The perfect opener
Apart from his physical appearance, everything about Sunil Gavaskar was immense, especially the statistical milestones he achieved over his 17-year international career. At a time when fast bowling around the world was strong and healthy, Gavaskar's technical purity and balance, his impeccable judgement of length and line, his insurmountable powers of concentration, and his range of strokeplay have all left such an indelible mark that he remains one of the foremost opening batsmen of all time. For India he was a blessing, giving the team a resilience that it had sorely lacked in the past. There had been other top-class Indian batsmen before him, but none who sustained the run-scoring excellence as relentlessly as Gavaskar did.
He started his Ranji Trophy career with a fifth-ball duck against Mysore, but hundreds in each of his next three Ranji matches confirmed the potential. Even so, none would have anticipated the stunning manner in which he announced his arrival on the world stage.
Picked in the squad to tour the West Indies in 1971, Gavaskar justified the move in the most emphatic manner possible, amassing 774 runs in four matches, a tally that remains a record for the most prolific series by a batsman on debut. A couple of his half-centuries helped India to their first win against West Indies, in Port-of-Spain, a venue that remained his favourite throughout his career. That kicked off an amazing sequence of scores, with centuries in each of the next two Tests, and he signed off quite majestically, scoring 124 and 220 in the last Test - again in Port-of-Spain - to become only the second batsman in Test history to score a hundred and a double in the same match.
The start was almost too good to be true, and it was inevitable that those lofty standards wouldn't be sustained, even for a batsman as focused and gifted as Gavaskar: in his next 26 innings, he scored fewer runs than he had in his first eight, and managed just one century, 101 in a losing cause at Old Trafford in 1974.
That brief lean spell, though, was the precursor to Gavaskar's best sustained period in international cricket: in the five years between 1975 and 1979, he averaged nearly 60 and had a fantastic rate of converting fifties into hundreds. Arguably his best innings - the 221 against England at The Oval - came during this phase. In the 10 series he played in these five years, he averaged 50 or more in eight, and over 75 in three.
The next five years were considerably less successful - in 11 series during the early- and mid-1980s his average exceeded 50 only three times. This was also the period when he played his worst series - against the touring England side in 1984, Gavaskar totalled 140 runs in eight innings at a miserable average of 17.50.
The clamours for his retirement grew during this period, but Gavaskar ensured that when he did leave, he did so on his own terms, averaging more than 58 in his last 16 Tests, and scoring an unforgettable 96 in his final innings.
|Debut series||4||774||154.80||4/ 3|
|July 1971 to Jan 1975||13||693||27.72||1/ 6|
|Feb 1975 to Jan 1980||45||4434||59.91||18/ 16|
|Feb 1980 to Sep 1985||47||2939||40.81||7/ 14|
|Oct 1985 onwards||16||1282||58.27||4/ 6|
Despite having played during a period when run-scoring was considerably more difficult than it is today, Gavaskar achieved some incredible numbers, becoming the first to get to 10,000 Test runs and 30 centuries. During the two decades in which he played, only six batsmen scored more than 4000 runs at a 50-plus average.
|Javed Miandad||101||7701||57.04||22/ 36|
|Greg Chappell||87||7110||53.86||24/ 31|
|Allan Border||111||8488||53.38||23/ 46|
|Viv Richards||108||7849||51.98||24/ 37|
|Sunil Gavaskar||125||10,122||51.12||34/ 45|
|Geoff Boycott||67||5505||50.50||16/ 29|
One of the most remarkable aspects of Gavaskar's career was the success he achieved against West Indies, the best team of the 1980s. He scored 13 centuries against them, which is the second-highest for a batsman against one opposition; only Don Bradman, with 19 against England, has more. Bradman's overall rate of scoring hundreds was obviously much better than Gavaskar's, but in this case the rates were comparable: Bradman's 19 came in 37 Tests, while Gavaskar needed 27 matches for his 13 hundreds.
Some of his runs against West Indies were scored when the attacks weren't quite as fearsome - in his first series, in 1970-71, West Indies had a spin-heavy attack, while in 1978-79 the best bowlers were away playing in World Series Cricket, but even in the other series Gavaskar had some memorable battles against the West Indies' fast bowlers. Fittingly, some of his most memorable landmarks came against them: in the 1983-84 series in India, he made his 29th hundred, to equal Bradman's record, and then went past it in Chennai. Both were special innings - the first one, in Delhi, came off a mere 94 balls, while the second was a marathon that lasted more than 10 hours and ended a run-drought of 36 runs from his previous five innings.
Of the 2749 runs Gavaskar scored against West Indies, almost 30% came at a single venue - the Queen's Park Oval in Port-of-Spain. He played five Tests there, and only once did he fail, scoring 1 and 32 in the 1983 series. Despite that, he was the Bradman of Port-of-Spain, averaging 99.12 at the ground. He is also one of only four batsmen to score more than 750 Test runs at an overseas venue, and remains the only one to do it since 1950. Among the grounds he played in, only at two venues did he score more runs - the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai and the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai.
|Dennis Amiss||9||1113||74.20||4/ 2|
|Sunil Gavaskar||27||2749||65.45||13/ 7|
|Wasim Raja||11||919||57.43||2/ 7|
|Greg Chappell||17||1400||56.00||5/ 7|
|Gundappa Viswanath||18||1455||53.88||4/ 7|
|Ian Chappell||12||997||52.47||3/ 4|
|Ian Redpath||11||956||47.80||3/ 5|
|Geoff Boycott||17||1286||44.34||2/ 9|
|Dilip Vengsarkar||25||1596||44.33||6/ 7|
|Allan Border||21||1479||42.25||2/ 11|
Opening the innings was a tough job in an era when there were plenty of top-class fast bowlers around, but Gavaskar handled the pressures superbly. Apart from the West Indies attack, he played 18 Tests against Imran Khan and 14 against Ian Botham. While both are among the five bowlers who dismissed him most often, Gavaskar had more than his fair share of success against them. He scored four centuries in the 18 Tests he played against Imran - including in each innings of the Karachi Test in 1978, and a memorable unbeaten 127, when he carried the bat through the innings against a rampant Imran in Faisalabad in 1983. (In fact, Gavaskar is one of only two batsmen to score centuries in each innings of a Test three times; Ricky Ponting is the other.) Botham dismissed him eight times, but mostly after he had made reasonable contributions. The bowler who dismissed him cheaply most often was Malcolm Marshall, who too nailed him on eight occasions, seven of them before he touched 25. Of course, the fact that Gavaskar usually faced the first ball of an innings also meant the bowlers had the opportunity to dismiss him off the first ball of the match - this fate befell him three times, with Geoff Arnold, Imran and Marshall the successful bowlers. Bangladesh's Hannan Sarkar is the only batsman to share this record with Gavaskar.
Till the turn of the century Gavaskar was one of only six openers to have scored more than 3000 runs at a 50-plus average. (Three batsmen - Matthew Hayden, Graeme Smith and Virender Sehwag - have joined the club since then, which is another stat to suggest that opening the innings has become comparatively easier in the last decade.)
|Herbert Sutcliffe||83||4522||61.10||16/ 23|
|Len Hutton||131||6721||56.47||19/ 31|
|Jack Hobbs||97||5130||56.37||14/ 27|
|Bob Simpson||70||3664||55.51||8/ 19|
|Dennis Amiss||69||3276||53.70||11/ 9|
|Sunil Gavaskar||203||9607||50.29||33/ 42|
|Geoff Boycott||191||8091||48.16||22/ 42|
|Saeed Anwar||70||3271||48.10||9/ 21|
With Chetan Chauhan, Gavaskar formed a formidable opening combination. The two scored runs in all conditions and finished with a highly creditable average of 53.75. Of the 59 times they opened, on 20 occasions they put together a partnership of at least 50.
|Pair||Innings||Runs||Average p'ship||100/ 50 stands|
|Jack Hobbs-Herbert Sutcliffe||38||3249||87.81||15/ 10|
|Jack Hobbs-Wilfred Rhodes||36||2146||61.31||8/ 5|
|Bill Lawry-Bob Simpson||62||3596||60.94||9/ 18|
|Len Hutton-Cyril Washbrook||51||2880||60.00||8/ 13|
|Michael Atherton-Graham Gooch||44||2501||56.84||7/ 12|
|Chetan Chauhan-Sunil Gavaskar||59||3010||53.75||10/ 10|
|Michael Slater-Mark Taylor||78||3887||51.14||10/ 16|
|Gordon Greenidge-Desmond Haynes||148||6482||47.31||16/ 26|
The other aspect of Gavaskar's career that stood out was his ability to play for long periods, especially in the fourth innings of Tests. Several other top-class batsmen have performed below potential in the last innings of Tests, with Tendulkar being the prime example: in 47 such innings he averages less than 38. But Gavaskar had no such problems, averaging 58.25 in 33 innings, which is second only to Boycott among batsmen who scored at least 1000 fourth-innings runs.
One of the features of Gavaskar's batting - and that of India during the period he played in - was the ability to bat many overs in the last innings. When he scored that 221 at The Oval, India batted 150.5 overs, and there were several other instances when the team batted more than 100 overs. (Click here for a Numbers Game column from July 2007 that compares Gavaskar and Tendulkar in fourth innings; while Gavaskar averaged more than 56 in meaningful fourth innings, Tendulkar only managed an average of less than 27.)
|Geoff Boycott||34||1234||58.76||3/ 7|
|Sunil Gavaskar||33||1398||58.25||4/ 8|
|Graeme Smith||30||1285||53.54||3/ 8|
|Gordon Greenidge||38||1383||53.19||3/ 6|
|Ricky Ponting||38||1311||52.44||4/ 4|
|Matthew Hayden||39||1287||49.50||1/ 9|
|Jacques Kallis||41||1212||44.88||1/ 10|
|Graham Gooch||29||1121||44.84||3/ 5|
In fact, Gavaskar was at his most prolific in matches that ended in draws. In the 23 Tests he played that India won, his average was only 43.97, and he scored six hundreds. On the other hand, 22 of his 34 hundreds came in draws, and his average shot up to more than 65 in those matches. Gavaskar remains the only batsman to have scored more than 6000 runs in drawn Tests, with Tendulkar more than 400 runs short of the mark.
|Sunil Gavaskar||67||6039||65.64||22/ 25|
|Sachin Tendulkar||67||5563||67.02||19/ 25|
|Allan Border||59||5084||68.70||16/ 27|
|Rahul Dravid||53||4979||68.20||16/ 26|
|Javed Miandad||62||4570||61.75||12/ 23|
Compared to his Test exploits, Gavaskar's ODI achievements will probably remain a footnote, especially given the manner in which the game - and hence batting stats - have changed over the last decade. His unbeaten 36 in a 60-over game against England in the 1975 World Cup will probably remain his single most talked-about ODI "exploit", but towards the second half of his career, his ODI skills improved exponentially. In his first 52 ODIs he averaged 25.28, with only seven half-centuries; in his next 56 games, his average increased by more than 20 runs, and he also scored 21 scores of 50-plus, including his only ODI century, an outstanding 88-ball unbeaten 103 against New Zealand in the 1987 World Cup.
|Period||Matches||Runs||Average||Strike rate||100s/ 50s|
|Till 1984||52||1138||25.28||56.72||0/ 7|
|1985 onwards||56||1954||45.44||66.01||1/ 20|
In Tests, Gavaskar's fourth-innings stats were superb; similarly, in ODIs he was much better when batting with a target in front of him: when batting first he averaged a mediocre 24.22; in run-chases that average doubled to 48.84. Of his 28 scores of 50-plus in ODIs, 19 came when India batted second.
|Batsman||ODIs||Runs||Average||Strike rate||100s/ 50s|
|Gordon Greenidge||67||2798||50.87||66.36||7/ 15|
|Sunil Gavaskar||53||1905||48.84||61.45||1/ 18|
|Viv Richards||97||2840||46.55||86.82||3/ 20|
|Allan Lamb||46||1558||45.82||75.12||2/ 8|
|Javed Miandad||66||2090||44.46||70.53||1/ 16|
Apart from his considerable batting skills, Gavaskar also brought plenty to the table with his astute captaincy. He was often criticised for being too defensive, and while that criticism was probably justified at times, it needs to be remembered that the Indian bowling attack - apart from Kapil Dev - was pretty thin during that period. Only Sourav Ganguly has led India in more Tests than Gavaskar's 47, and only three captains - Ganguly, Mohammad Azharuddin and MS Dhoni - have led them to more wins than Gavaskar's nine. In ODIs, his win percentage as captain was only 27.57 (14 wins in 37 matches) but that also included India's most accomplished performance on the world stage, when they crushed all opposition on the way to a famous triumph at the World Championship of Cricket in Australia in 1985. Add all those achievements up, and it's easy to see why Sunil Gavaskar is easily one of the greatest cricketers the game has seen.
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo