Suresh Menon

Gavaskar, West Indies:A special relationship

In five years, it will be half a century since Sunil Gavaskar lit up the West Indies en route to India’s first series win there.

For Indians of a certain generation, “West Indies” conjures up visions of a debutant batting on and on till he had compiled 774 runs in just four Tests. There were other centuries — 13 in 27 Tests overall — but that series first gave Indian cricket a glimpse into possibilities.

The careers of Garry Sobers and Rohan Kanhai were winding down, and the fast bowlers Andy Roberts and Michael Holding hadn’t arrived yet. I was eight or nine then, and such subtleties did not matter. It wasn’t just me. Grown men who had been following the game since Independence, and had got inured to defeat, were charged up too. All these years later, it might be difficult to imagine what that tour meant. India had come close to beating the West Indies twice before, both at home. On the first occasion, the umpire’s counting was off and the game was left drawn with at least seven deliveries to go and with India needing six to win. In the 60s, Sobers and Charlie Griffith and a good deal of pad play managed a draw in Chennai.

The Three Ws (Worrell, Weekes and Walcott), Sobers, and Kanhai had all made mammoth scores against India. Weekes made four centuries in a row and was run out at 90 going for the fifth. For long, Kanhai’s 256 in Kolkata was the highest Test score on Indian soil.

Then there were the bowlers, especially the fast men, Trim and Jones, Gilchrist and Hall, and that man Sobers again. To add to the psychological damage inflicted on Indian batsmen, there was the physical one when Charlie Griffith fractured skipper Nari Contractor’s skull. Did he chuck? It didn’t matter, the damage was done.

It was against this background that Ajit Wadekar led the team to the West Indies. The early runs were made by Dilip Sardesai whose 642 also beat the previous Indian series aggregate. “This boy will overtake me,” Sardesai was said to have told someone, pointing to Gavaskar. And overtake he did, finishing the series with a century and a double century in the fifth Test.

Now he has just turned 67, and the Indian team is in the West Indies — the juxtaposition of events makes for nostalgia.

Every generation believes that the turning point in sport occurred in their lifetime. Those born after Gavaskar made his debut will point to V.V.S. Laxman’s 281 and the win against Australia as the most significant. It changed the texture of Indian cricket, took it to the top of the rankings. But history has many turning points.

What Gavaskar’s debut series did was not merely change the psychology of Indian cricket, but more tellingly, the psychology of Indian supporters. Independent India had never had a fast bowler who gave as good as the batsman got. Our designated opening batsmen often chose the safety and security of the middle order, forcing some middle order batsmen who couldn’t argue, to open for India. There was something embarrassing about all this.

Gavaskar changed all that. He was an opener, and he opened. It was that simple. No one concentrated as hard as he did or had the discipline to hit the bad deliveries to the boundary. In this he was superior to Geoff Boycott who sometimes patted back full tosses, so focused was he on defence. Of no one else — not Sachin Tendulkar, not Rahul Dravid — could it be said that when he was dismissed, half the Indian side was out. Gavaskar played in an amateurish skull cap at times, but for the most part he played the great fast bowlers, dangerous not only to life and limb but also to the mind, without a helmet. On the one occasion he batted at number four, he made his highest Test score, a double century against, inevitably, West Indies.

Sometimes when you are used to seeing a player in the commentary box over a long period, you tend to forget what a great player he was. Think Benaud. Some years ago, a young player introduced to Gavaskar recognised him immediately: “Yes, I know you,” he said, “You are the commentator.”

Till Virender Sehwag rewrote the textbook, Gavaskar was the textbook. He did, however, enjoy a good whack at the ball — for a while only Kapil Dev had a faster Test century than Gavaskar’s — but he was forced into self-denial. In my early years as reporter I was with friends, including India wicketkeeper Bharat Reddy, at dinner when later that night Gavaskar walked in. Next day he made a century in the Buchi Babu tournament, and passed on a message through Reddy: “I noticed the young reporter at your table. Tell him I can have a late night and still score a century the next day.” How wonderful!

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2021 7:10:54 PM |

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