As a cricket-mad boy growing up in small towns in central India in the 1980s, to be able to follow the fortunes of the Indian team, especially when it toured abroad, was a test of your love for the game. Even the coarse, short-wave radio commentary was a game of chance. Life was at the mercy of the mood swings of the transistor; it almost always seemed angry and unobliging. Sustenance in those bleak moments often came in the form of The Sportstar magazine, even if it arrived considerably delayed in a town like Jabalpur.
Then, in 1987, came India’s very first cricket TV show, Sunil Gavaskar Presents (SGP). For a few of us, the real highlight of Sunday mornings wasn’t Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan , but SGP. The initial 13-episode series was a lot more than the recently-retired Gavaskar taking you down memory lane with stories and anecdotes (why Gundappa Vishwanath, not he, was the best Indian batsman of the time; why Zaheer ‘ab bas’ Abbas was the “Asian Bradman,” grace personified.) It was also a coaching manual (hold the bat with the bottom hand making a V-grip, hold it so the handle can rest on the left thigh, the virtues of the high elbow.)
Today, cricket television is a multibillion-dollar business.Even regional leagues are televised live. YouTube has thousands of hours of archival footage. So it might be difficult to understand why a few minutes of footage from India’s 1971 win at The Oval, with Gavaskar in 1987 declaring B.S. Chandrasekhar “simply unplayable”, was a life-changing deal.
Trust me — it was. SGP offered incontrovertible evidence, bolstered by Gavaskar’s personal testimony, of the glorious stories of Indian cricket narrated by parents and uncles that seemed embellished, if not downright dubious.
In one episode, the great Gary Sobers, reminiscing about Gavaskar’s 1983 century against the mighty West Indies at Delhi after an unusually long barren spell, said: “Here was the vintage Gavaskar, getting to his 29th Test century which brought him level with Sir Don Bradman. As it happened, this was his fastest hundred, coming in 94 balls — but it is his long, dogged innings, especially when facing defeat or victory, where he has earned his true colours.” In that instant, Gavaskar had turned from mere boyhood hero into cricketing god
The rest of SGP’s cast and crew, and even its origins, were odd to say the least. It was the brainchild of Sumedh Shah, then an executive director at advertising agency Trikaya Grey, and was directed by Saeed Mirza, best known for arthouse films such as Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai , Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! , and the hit Doordarshan serial Nukkad . Shah’s chance meeting with the ‘Little Master’ not only gave birth to the pioneering show, but also sowed the seeds of another multi-billion-dollar industry — sports and celebrity management in India.
“In 1986, I met Gavaskar in the Nirlon office in Mumbai where he used to sit, to ask him whether he would like to do a TV programme on cricket. And he said yes. I asked him, why don’t you start a sports management company? He said he didn’t know anything about starting companies, and why don’t I give him a note about it? The note consisted of possible activities such as producing TV programmes, representing sportsmen etc.,” says Shah, recalling the origins of the joint venture called Professional Management Group, which produced SGP. The SGP franchise was then extended to nearly 40 hugely profitable shows under titles such as Great ODIs , Great Test Matches , Turning Points and World Cup Curtain Raisers .
When I ask Mirza about the show, he is baffled that anyone would be interested in it 32 years later. I tell him about its centrality in my universe as a boy of eight. It turns out the show was a life-changing experience for Mirza as well. “At that time, no one had any experience making sports shows. Sumedh perhaps approached me because I was doing some stuff for TV, and I jumped at it. Who wouldn’t? I learnt so much about cricket in Sunil’s company. Why cricket, I learnt so much about life, listening to him talk about the game,” he says.
According to Mirza, his idea of SGP was to create a series that would inform and illuminate rather than succumb to sensationalism just because it was a show anchored by a superstar. “I don’t know if it’s the right expression, but Gavaskar’s memory is elephantine. He could recall every single detail on and off the field,” says Mirza. Was Gavaskar nervous? “Why would he be? He was a natural TV personality, and equally important was his incomparable knowledge of the game and of players of all nationalities,” says Shah.
Back then, getting access to international archives was perhaps the toughest part. “It was very difficult to get the footage because of India’s stringent foreign exchange laws; we somehow found a legal way,” says Shah. “It wasn’t just the foreign broadcasters, getting content from Doordarshan was even tougher. It was Gavaskar’s stature and rapport with former players and broadcast companies that helped us get access to archives and interviews,” says Mirza.
Religions and empires need historians, mythologists and dutiful chroniclers to spread their glory. Every time I experience the thrill of up-close TV cricket with 40 cameras, stump mics, spider cams, cricketers’ stories, statistics sliced a hundred different ways and infographics that tell a thousand stories, or bask in the success of Indian cricket fuelled by TV revenues, I silently thank in part the three ‘S’s — Sunil, Sumedh and Saeed — for their role in fast-tracking it.
The Bengaluru-based writer-translator is a classical music addict.