Write angle Ziya Us Salam

When the master lost the tune

Chris Old came running in. The ball pitched on off and middle and left the batsman. The batsman left it too. John Snow pitched it up outside the off-stump, tempting the batsman to go for a drive. The batsman refused to be tempted. Geoff Arnold dished out his out-swingers, inviting the glide. The batsman turned down the invitation. Then came Peter Lever, the medium-fast guy who had to wait for his Test debut till the age of 30. His parsimonious ways of pitching the ball in line with the off-stump and letting it move away from the batsman meant he ended up with an economy rate of less than two runs per over which in the context of the first World Cup Limited Over International back in June, 1975 was the best for any guy who bowled at least 10 overs. Of course, the fact that the batsman never came in the line of the moving ball meant Lever’s job was, well, a walk in the park! Even Tony Grieg with his innocuous medium pace was treated by the batsman with the respect reserved for the likes of Dennis Lillee or Michael Holding.

All that is fine; but who was the batsman? Well, that was none other than Sunil Manohar Gavaskar, the man who laboured to 36 not out having faced, would you believe it, 174 balls! The fact that India was chasing a little under a run a ball was a small matter. Here was a batsman making a statement that nobody was able to understand. The bowlers ran in, pitched the ball up, and Sunny, on a rather gloomy note, let the ball sail across to the wicket-keeper’s gloves. Or, he dished out his trademark forward defensive shot. All but one ball was either carefully watched or gently embraced. And what of that one ball? Oh, that irritant, somehow found the way to the boundary, the solitary occasion across 60 overs that a ball beat all the fielders.

The thoughts of Gavaskar, inexplicably carrying his bat for a torturous 36 having faced almost half of the balls of the innings came to my mind last week when I read about the exploits of Chris Morris first, then Yusuf Pathan. The IPL is the song of the season, and newspapers and channels cannot seem to have enough of it. So when Morris smashed 82 of 32 balls it became the lead for the sports page. Later when Pathan blasted an unbeaten 60 at a strike rate of over 200 it too made the top headlines of the day. Both Morris and Pathan provided wonderful entertainment to the paying public. Their fours and sixes bringing the spectators to their feet, eliciting smiles from the oldies and tempting the youngsters to do an encore. Gavaskar whose strike rate on that unforgettable but shameful day was around 20 watched it all from the sidelines! Imagine if he were to bat with the same show of defence and deference, the ball would never have disappeared from the park. And the public would never have had to stand on the feet to applaud a shot. Chairs would have been warm, and the day’s newspapers a nice improvised hand fan.

It was all inexplicable at the Lord’s London some 40 years ago. There was criticism all around, the team’s manager at a loss for words to explain the innings, the English press having a field day. Thank God, there was no known element of matching fixing or spot fixing those days. So, while people were aghast at Gavaskar’s non-innings, and held their head in their hands in utter disbelief nobody asked the worse question. The man himself was not able to put a finger to it, except claiming that the pitch was slow and it was difficult to score quick runs on it! For a moment, after a hard day’s labour, he forgot that on the same pitch on the same day that man Old had smashed 51 off merely 30 balls and Dennis Amiss, not half the batsman Gavaskar was, had struck it rich with a century, his 137 coming of a mere 147 balls.

It took him time but credit to Gavaskar, he did finally come clean. When he wrote “Sunny Days”, that smoothly flowing story with no rough edges, no undercuts, he did not let the Lord’s innings go unmentioned, quite unlike the treatment he had meted out to the moving ball that day. “There were occasions I felt like moving away from the stumps so I would be bowled. This was the only way to get away from the mental agony from which I was suffering. I couldn’t force the pace and I couldn’t get out. Towards the end I was playing mechanically,” he wrote. Gavaskar wrote it in 1976 when he was only five years into international cricket, and still more than a decade away from his first LOI hundred. It was at least a confession, if not an adequate explanation of what went wrong in the first match of the World Cup, the very same event where Glenn Turner hit an amazing 171 to light up the tournament. Incidentally, Gavaskar’s agonising innings would have been nipped in the bud had England not been oblivious of the proceedings. The Little Master had edged a ball to the wicket-keeper Alan Knott. Amazingly, the ‘keeper did not go up in a flash! And Sunny was reprieved. It was a reprieve cricket fans did not deserve, the game of cricket did not need. And Sunny certainly could do without. But, truth be said, Gavaskar covered himself with such grace with his writing first in “Sunny Days”, then “Runs ‘n’ Ruins” that at times I wished he could bat with the same ease and flow, and not block most balls. Written more than 40 years ago, the books remain a landmark in cricket writing. Even today when most cricket books arrive at the book stands with a bang, a la Pathan sixer, and disappear as quickly, much like Pathan’s forays to the crease, Sunny’s books of those “Days” and “Runs” still retain an indefinable charm. They come soaked in nostalgia, they even make you wistful. But they do make you read. And smile.

Some lazy summer afternoon, when the IPL heat and hoopla is over, when the spats of Shane Warne with Marlon Samuels or Kevin Pietersen with Andrew Strauss are forgotten, just pick up “Sunny Days” from your shelf. Read it afresh. Like yesterday’s melodies, it will have it own charm.

As for that Lord’s innings, well, everybody is entitled to look and act stupid sometimes! Forgive that afternoon. Enliven the present one.

The author is a seasoned literary critic

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