Sunny's little gem
What was the innings of Sunil Gavaskar's life? Possibly that memorable 221 at The Oval in 1979 that took India to the doorstep of a record victory? What about the drought-breaking 101 at Old Trafford in 1974, one of Gavaskar's personal favourites, where he batted with torn trousers? Oh, wait, there's also that majestic 96 against Pakistan in the riveting fifth and final Test of the 1987 home series, played on a deadly spinning pitch that Gavaskar mastered with his technique, footwork and patience.
There were many gems but Gavaskar himself picks his 57 in the first innings at Old Trafford in the second Test of India's 1971 tour as the knock that was the turning point of his life. That half-century came in his 11th Test innings and, according to Gavaskar, it proved to be a catalyst for his development as a batsman.
Gavaskar had turned 22 in July when Ajit Wadekar's team landed in England for a three-Test tour immediately after their triumphant series in the West Indies. Gavaskar had been the side's backbone during that historic victory in the Caribbean, scoring four centuries in his first five Tests. He became the first Indian to make over 700 runs (774) in a Test series and the first cricketer to score over 700 runs in his debut Test series.
In England it did not take him long to grab the headlines after John Snow involuntarily charged him to the ground in the drawn first Test at Lord's. Snow was penalised by being left out of the squad for the second Test in Manchester, though Gavaskar had accepted his apology.
Snow's omission was a chance for Peter Lever, another fast bowler, to play on his home ground, Old Trafford. England's captain Ray Illingworth opted to bat, a decision he may have regretted when medium-pacer Abid Ali, assisted by the conditions, took three wickets in ten deliveries in his first spell and had England reeling at 41 for 4.
Though the first day was hampered by persistent rain, Illingworth remained focused and shared a 168-run partnership for the eighth wicket with Lever to wrest the advantage on the second afternoon. England finished on 386.
India's opening pair - Gavaskar and his Bombay team-mate, Ashok Mankad - started gingerly in the bitter Manchester cold, and accepted the offer of light straight away when they were given it that afternoon. But it was still cold when they walked out on the third morning.
It was not just the cold and strong winds that bothered Gavaskar. The biggest challenge was the green pitch that had freshened up due to early-morning showers. The pitch was so green that Gavaskar, standing on the balcony of the Indian dressing room, could not differentiate it from the rest of the square.
"We had never seen a greentop," Gavaskar said. "It was bitterly cold. There was a slight drizzle where you do not go off the field but it does freshen the pitch up. So the ball was moving and flying around."
As he battled the conditions, Gavaskar made things slightly harder for himself thanks to a superstition. He had not worn a sweater in any of the games on his maiden tour to the West Indies, where India didn't lose a Test, and he didn't do so again in the first Test at Lord's (where, too, they drew). He decided to do the same at Old Trafford. "I never used to wear a sweater normally," he said. "Never during the inter-school and even during the inter-varsity matches, some of which were played in the Delhi winters. So it was part superstition and partly the fact that I had never batted in a sweater."
Lever forced Mankad to edge to Alan Knott behind the wicket for 8. Both Lever and John Price, who shared the new ball, then trained their eyes on Gavaskar, batting in a silky white shirt, the sleeves rolled up above his elbows.
"It was tough to bat against England's experienced attack," Gavaskar said. "Peter Lever was also very sharp. He bowled much fuller than Price, who bowled short of a length, like most fast bowlers do. Lever might have been a few miles slower than Price but he was getting the ball to move away."
Gavaskar said a couple of spells from Price were as quick as he had ever faced in his career. "Price had a longish, angular run-up which straightened in the last ten yards. He was 6'4" and was quick. He banged the ball in, had a good outswinger. It was his pace… and because the pitch was green and rain had freshened it up, the ball was skidding and coming a lot quicker."
Price had been surprisingly (by his own reckoning) recalled at the age of 34 during the Pakistan Test series that preceded India's tour. He had made his debut on MCC's tour to India in 1964, and having bowled on flat, slow pitches in the early part of his career, he licked his lips at the fare on offer at Old Trafford.
Price, who played for Middlesex, had already got Gavaskar at Lord's in the first innings. But the difference in the conditions and the pitches was distinct. "Lord's was a slow pitch and I remember the spinners played a bigger role. This Old Trafford pitch was certainly the most helpful pitch of my career," Price said. "It was very much Manchester weather up there - they had a lot of rain and the wicket was certainly green. It was a greentop and it did take off. It had pace. It had bounce. And the ball moved around a bit. And I was happy to bowl on it."
According to Gavaskar his usual approach was to play as little as possible when the ball was doing things: be patient, then wear the bowlers down. But Price was targeting him by firing in short balls and pushing him on to the back foot. "I bowled him quite a lot of short stuff with a lad down at the long-leg boundary. But Sunil was prepared to have a go at it even if he was not in control at times. He played well. I remember him hooking a couple of times, not always totally in control, but he still got the fifty," Price said.
Gavaskar went on to face the greatest fast bowlers in the game, but he has no doubt that Price was in their bracket, however briefly, at Old Trafford. "I reckon he was the fastest I played at the time. I was young and hence my reflexes would have been that much quicker. That was one of the fastest spells I faced before Thommo and Michael Holding."
Having made 57, Gavaskar fell as he tried to leave a fast and short delivery that brushed his glove on the way into the hands of Alan Knott. Price, nicknamed "Sport" - since he forgot names and called everyone that - is proud that Gavaskar mentioned this Manchester spell in his autobiography Sunny Days. "Sunil came to England with a very good reputation, particularly the way he had handled West Indies' fast bowlers. So it was a quite a good scalp to get."
Reporting on the Test for the Cricketer, John Woodcock reserved praise for Gavaskar. "They went to pieces in the field and with the exception of Gavaskar and [Eknath] Solkar their batsmen were ill at ease. Gavaskar has the look of a tremendous little player. Though very small he has no fear of the fastest bowling and he has excellent footwork."
For Gavaskar the half-century carried a lot of meaning. The way he countered Price and Lever on a fast pitch in helpful conditions only strengthened his resolve. It was, he still maintains, his most satisfying innings. "The 57, absolutely without a doubt. The conditions, the first outing on a greentop, the circumstances - all of that actually made it a turning point in my career."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo