With Gavaskar we believed, without him we despaired

Decades before India dominated world cricket, Gavaskar gave them an identity in the game

Sambit Bal
Sambit Bal
Sunil Gavaskar drives down the ground, England v India, 1st Test, Lord's, 3rd day, June 12, 1982

Frame game: remembering Gavaskar forever like this, all lines and angles  •  PA Photos

I was not 20 when I was forced to confront a future of sporting darkness. Sunil Gavaskar had just retired, out of nowhere, without a warning, without saying goodbye. Just like that, he would be gone. Never in a skull cap again.
Cricket is the only sport I really knew, and cricket to me - apologies to Kapil Dev and the 1983 heroes - began with, and I feared then would end with, Gavaskar. No exaggeration, contemplating watching cricket without him was impossible. His leaving felt like a betrayal.
Only a few months before, he had played one of greatest Test innings I had ever seen. On a turning, spitting, and viciously treacherous pitch in Bangalore, on which the second-highest score was 50 from Dilip Vengsarkar, and on which Pakistan had been bowled out for 116 on the first day, Gavaskar summoned his greatest virtues for a fourth-innings masterpiece after India were set a target of 221.
A few years before that, Gavaskar had helped India nearly overhaul 438 with a double-hundred full of dazzling strokes. But on a snake pit of a surface here, his surviving each ball felt like a feat.
Imran Khan, who had been persuaded by the wily Javed Miandad to choose two fingerspinners over Abdul Qadir, the leggie, on the premise that all that mattered on such a pitch was accuracy, didn't even bother to bowl an over himself in the second innings. Iqbal Qasim, the left-arm spinner, opened with Wasim Akram, who was soon replaced by Tauseef Ahmed, the offspinner, and Qasim and Tauseef would go on to bowl 83 of the 94-odd overs bowled in the innings.
Only three of Gavaskar's team-mates reached double figures and only Mohammad Azharuddin managed to go past 20. But Gavaskar remained in his own bubble of excellence, combining technical virtuosity - immaculate judgement of length, precise footwork, playing late, close to the body and with the softest of hands - and fierce focus. Balls exploded off a length, some went past the bat, some hit the glove, and team-mates departed routinely. But it was like he was in a trance, dealing in moments, and keeping his team alive in a contest in which doom loomed a ball away.
It was on 96 that he finally fell, to a ball that rose sharply from a length that it was impossible to get forward to, and spun enough to brush the rising hand, ballooning up for a catch off the glove. Gavaskar removed his gloves and walked off briskly the moment the umpire began to raise his finger. Who would have known then that he would never be seen in a Test match again?
In fact, we did not know for a while. He would soon go on to accomplish a couple of things that had eluded him all his life: a century at Lord's, turning out for the Rest of the World against an MCC XI; and an ODI hundred, with blazing hits over cow corner against New Zealand in the home World Cup. It wasn't until later, when my heart had gone past the ache and desolation, that I was able to grasp the significance of his going on a high, when the world wondered why now, and not why not.
Years later, when cricket journalism imposed on me a rational and more enquiring relationship with sport, it became natural to question Indian fans' devotion to individuals rather than the team - a devotion that sometimes had a shackling impact on Indian cricket. But then, in those times what did we have? Gandhi and Nehru were long gone, adorning currency notes, postage stamps and walls as framed photos. Politics was shabby and chaotic, the economy was in the doldrums. Shortwave radio was our window to the world, and as television screens began to turn colour, cinema fuelled our fantasies and cricket our hopes and aspirations. Hell, we needed our heroes.
On celluloid, there was the brooding, simmering rage of Amitabh Bachchan, whose towering presence and baritone voice filled the screen, and on the field, there was Sunil Gavaskar, a small man in flesh and blood, taking on the most fearsome bowlers of the world without a helmet. The victories of 1971 I only read about, and India didn't win much away from home during my initial years as a cricket fan, but there was always Gavaskar, with a defence so immaculate that it was a thing of beauty, a cover drive of geometric precision that left no half-volley unpunished, and a minimalistic, no-fuss straight drive that told the bowler he had been had.
For a nation unsure then of its place in the world, Gavaskar was the picture-perfect embodiment of valour and accomplishment, and a constant source of hope and pride. The year 1977 was when cricket captured my imagination. With a transistor radio stuck to my ear under a blanket, I spent winter mornings following India's tour of Australia, which see-sawed thrillingly to end 3-2 in Australia's favour. And there was Gavaskar, who my aunt had told me so much about, with three hundreds.
India's next tour, to Pakistan in 1978, would end the golden age of Indian spin bowling (and herald a rising star in Kapil Dev), but it had Gavaskar standing amidst the wreckage, scoring 447 runs with a couple of hundreds. However inappropriate it may seem now, that's how we counted India's gains in cricket in those days, in terms of hundreds.
It was perhaps ordained that Bombay would become my home. But long before I moved there, I adopted Bombay as my Ranji Trophy team, and Shivaji Park would be my first pilgrimage when I arrived. My fandom gradually dimmed as professional training took hold, but it was a high to have Gavaskar as a guest for the launch of the first cricket magazine I edited, and because my daughter shares his birthday, I rarely forget to wish him on email. He unfailingly replies.
And because we inhabit the same professional landscape now, there has been the odd disagreement over the years, but the first hero remains forever. Behind my work desk is a collage of sportspeople as I would like to remember them. At the centre of this arrangement is the photograph of Gavaskar at the top of this article: bareheaded, down the pitch, weight on the front foot. The bat has completed its arc and finished above the head, the gaze is fixed straight ahead, presumably following the path of the ball that has raced down the ground. It's a picture of symmetry and batting perfection, and a reminder of an age when irrespective of clouds or storms, it was always sunny days as long he remained at the crease.
Happy 75th. Let the memories never fade.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal