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.