Imagine a 21-year-old debutant cricketer inspiring a song in another land. Such was the mesmerising debut series of Sunil Gavaskar in the West Indies 50 years ago. The Little Master scored 774 runs in four Tests at an average of 154.80, which remains a record for the most runs in a debut series.
Records aside, it was a defining year for Indian cricket, because India beat the West Indies for the first time in Gavaskar’s debut Test on March 6, 1971, went on to win the series, and followed that up with a maiden series win in England.
It did not begin well. Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath, who later became his brother-in-law, missed the first Test with injuries. The Indians were 75 for 5 before Dilip Sardesai, the other stalwart of that series, turned the match around with a double century.
The draw in the first Test set the scene for Gavaskar’s debut at Port of Spain, Trinidad. His 65 in the first innings began a new era of solidity at the top, giving the Indian middle order respite from new ball attacks overseas.
Port of Spain was a spin-friendly venue where the trio of Prasanna, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, and Bishan Singh Bedi wove a web around the legendary lineup of Roy Fredericks, Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd, and Garfield Sobers. Gavaskar made 67 not out in the second innings to see India through to its maiden victory with seven wickets in hand.
But the job wasn’t done. India had to negotiate three more Tests for a series win against the West Indian legends playing in their backyards.
It was even-stevens in the third Test in Georgetown, with Gavaskar scoring the first of his 34 Test centuries, followed by an unbeaten 64. But India had their backs to the wall in the fourth Test in Sobers’ home ground, Bridgetown, where Gavaskar had his first and only failure of the series, which triggered a collapse to 69 for 5.
For the second time, Sardesai saved India with lower order partnerships. Then it was Gavaskar who held firm on the last day with an unbeaten century as India played out 103 overs for the loss of five wickets.
Those days, if a series was still open, the last Test could be extended to six days. Ajit Wadekar, India’s captain, later recounted what he told his new opener tongue-in-cheek: “Stay at the wicket because there’s not much batting to follow.”
Stay he did. Gavaskar held the first innings together with a century made in six hours and 40 minutes. But the West Indies gained a lead of 166 and India were batting again on the fourth day. That’s when the home team ran into a wall.
Gavaskar batted for nearly nine hours to make 220 and take the match into the sixth day. The next highest score was Wadekar’s 54 as India made 427 in a mammoth 197.4 overs, giving the West Indies a target of 262 in the remaining two-and-a-half hours. They made a charge for it, but had to down the shutters as wickets fell.
The draw sealed the series win for India. Gavaskar batted 15-and-a-half hours which amounted to nearly three playing days in that six-day final Test. It was a monumental effort, made even more remarkable by the fact that during all that time he endured an excruciating toothache without the painkillers which might have dulled not only his pain but also his reflexes.
There wasn’t much money in the game back then; so feats such as that came mostly out of passion. The big advertising bucks from TV only started flowing into cricket when the one-day World Cup came to India for the first time in 1987, the year Gavaskar retired.
Look Ma, No Helmets
The dream debut set Gavaskar on the path to becoming arguably the greatest opener of his time. Think of how unlikely that was for a player growing up on a staple diet of medium pace and spin bowling back home. It was on overseas tours that an Indian batsman had to quickly learn to negotiate bouncers from big, strapping bowlers.
It took courage and confidence not to flinch from a hard cricket ball coming at 150 kmph towards an unprotected head. Former Indian captain Nari Contractor had his skull fractured by a Charlie Griffith bouncer in the West Indies in 1962 which ended his career. Other cricketers have lost their lives.
Helmets entered the scene in the latter half of Gavaskar’s career, but he preferred to trust his hand and eye. A diminutive batsman standing still and evading bouncers with a tilt of the head or a minimal sway - how frustrating that must have been for fast bowlers charging in from a long runup and letting the ball rip with all their might!
Eventually, he was struck by a Malcolm Marshall bouncer in Georgetown in 1983, the ball rebounding 10-15 feet off Gavaskar’s forehead, according to teammate Ravi Shastri. His wife then persuaded him to wear a fibre-glass skull cap he had designed himself. He later discarded it after an expert told him this was more dangerous than going out to bat under his customary Panama hat, because a fast ball could have splintered the skull cap.
As for the blow to the forehead, Marshall followed it up with a full-pitched fast ball, because dazed batsmen generally hang back. Gavaskar stepped forward and smacked the ball past the bowler for a four, and raised his bat to acknowledge the cheer for his half-century. He went on to make 147 not out. But it was a drawn game and India lost the 5-Test series 2-0 against the most fearsome pace attack the game has ever seen: Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, and Joel Garner.
Marshall was bowling round the wicket when he struck Gavaskar, using a bodyline tactic adopted by Michael Holding in the previous 1976 series. There were no restrictions on how many bouncers a bowler could hurl in an over.
Clive Lloyd came up with the idea of a pace quartet that wouldn’t lose its sting in response to India chasing down a target of 403 at Port of Spain in the third Test of the 1976 series. Gavaskar set up the run chase with 102. Viswanath, Mohinder Amarnath, and Brijesh Patel got the job done with 112, 85, and 49 not out to level the series. It was only the second time in the history of Test cricket that more than 400 had been scored in the fourth innings to win a Test.
Lloyd then unleashed a bouncer barrage with a battery of four fast bowlers on an uneven pitch in the final Test at Kingston. Gavaskar, Amarnath, and Anshuman Gaekwad still got half centuries. But with head injuries to Gaekwad and Patel and a broken thumb ruling out Viswanath, India’s captain Bedi virtually threw in the towel like in a boxing match. Five Indian batsmen were ‘absent hurt’ in the second innings.
This became the template for the West Indies to dominate Test cricket for the next decade and a half, until protective gear and a limit to the number of deliveries above shoulder level made life easier for batsmen of the next era.
Fastest Bowler Down Under
After the trial by fire in the West Indies, expectations rose for Gavaskar’s encounter with the world’s fastest bowler Down Under in Australia: Jeff Thompson a.k.a Thommo. The difficulty in facing Thommo, apart from his pace, was a slinging action. Imagine a Lasith Malinga at twice his size.
It was compounded by a no-ball rule those days which let tall fast bowlers step way over the batting crease if the back foot stayed grounded behind the bowling crease alongside the stumps. It meant the delivery point was nearly a yard closer to the batsman.
That was what Gavaskar was up against as an opener when he got back-to-back centuries in Brisbane, Perth, and Melbourne in the 1977-78 series. Perth had the world’s fastest, bounciest pitch, but it was only in the third Test in Melbourne that Thommo finally got Gavaskar.
It was a shame India lost the series 2-3, with narrow margins in all the three defeats. Bedi openly expressed disgust over biased umpiring. Neutral umpires and DRS (Decision Review System) had not yet arrived.
Dennis Lillee, who was missing in 1977-78 because he had joined Kerry Packer’s rebel series, was back in the side when Gavaskar returned to Australia as captain in 1981.
Gavaskar failed in the first two Tests and was then given out LBW to Lillee when he was on 70 in the final Test, after indicating he had got an inside edge. Lillee’s abusive sendoff almost made the Indian captain drag his batting partner off the field in protest, but the support staff dissuaded him. Kapil Dev then produced a dream spell on a deteriorating wicket to dismiss Australia for 83 and level the series 1-1.
Compared to Australia and the West Indies, England presented a different challenge to an opener: seam movement sideways on grassy pitches. This was harder to negotiate back in the seventies when pitches left uncovered overnight would often get a mosaic of damp patches in the English weather.
After contributing two half-centuries in the historic series win of 1971, Gavaskar proved his mettle with a century and half-century in damp, biting cold conditions in Manchester in 1974. But his epic knock was 221 in the second innings at the Oval in London in 1979. That was more than half the total in a run chase of 438. India ended up just nine runs short at 429 for 8.
Time-wasting tactics by England captain Mike Brearley, with the home umpires looking away, denied India a famous victory. England bowled just six overs between tea and the mandatory 20 overs in the last hour.
Venkataraghavan, who had taken over the captaincy from Gavaskar for this series, compounded the fiasco by sending Yashpal Sharma ahead of the in-form Viswanath. Sharma got stuck instead of accelerating the scoring and it all got frenetic at the end.
One good outcome from this was the reinstatement of Gavaskar as captain.
Captaincy was a game of musical chairs. It seems absurd that Gavaskar was dubbed a defensive captain and replaced after a 1-0 home series win over the West Indies, the dominant force in cricket at that time.
Nevertheless, he returned to lead India to wins over Australia and Pakistan at home, and a drawn series in Australia. Then he was dumped again after a 3-0 series loss in Pakistan where the ball hooped about in the hands of Imran Khan and Sarfaraz Nawaz. Reverse swing accentuated by dubious means was a new element in the game.
Kapil Dev took over the captaincy and led India to their first World Cup triumph in 1983 against all odds. But the euphoria didn’t last as India lost a home Test series 0-3 to the West Indies. Gavaskar returned as captain.
The high point in this phase of shuttle captaincy came in the one-day arena where Gavaskar emulated Kapil Dev’s feat by leading India to a World Championship triumph in Australia. Among several out-of-the-box moves by the Indian team in that tournament was a preference to chase. Until then, one-day captains liked to bat first on winning the toss, the idea being to avoid scoreboard pressure.
But chasing in conditions where the wicket didn’t slow down or deteriorate proved an advantage to India as the batting could be calibrated according to the target. This has become the go-to method in the modern era, except on spin tracks.
All-rounder Ravi Shastri was converted into an opener to play the sheet anchor, with a mandate to turn the strike over to strokemakers at the other end. Gavaskar dropped down the order to provide an assurance of solidity lower down, which allowed other batsmen like newcomer Mohammed Azharuddin to play freely.
In the bowling department, the use of leg-spinner Laxman Sivaramakrishnan was the key. Conventional wisdom until then was to bowl defensively in one-dayers, but Gavaskar wanted to take wickets. The opposition was bowled out in all but the final game in which Pakistan lost nine wickets. It was a brilliant campaign.
Probably the best move of all was Gavaskar’s renouncement of captaincy after the tournament, which handed the reins back to Kapil Dev. It allowed the Little Master to focus on his batting at the fag end of his career.
Inevitably, Gavaskar’s performance declined in the latter years compared to his heyday in the seventies. But one last act remained to round off the lesson in batting technique.
This came in the final Test of his career against Imran Khan’s Pakistan in 1987. Four preceding Tests had ended in draws before the denouement on a rank turner in Bangalore. The ball spat and hissed far more than on the surfaces in Chennai and Ahmedabad that proved the undoing of England this year.
Gavaskar was given out on 96 after a ball from left-arm spinner Iqbal Qasim reared up and went off his forearm into slips as he tried to leave it. This was a tragic umpiring blunder, before the advent of DRS, which robbed the maestro of a fitting finale. India fell 16 runs short of the victory target of 221.
The second highest score for India in the match was Dilip Vengsarkar’s 50 in the first innings. Nobody in the Pakistan lineup reached 50 in either innings.
Gavaskar batted five hours 20 minutes on that treacherous wicket in the fourth innings. It was a master class in the art of playing spin on a crumbly turner, leaning forward to smother the spin or right back in the crease to gain time. Leaving the ball was as much an art as playing it with wristy placements for runs. So was skipping down the track from time to time to keep the bowler guessing on the right length to bowl.
As Gavaskar pointed out in commentary during the India-England Test series, the true test of batting is a spinning wicket, where a batsman has to be nimble on one’s feet. Against pace, it’s more about the courage to keep one’s eye on the ball when a fast, well-directed bouncer is delivered.
His commentary is educative and combative, not unlike his batting and captaincy. He fundamentally transformed Indian cricket by stepping up as a dependable opener and cheering on the emergence of Kapil Dev as a strike bowler to reduce dependence on spin. Both were crucial in India’s overseas success rate improving during his 16-year span that began in the West Indies.
He recollects Rohan Kanhai walking past him between overs when he was nearing his first century, admonishing him sotto voce for playing a rash shot. This was a legendary batsman from the opposite camp appreciating the brilliance of a young debutant. Gavaskar was so moved that he named his son after the West Indian great.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bangalore.
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