When Sunny spat the dummy
Dennis Lillee and Sunil Gavaskar were two of cricket's most successful players, and also two of the most controversial (both have featured in previous Rewinds). There was, therefore, a certain inevitability that putting the two together would result in fireworks.
In February 1981, Australia met India at Melbourne in the final game of a three-match series which Australia led 1-0. Gavaskar, India's captain, had struggled from the off, dismissed for a duck by Lillee in the opening Test at Sydney and following that with scores of 10, 23 and 5. At the MCG that poor run continued - he made 10 as India conceded a first-innings deficit of 182.
The series had been dogged by some inconsistent umpiring which the Indians felt had largely gone against them. The inexperienced Rex Whitehead, who made his debut in the first Test and stood in all three matches, was singled out for blame. In the aftermath of the Lillee-Gavaskar incident, Shahid Durrani, India's manager, cited seven decisions made by Whitehead which had gone against India and, he said, caused them to become angry.
Second time around at the MCG, India put up a much better fist of things. Opening with Chetan Chauhan, Gavaskar had finally begun to find his form and was enjoying a feeling of "confidence and optimism" as they put on 165 for the first wicket.
But then came the fireworks. Lillee jagged one back into Gavaskar, who was on 70, and appealed for leg-before. That the ball was hitting was not in doubt, but Gavaskar was adamant that he had edged it. Whitehead disagreed, and gave him out. "We were sure," Lillee recalled. "The only one who had a problem with it was Sunny who, until that day, had never scored runs against me."
Gavaskar stood his ground long enough for his anger to be apparent, slapping his bat into his pad for good measure. "He spat the dummy right out of the pram," Lillee explained. He further antagonised the fuming Gavaskar by advancing down the pitch, pointing at the pad and offering a few choice words of advice.
As Gavaskar reluctantly started to leave, Lillee made one comment too many and Gavaskar snapped, returning to the crease and instructing Chauhan to walk off the pitch with him. A bemused Chauhan did as he was told, but at the boundary edge the batsmen were met by Durrani and Bapu Nadkarni, the assistant manager. Chauhan was persuaded to return to resume his innings, while Gavaskar was ushered into the pavilion. But Chauhan's concentration was wrecked, and he added only a few more runs before holing out to Bruce Yardley in the covers for 85, to give Lillee his second wicket of the innings.
Durrani's quick intervention saved the incident from becoming far more serious. Had Gavaskar succeeded in his walkoff then it was not inconceivable that India could have forfeited the Test.
"I was infuriated by the injustice of it all," Gavaskar told reporters. "Whitehead has stood in all three Tests, and many bad decisions by him have gone against us."
Lillee was in no doubt what was behind Gavaskar's histrionics. "I know from what his team-mates told me that he was desperate to score a hundred against me. It was frustration at getting so close to his goal which made him blow up."
The media found neither party without fault, but Gavaskar's actions were roundly condemned. The Cricketer said that "It was clearly reprehensible for a national-team captain to undermine an official's authority in such a way," while in Wisden Cricket Monthly Peter McFarline wrote of "the Test that could have died of shame".
Amid the furore it was almost overlooked that Gavaskar's wicket was Lillee's 248th in Tests, equalling Richie Benaud's Australian record. But it was the Indians who had the last laugh. Australia were set a relatively modest 143 to win but, spearheaded by 5 for 28 from the injured Kapil Dev, India bowled them out for only 83 to win by 59 runs.
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Menace - Dennis Lillee (Headline, 2003)
Gavaskar: Portrait of a Hero Clifford Narinesingh (Royards, 1995)
Wisden Cricket Monthly April 1981
The Cricketer April 1981