This is a superbly produced coffee-table book of tributes published on the occasion of the 60th birthday of a great sportsman. In that one sentence is contained everything you need to know about it. Gushing praise rather than reasoned analysis is the theme, but there are enough personal anecdotes from players, officials, mediamen and family to keep the reader interested. The photographs - some of them quite unusual - add to the quality.
Sunil Gavaskar is that rare individual, a great performer who is also a great communicator, a sportsman who understood his sport better than most, and a sharp thinker who, like a chess grandmaster, consistently thought half a dozen moves ahead. He is also fun-loving, a mimic, accessible, and wears the crown of greatness lightly.
Debasish Datta's attempt to capture the man through the stories of those close to him - which, in one sense, is about a billion people, but the book has its limitations - succeeds when the writing is from the heart and falters at other times, especially when the statistics and clichés are repeated. That is why the pieces by his parents, and by close friends such as Milind Rege, stand out.
Both Mike Brearley and Ian Botham point out an interesting aspect (beyond the concentration, dedication, fitness, attitude to practice that others fill their stories with). "He could be very erratic at the start of the innings," says Brearley, adding, "occasionally, after having got his hundred, he would tend to play very loosely too". Botham is more specific: "There were moments when he appeared to be suffering from self-doubt, a premonition of failure."
These are interesting tidbits in the midst of the tired comparisons, well-known stories and all round eulogy.
In a balanced assessment, Ramachandra Guha says, "Gavaskar also understood that there was money to be made outside the field. He lent his name to shirts and socks, to columns and books, and to company balance sheets… This is a man who chooses his words as carefully as he once chose his strokes. He is self-interested as almost all of us are, but so single-minded has been his pursuit of success that he has occasionally been accused of selfishness…"
To understand the true greatness of a sportsman, one has to acknowledge this selfishness, this will to power.
Datta deserves praise for lining up a team of writers from Garfield Sobers to Lata Mangeshkar, from Prakash Padukone to Manna Dey. We may not learn anything new or significant, but what is already known and admired is laid out in an attractive package.
Sunil Gavaskar: Cricket's Little Master
edited by Debasish Datta
Niyogi Books, hb, 300pp, Rs 995
Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore