leeward Is), 125 & 63 (T&T), 0 & 67 (Barbados), 14 & 12 (Windward Is). There was little to chose between them in the warm up games. Indeed Jayantilal was slightly better. He was picked for the first test, made only 5 in the only innings and was not picked again as Wadekar preferred to open with Mankad. Jayantilal wasn't picked for India ever again. With a little encouragement he might have been another Gavaskar. Mr Ramnarayan being from Hyderabad may throw more light in his next article.

  • Amir on February 19, 2014, 2:28 GMT

    It is not fair to compare Gavaskar with Viv Richards. They both had completely different styles. Viv was aggressive by nature and was gifted with immense reflexes by the almighty where as Gavaskar was a technically correct batsman whose job was to see off the new ball. I am from Pakistan and I have always been a big fan of Imran Khan and his sense of cricket. In one of his past interviews, Imran rated Gavasker above Sachin in terms of technicality. Sachin never faced Akram or Waqar in their prime primarily because of the political environment between the two countries and therefore, it will not be fair to say that Sachin negotiated the ball well against the two Ws.

  • S on February 18, 2014, 17:47 GMT

    @MaruthuDelft: Yawn .. any more analysis you want to throw at us? I don't know why people have to compare. Gavaskar was a good batsman period! Who cares if Bradman, Sachin or even Richards were better? I think most people miss the point by comparing. Having said that, I believe all of the batsmen I've mentioned above have been great and you can add many more to those - Kallis, Ponting, Hussey, Waugh, Sehwag, Dravid, Sanga, Haydo, Pietersen, Trott etc etc. If they didn't contribute to their teams wins, they wouln't have player for decades.

  • Dummy4 on February 18, 2014, 11:36 GMT

    All those who are criticizing Sunny and comparing him with the likes of Viv mus remember one thing that during those times, India was bereft of quality batsmen and bowlers. India only had Sunny, and a handful of bowlers good enough for Indian conditions only. Sunny didn't just have to score runs, he also had to play the anchoring role, carry his bat till late down the order, all this while facing the quickest of bowlers first up. If Sunny was in WI or Aus team, he would have scored more runs than he did, and more centuries and at a faster pace. No batsmen to score runs around him and no bowlers to defend low scores if he got out trying to score runs at a faster clip

  • Dummy4 on February 18, 2014, 5:59 GMT

    To me what was amazing about SG battling the WI pacers of that era was, his practice regime. How in the world would he practice against 140-150 K balls before bowling machines were invented? I believe he used to shorten the pitch, practice on concrete with water on it etc. But still in his debut series? Incredible. May be there's stuff for a movie "Bat, Sunny Bat'.