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

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