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The Thursday column

The power of nostalgia

Nostalgia can be the enemy of reason, for it imbues the past with such marvelous colours and scents that reason cannot cut through fortifications

Sambit Bal

February 19, 2004

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Sunil Gavaskar: will we ever forget many of his epic battles against Pakistan?
© Getty Images

Nostalgia can often be the enemy of reason, for it imbues the past with such marvellous colours and scents that reason cannot cut through its fortifications. The present, with its flaws being so conspicuous, doesn't stand a chance. Already, we yearn for the Tendulkar of old, the prodigy who fired our imagination, the boy who spanked Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram with a bloody nose, who saved India a Test at Old Trafford before he could drive, and who stood tall at Perth when his more illustrious colleagues wilted around him.

The spin quartet? Did they ever have a flaw? Did Bedi ever bowl a long-hop? Did Prasanna ever stray in line and length? Did Chandra ever have a bad series? But how is it that India only won three Test series abroad in their glory years? Don't ask. It is sacrilege. Anil Kumble, we will wait for you to retire before we crown you. "Ah, only if Kumble was there" can only be said when we are aching for you.

But, that said, there is a special joy in conjuring up the past, and particularly so when the past consists of delightful, but disjointed, capsules. My first enduring images of India-Pakistan cricket are from the pages of the Illustrated Weekly of India, now lost to the ravages of crass commercialisation. I had followed India's 1978-79 tour of Pakistan breathlessly on radio, which brought chilling blow-by-blow accounts of the mishandling of the great Indian spinners by the Pakistani batsmen. But the image that sticks out is the photograph of Sunil Gavaskar being caught by Sarfraz Nawaz off the bowling of Mushtaq Mohammad for 97 in the second Test. It was particularly poignant, because it was the first time that Gavaskar, with 13 centuries behind him already, had been dismissed in the nineties and there was, at that time, doubt over the legitimacy of the catch. My innocent mind had been led to believe that it was a bump-ball, and it confirmed all those stereotypes about Pakistani umpires.

Despite a gallant fightback in the second innings - Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan put on 192 for the first wicket and Surinder Amarnath and Gundappa Viswanath weighed in with 60 and 83 - India lost the Test on the last day with Pakistan blasting 128 runs from 20.4 overs. Gavaskar's twin centuries in the next Test weren't consolation enough, because to me then, the injustice of a record being blemished was overpowering.

India's next tour of Pakistan, in 1982-83, was my first experience of cricket on live television. It was in black and white, there were only two cameras, and the commentary, if you think about it now, was a joke. But those images, when revisited even today, have a sharpness and poignancy that ten cameras, all the high-tech gadgetry and the army of experts can't provide.

I remember the first Test at Lahore almost ball-by-ball, because I don't remember missing one. That India saved the Test, with Mohinder Amarnath scoring a century on one of his many comebacks, was cause for celebration. But that we were witness to perhaps the most devastating exhibition of fast bowling in cricket history is clear only with hindsight now. The term reverse swing was unheard of then, but we watched Imran Khan's banana-shaped inswingers uproot stump after stump and quivered in terror. One ball swung away in the air and was at least a couple of feet outside Viswanath's off stump before it started curling in. The ball crashed in to the off and middle with Viswanath's bat raised perpendicular in the air. It summed up India's misery and it finished off Viswanath.

And then was Gavaskar at Faisalabad, standing tall and alone as all crumbled around him in the second innings. His 127 couldn't save India from defeat, but his batsmanship was put in context by Imran, who took 11 wickets in the match, eight of them either bowled or lbw. He would have traded all 11, said Imran after the match, for Gavaskar's in that match. Imran was unplayable that series, yet for more than seven hours he couldn't get one through Gavaskar's impeccable defence.

It was Imran's Pakistan again that brought out the very best of Gavaskar on a minefield at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in 1987. I watched sitting on a bench in my hostel canteen. No-one moved even in between overs because it would have meant losing your seat. Balls that floated gently in the air exploded off the pitch on the last day, and Gavaskar summoned his entire range of skills - unwavering concentration, sure footwork and dexterity of hands - to bat India to the doorsteps of victory. And then he fell, given caught behind to Iqbal Qasim, a decision that grated all of India. Gavaskar merely looked up at the umpire, and walked away, in short, brisk steps, never to be seen in a Test match again.

When my younger colleagues sometimes ask me to rate Tendulkar against Gavaskar my mind instantly travels back to these two innings. There are many ways of measuring batsmanship. But has there ever been an Indian batsman who has looked as secure in the crease as Gavaskar? It's only the fear of nostalgia clouding my judgment that keeps me from committing.

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Sambit Bal Editor-in-chief Sambit Bal took to journalism at the age of 19 after realising that he wasn't fit for anything else, and to cricket journalism 14 years later when it dawned on him that it provided the perfect excuse to watch cricket in the office. Among other things he has bowled legspin, occasionally landing the ball in front of the batsman; laid out the comics page of a newspaper; covered crime, urban development and politics; and edited Gentleman, a monthly features magazine. He joined Wisden in 2001 and edited Wisden Asia Cricket and Cricinfo Magazine. He still spends his spare time watching cricket.
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