Indian cricket April 16, 2014

A tale of two farewells

Ananth S Kumar
Ananth had the rare privilege of being in the stands for Sunil Gavaskar's last Test as well as Sachin Tendulkar's. This is a narration of both those days

1987 was a pretty insignificant year up until August. I got off the auto and watched my dad disappear through the gate into the crowd finding its way to the stands. Around me, men walked around with banners, excited and edgy. My dad re-emerged to let me and my cousin know that we would be packed into a media car to get an entry. Minutes later, as I trotted up the stairs to the media stand, I stopped dead in my tracks. Roger Binny was just making his way to back into the dressing room meeting a few friends. I caught up with him and pulled out the autograph book my mom had shoved into my pocket. Binny obliged and by the end of the day the book had been signed by Erapalli Prasanna, Gundappa Vishwanath, Mohinder Amarnath and Mohammad Azharuddin as well.

I don't remember much of the game itself, save a few lasting images. The Press Stand had no seating. Everyone had to stand. For a nine-year old, it certainly didn't offer the best view. I sneaked through all the legs to the front just in time to watch that short man lean back and cut away for a boundary. Sunil Gavaskar was playing without a helmet, with Kris Srikkanth at the other end. At mid-on, the commander of Pakistan stood hands-on-hips, admonishing a misfield. Imran stood out in every way - style, body language, looks. By the time my excitement settled down and I started following the game, Wasim Akram and Imran had finished their spells. Tauseef Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim had taken charge. The wickets were tumbling.

For me though, it didn't matter. I was thrilled to watch Mohinder Amarnath, Dilip Vengsarkar and Azharuddin walk right by me, down from the dressing room and back up. Azhar was the fittest cricketer by a distance. You could just tell looking at him - lean, tall and that talisman hanging around his neck. My focus though remained on Gavaskar in his floppy; cutting and blocking his way to a half century. Nothing went past his bat that day. As he raised his bat, someone behind me said "a great Test knock". My perception of the aura that surrounded the man had come from Dad narrating his legendary calypso batting tales and ofcourse the now rare "Sunny - The Superhero" comic books. And Gavaskar on that day, did everything that I thought a super hero would. I finished my lunch in peace, hunted for signatures, played around with a few kids and he was still there. He had stood tall amidst the ruins on the pitch and somehow I thought I saw him always smiling.

From the Pavilion end, Vengsarkar batted with his back to us in the stand. He seemed to have half-heartedly put his foot forward, when the bails popped over. Tauseef Ahmed rejoiced. Curiously, for a boy that young, the only way to pick Tauseef from Rameez Raja on the field was when he was bowling because you knew Rameez Raja didn't bowl. They looked shockingly similar from a distance.

My first day of live action at a Test was drawing to a close. So was my dad's smoke with Srikanth. India was in trouble but we weren't worried. Gavaskar was around. Everyone was assured. They had been for more than 15 years. Azhar was still at the crease. Surely, victory would be ours the next day. I slept peacefully.

We of course went on to lose the game by 16 runs and Gavaskar fell short of a century by 4 runs. My last memory of that match is Prasanna letting my dad know what a remarkable innings it was. The first cricketing event I consciously followed was the Prudential World Cup in 1983. Since then, influenced heavily by my parents talking about it and having witnessed it multiple times, Gavaskar to me has remained the most assuring Indian batsman. There was a correctness to his batting that encouraged parents to urge their kids to learn from him. Mine were no different. My dad would repeatedly harp on Gavaskar's discipline - running between the wickets, grounding the bat, holding it in the correct hand while turning around for a second, his steady approach to a century, and scoring a few more just in case the scorers got it wrong. He was an idol, to be studied and to be admired.

Sachin Tendulkar on the other hand was a personal relationship. His career was my career. I put his batting ahead of most things in life - academics for instance. I've never been nervous for another batsman in my life. When he batted, I batted. When he got out, I switched channels. Twenty-six years later, my good friend Sunil Shinde, held passes to the Tendulkar's farewell Test. And again it was the third day. His final innings was already West Indies had ensured Sachin would not need to bat again. In the hour that I took to reach Wankhede, West Indies were six down and seemed intent on finishing everything before I got there. But Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Dinesh Ramdin kept the ship afloat. After I got there, they duly obliged and the Windies quickly packed up.

I knew up front that Tendulkar wouldn't get a second go with the bat. All I wanted was a lap of honour, perhaps an over or two of legspin. Thankfully the crowd arm-twisted Dhoni to toss the ball to the great man. And then, as a bonus, that unexpected and emotional farewell speech. Some 20000 people braving the sun, weeping. As he bent down to touch the 22-yard strip for one last time, it dawned on me that I would never see him again on the pitch. I often wonder, the tears were never shed for Gavaskar. Perhaps he never had the stage that Sachin had. But then, it was also not personal.

Gavaskar went on to play his final innings for MCC at Lords. Some super-heroes prided themselves on that sort of a thing. With Tendulkar, it had to end at home, amidst the people who loved him. I could not see him bat for the last time. But hey - I saw him bowl two whole overs.

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Ananth had the rare privilege of being in the stands for Sunil Gavaskar's last Test as well as Sachin Tendulkar's