December 17, 2013

The Gavaskar lesson

The new breed of Indian batsmen need to carry the flame that Sunny, Sachin and Rahul kept burning for so long

Wisdom is priceless. When you get on a learning path, it is the best time of your life. Every day means something, every lesson provides the clarity you clamour for. You move forward, evolve, grow, and become more fulfilled as the big picture, the dream even, emerges from the shadows and into the light.

I will never forget the moments when I had the opportunity to acquire a touch of acumen, a piece of pure pansophy. I was desperate to get a heads-up on life, especially about how to bat at the highest level. And so when I heard or saw that a walking encyclopedia on batting was nearby I went on a mission to trap the great man, whoever and wherever he was.

It started with meeting many fine players during my scholarship year at Lord's at age 17, under the watchful care of coach Don Wilson. I brushed up to Colin Cowdrey, Geoff Boycott, Fred Trueman and more, as Old England toured the land. Among the stories of endeavour they would tell were pearls of wisdom. It was an informal education on how to play the game.

When I returned a year later in 1982 and took up the groundsman-and-overseas-player role at Bradford's Park Avenue in North Yorkshire, I didn't quite realise how lucky I would be. When India played Yorkshire that summer, they did so on my patch and dubiously prepared pitch. This was where I met Sunil Gavaskar, one of the all-time greats and at the time the best player in the world alongside Viv Richards. I had to get inside this man's head, even if for a minute.

Being the groundsman gave me the chance. Over the four-day fixture I picked my moment and swooped like a vulture. "Sir, when playing the Windies, what is the single most important thing you must do to combat their pace and bounce?"

"Son, it's your eyes. Before I go out to bat, I find a wall and position into my stance with my right ear hard up against the wall. By doing this I feel my head and eyes level, my balance perfect, my feet light and ready to move. The wall is ensuring that I stay still. In the middle I pretend the wall is still there. Head position and balance. From there my eyes are in the best position to see the ball and to stay watching it until the shot is played."

Minutes later, back in the dusty shed, I found my wall. I could stand in position forever, my balance perfect. The mind and body got used to the balance, the more I did it. It was a lustrous piece of advice I never ever forgot. When my form dropped I went back to Gavaskar's elementary instruction.

Whenever I watched Sachin Tendulkar I thought he must have spoken to Sunny about the same thing, for Sachin always displayed a still, balanced stance and head position.

Now it's up to others to carry the torch. In the cauldron of South Africa it's up to a new breed of Indian batsmen to carry the baton that Sunny and Sachin did so incredibly, for so long.

These two men are not tall, so bounce was always their greatest enemy. Yet they trusted that if they saw the ball in a balanced position, with feet at the ready, they would move according to the movement of the ball, whatever shape that took. Eyes, then footwork. In that split second, once they saw the trajectory, the feet went to work, allowing the eyes to stay watching.

Dealing with bounce became just another obstacle, another movement to deal with. The key was their mental strength to clear the mind of any doubt, any second- guessing. When I first played West Indies, in Port-of-Spain, I assumed I needed to be ready a split second early, so I started moving before I saw the ball. I got 3 and 2 as Holding and Marshall easily trapped a moving, nervous target. It was a hopeless performance.

I went back to Sunny's sage advice and used the wall technique. A week later, in Georgetown, albeit on a flatter track that gave me a chance to build a more positive mindset, I batted so much better. After that I realised fully what Sunny had meant. It was the start of my international career proper.

India's top five need to work out what shots are working for them and what shots are too risky. Importantly, they need to get a feel for the occasion

Over the next month, against Steyn, Philander and Morkel, India can counter the home advantage, the pace and bounce, the second-guessing. Firstly, they must have a premise for success, and Sunny and Sachin, their master predecessors, have paved the way. They did it, and therefore it can be done again. They must draw upon that wisdom and apply it to their own game.

It takes courage to stay still with the head and trust the footwork when time is of the essence. You buy time when you see it early and play it late. It is when you see it late and play it early that the wheels fall off. Also, as Sunny, Sachin and Rahul Dravid proved, there are points where you have to be prepared to wear the opposition down, mentally and physically. You have to be patient. This way you can break it down to only the one ball that comes at you, one five-second block of concentration to deal with. Then another, and another.

Obviously, all this has to be done collectively, as a batting unit. The mind can deceive you when wickets are falling at the end, no matter how well you may have a grasp on your own situation. It has to be a combined commitment to fully embracing the challenge and working on the response.

Playing shots is important, as long as they are the right shots. You can't play them all. It's not like a T20 match. India's top five need to work out what shots are working for them and what shots are too risky. Importantly, they need to get a feel for the occasion, the opposition, the pitch, the air in which the ball travels quicker, especially in Johannesburg. They don't have much practice or time to get ready, given the nature of tours these days. So they must prepare in the mind and the imagination is perfectly equipped to provide a sense of calm within, before facing the heat in the middle.

For the top three, Dhawan, Vijay and Pujara, they only need to imagine Dravid in battle mode. He was the wall for a good reason. Rahul backed his eyes and his feet. For Rohit Sharma and Kohli it will be Sachin they can remind themselves of. These two icons showed time and again how it can be done, and those two learnt from Sunny, the master of compiling long innings against the might Windies.

Life is not about doing it alone. It's about learning from those who have already climbed great heights, and adding that history to one's own make up. Combining the love of the game and one's own ability with the wisdom of the ages is the essence of what we are here to do.

South Africa will throw all they have into these next two Tests. They are the No. 1 Test side by a long stretch. They have been messed around recently regarding this tour. They are highly motivated, there is no doubt. And they will steam in.

India need to provide the wall of resilience. Sunny used it, Sachin breathed it, Rahul was it. Kohli and Co can prosper by adding another brick in the wall of Indian batting mastery.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand