Stats analysis: Sunil Gavaskar September 20, 2010

The perfect opener

Sunil Gavaskar achieved outstanding numbers as an opener during a period when fast-bowling resources around the world were plentiful

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.

Sunil Gavaskar's Test career
Period Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
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
Career 125 10,122 51.12 34/ 45

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.

Top batsmen between Jan 1970 and Dec 1989 (Qual: 4000 runs)
Batsman Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
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.

Best batsmen against West Indies between 1970 and 1990 (Qual: 750 runs)
Batsman Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
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.)

Highest averages among openers till 2000 (Qual: 3000 runs)
Batsman Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
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.

Best opening pairs before 2000 (Qual: 2000 partnership runs)
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.)

Best Test averages in fourth innings (Qual: 1000 runs)
Batsman Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
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.

Most runs in drawn Tests
Batsman Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
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.

Gavaskar's ODI career
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
Career 108 3092 35.13 62.26 1/ 27

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.

Highest ODI averages in run-chases till Dec 1989 (Qual: 1000 runs)
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