Sunil Gavaskar September 20, 2010

The gift of pride

To a country starved of self-respect, Gavaskar was a godsend

More than his 34 centuries and 10,000 runs, more than his 96 in Bangalore or his 221 at The Oval, even more than the 774 runs on debut with which he strode into our impressionable minds, Sunil Gavaskar's greatest contribution was to instill pride in a generation brought up on low self-esteem.

Till he came along, with a boyish mop of hair and a defiant attitude beneath, Indians had been told that they could not play fast bowling. India's batsmen, in spite of a legacy of Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare, Vinoo Mankad and Polly Umrigar, were the subject of much leg-pulling, especially in England, and young minds in the late sixties and early seventies were convinced by the gullible local media into thinking that anything British was better than everything Indian. In such an atmosphere, Gavaskar started to score runs and told us that an Indian could be the best in his profession. Ten years later, Kapil Dev showed that an Indian could bowl fast. That is why those two are great landmarks in the evolution of Indian cricket.

Gavaskar didn't just stand for pride, he stood for hope too. As long as he was in, India could fight, and the words "Gavaskar out?" were uttered in fear every time the commentator's voice rose amid the crackle on the radio. He was the head and shoulders of India's batting, and unless Gundappa Viswanath produced a piece of artistry, he was often the only symbol of resistance. That is central to any understanding of the way he batted. Apres him, it was le deluge.

Gavaskar's batting style, based on defence, constructed around the best defensive technique in India's cricket history, was a product of his times. If you were a wage-earner in the seventies, you saved every penny you could, you always put aside something for a rainy day. If you had a job you hung on to it for life. Safety and caution were the defining factors of India's middle class, and it was from such a background that Gavaskar emerged.

He gave the first hour to the bowlers and fought to get the next four-and-a-half. He hit the ball along the ground and he built his innings on ones and twos, not fours. That would be extravagant and there would be stinging words if he got out in search of a boundary. It wasn't done. To a generation experiencing the benefits of liberalisation, used to seeing a Sachin Tendulkar symbolising a "spending regime", these might seem strange words. But when Gavaskar was 103 not out at the end of the first day of a Test match, it wasn't considered boring, it was invaluable. Gavaskar was still there and there was hope. If he was an investor, he would put his money in secure Government of India bonds, where a Tendulkar might play the equity markets.

His style was built around an uncanny feel for the off stump. Anything outside was left alone with the patience of a sage, and when the bowler was compelled to move his line closer to the body, he was whipped through the on, or straight-driven in style. That straight drive was a hallmark, and even if the cult commercial of the era talked about Gavaskar perfecting his square drive, it was the straight drive everyone waited for.

His powers of concentration were legendary. Mohinder Amarnath once told me that he thought his partner was in a trance. In a rare interview Gavaskar admitted that he never kept the ball out of sight, following it all the way from the slips to mid-off to the bowler's hand. And he swears it is true that he did not know what his score was when he was batting, for the mind was only focused on the ball, on the next ball. When Javed Miandad apologised for sledging him during the legendary 96 in Bangalore, he smiled back saying he had no idea what was being said. He hadn't heard it.

That 96, his last Test innings, was a masterpiece played on a mass of rubble impersonating a pitch. The spinners were making the ball turn at right angles and jump past the nose. "I thought I would get 10," he later said, and much like Tendulkar's heroic 136 in Chennai 12 years later, the exit of the best batsman was the announcement of the end of the innings. Bishan Bedi, once a great friend of Gavaskar's and then, sadly, a bitter antagonist, admitted once that had Gavaskar been opening the batting in Barbados in 1997, India would have won. (They were bowled out for 81 chasing 120).

Gavaskar's batting, constructed around the best defensive technique in India's cricket history, was a product of his times. If you were a wage-earner in the seventies, you always put aside something for a rainy day. Safety and caution were the defining factors of India's middle class, and it was from such a background that Gavaskar emerged

Three times when Gavaskar was at the top of the order, India scored more than 400 runs in the fourth innings, and to my mind that will remain his most staggering batting contribution. The win in Port-of-Spain in 1976, where, led by an immaculate century from him, India made 406 for 4, is still India's finest moment in a Test match. He made a shaky middle order look better than it was, in much the manner today's openers make a good middle order look worse than it is.

Don't forget either that through the mid-seventies and eighties the standard of bowling in world cricket was awesome. There will probably never be a greater collection of fast bowlers in Test cricket. West Indies could pick any of seven; Australia had Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Rodney Hogg and Len Pascoe; England had Bob Willis and Ian Botham; New Zealand had Richard Hadlee; and Pakistan had Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz. Opening the batting wasn't the cleverest profession and maybe that is why nobody really stayed long enough with Gavaskar.

He played many innings to remember, including a half-century in 1971 that he rates among his best. I have one, though, that occupies a very special place in my mind. Not the 221, not the 96, not the 101 at Old Trafford in 1974, not the 188 in the Bicentennial Test at Lord's (even though that should be compulsory viewing for anyone who wants to learn how to bat), not even the 236 in Madras. It is the century in Delhi in 1983 against a genuinely great West Indian fast bowling attack, when he pulled out the hook shot for only a day and got to the hundred from a mere 94 balls. That day was magic. There was no self-denial that day, the bowlers weren't given the first hour and it wasn't a middle-class man saving for his family.

He loved his numbers, and in course of time, like everyone else, he will be remembered by those. But they won't tell you that Gavaskar made you proud to be Indian.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here. This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket in 2002

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  • Kannan on September 22, 2010, 9:25 GMT

    Gavaskar had great technique but he would often provide chances in the slips. I've always remembered him to have provided at least one chance in most of the centuries he scored - I could be mistaken though! When Gavaskar scored a century those days, a school boy's day was made just the same way people feel about a Sachin 100 today. In the 1970s, one could confidently predict that India would lose a wicket every 25 runs on most occasions. Gavaskar - Engineer and Gavaskar - Chauhan were memorable opening partners. Indian family cricket discussions then, involved about who was better Gavaskar or Vish when Vish was at his peak stylish form.

  • Dimuthu on September 22, 2010, 9:11 GMT

    only seen a few clips of him bat. his stats and tributes show him to be one of the most solid test batsmen ever. would have loved to have seen him bat live. unfortunately, all i've seen/heard are his one dimensional, biased, indian flag waving commentary. So whenever I see him on tv, i go 'ugh'. Shame really, cos i KNOW he was a great batsman. oh well!

  • Kannan on September 22, 2010, 9:11 GMT

    @Ronita : A million dollars? Hmmm. Spin us another story.

  • Harsh on September 22, 2010, 3:41 GMT

    He could have won lot of Matches for India, if he was currently batting with Sachin, Dravid, Sehwag and Laxman. Or also He could have had even better records if he had enough batsman who can stay at crease for longer time. He taught Indian batsman how to put price on wicket. Dravid learned the most, so him being not naturally aggressive, he rarly throw his wickets playing adventurous book-outside shots. Tendulkar is naturally aggressive batsman a faster and stronger version of Gavaskar. I still think he gives really good Test Commentary. He is defiantly a Legend I would loved to see bat.

  • roja on September 22, 2010, 2:13 GMT

    I wonder if he is the same guy who was caught in controversy of million of dollars stashed in his locker in one of the Gym in Mumbai? How that story goes? probably Harsha will throw some light on it??!!who got the money in the end? why was so much hush hush wink wink about that incident?

  • Joel on September 21, 2010, 13:56 GMT

    I don't know about everyone else, but when it comes to entertaining batting I think of no other way. There is nothing like the satisfaction of seeing a man like Gavaskar walk off the field with 150 runs to his name after watching him walk onto the field many hours - even days - earlier. That goes to any batsman of the type, today's equivalents being maybe Jaques, Hussey and similar. Watching a batsman fend off good bowling, get themselves set, get through the troubling period and slowly just wittle the opposition to nothing cannot be replicated in any other sport and offers the most entertainment for me. Even if it may take days, it is worth it.

    That is so much better than seeing a hacker walk to the crease and ply their art. Even if they score a century in a run a ball, they get out just as fast and the next thing you know the rest of the team follows them. Every ship needs an anchor, and that anchor has t be a steadfast run machine that just churns it out at a steady rate.

  • Varun on September 21, 2010, 13:26 GMT

    He was truly a legend.He got 13 centuries frm 27 tests against WI facing marshals,garners,holdings etc.He has also got 8 centuries against Aus facing Lille n Thomson.Look at his avg against WI 65.45..against d greatest pace attack of all time.He also has an avg of 51.66 against Aus.Against Pak his avg is 58.88...Against d like of Imran Khan n Sarfraz Nawaz, he has 5 centuries..His avg in WI is 70.20 with 7 centuries..wat a player he was.He was pure technician n great timer of d ball..He's d best opening batsman d game has ever seen...ahead of Barry Richards..he was mentally very tough..but i think he's very underrated outside India..n one more thing dis article is not good enough to compliment his legacy...very very poorly written one...

  • vipin on September 21, 2010, 9:16 GMT

    gavaskar tendulkar & dravid are in same class.... three of them have avarage above 50+.... gavaskar from 1971 and 1975-1980 was at his best.. after dat from 1981-85 his average was just around 41 in 50 macthes, he have 13 test centuries against west indies... but at the starting of 1970's, west indies was rely on spin and not so much on pace, from 1978-80 all the west indian fast bowlers were playing packers cricket.... after dat he dont have much success against west indies except dat 95 ball 100 at delhi.... but overall a class batsman wonderful opener... tendulkar is above little bit overall, coz his one-day record is superior.. but if u chose in tests I think gavaskar is little bit up against tendulkar

  • Amogh on September 21, 2010, 8:52 GMT

    There was another special inning from Gavaskar in the 1983 West Indies Series. It was the third test in Ahmedabad. In India's first innings Gavasker scored 90. He hit first four balls of Malcom Marshall to boubdaries. Marshall at that time was at his peak and furious most. Boundary on the second ball was awesome. That was a full ball, very very fast. There were no radars at that time - but I am sure it must be aroung 90 MPH. The ball ended somewhere on 6th stump on the off stump and Gavaskar helped it over the third slip to boundary. Only a great batsmen who watches the ball till the very end can play a shot like that.

  • Dre on September 21, 2010, 3:10 GMT

    He's just quality. Gavaskar could really teach today's batsmen what technique is all about. Look no further than his 4th innings exploits in tougher batting conditions.

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