The King and I: Looking closely at the psyche of Sunil Gavaskar, India's greatest opening batsman

Shirish Nadkarni

India's greatest opening batsman and one of the finest, most courageous and cerebral cricketers the world has produced.

That one line of introduction can leave no sports-lover in doubt about the subject matter of this very personal memoir of a tiny titan who faced with elan and aplomb, and with minimal personal protective equipment the world's most lethal pace attack of the 1970s and '80s, and plundered so many runs off them that he inspired a calypso in his very first overseas series that also saw his debut on the international scene in the Caribbean in 1971.

It was Gaa-vas-kaa, the real mast-ah! Just like a wall! We couldn't out Gavas-kaa at all! Not at all! You know, the West Indies couldn't out Gavaskar at all!

Having to sit out the First Test, thanks to a finger injury, Sunil Manohar Gavaskar walked out on to the green of the Queen's Park Oval at Port-of-Spain, Trinidad on 6 March 1971, when still four months shy of his 22nd birthday, proceeded to put the West Indies bowling to the sword, and made his way serenely to a debut score of 65, before being dismissed. He was to make an unbeaten 67 in the second outing, hitting the winning runs as India bagged their first-ever Test victory in the Caribbean.

Sunil Gavaskar's classy batting stance. Image courtesy: Shirish Nadkarni

Sunil Gavaskar's classy batting stance. Image courtesy: Shirish Nadkarni

Little would Sunil know at the time that hordes of Indian fans, sitting glued to their radios, had heaved a massive sigh of relief when he failed to reach the three-figure mark in either innings. They had been fervently praying that the Bombay batsman be somehow prevented from getting to a century, so that he could avoid the hoodoo which decreed that an Indian batsman who smashed a ton on international debut never managed another Test hundred!

The Test careers of outstanding Indian cricketers like Lala Amarnath, Deepak Shodhan, A G Kripal Singh, Abbas Ali Baig and Hanumant Singh had been smothered by the hoodoo that was eventually to be broken by Sunny's brother-in-law, Gundappa Vishwanath. Thereafter, it failed to affect other illustrious batsmen to follow, like Mohammed Azharuddin, Sourav Ganguly, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, to name just four centurions on Test debut.

However, Gavaskar's first Test century was not long in the coming. A sublime knock of 116 in the first innings of the Third Test in Georgetown, Guyana was followed by an undefeated 64 in the second outing. An unbeaten 117 in the second dig of the Fourth Test on a pacy Barbados wicket was followed by two incredible innings of 124 and 220 on his favourite Queen's Park Oval wicket in the Fifth and final Test, to help India draw the game and clinch the historic series 1-0.

Sunny €" who was ironically dropped in the slips early in four of his innings during the course of the series by the man widely considered to be the greatest all-rounder of all time, Sir Gary Sobers €" ended up with a Bradmanesque four-Test aggregate of 774 at a mind-boggling average of 154.80 €" which remains a Test world record for the most runs scored in a single series. The otherwise rabid supporters of the vanquished West Indies team were left marvelling at this great little batsman, and unashamedly switched camps, dancing in the stands to the calypso made in his honour.

It was Gaa-vas-kaa, the real mast-ah! Just like a wall! We couldn't out Gavas-kaa at all! Not at all! You know, the West Indies couldn't out Gavaskar at all!

Most of the facts recounted above are widely known to an older generation, though a few of these statistics may make the eyebrows of some members of the younger generation rise in astonishment. What is not, however, as well known is the twin crossover fact that my classmate and contemporary, Sunil Gavaskar (who turned 71 years of age on 10 July this year) was a pretty decent badminton player, even as I fancied myself a cricketer in my school days.

We were classmates at St Xavier's High School (Fort, Mumbai) through our school years; and, on one occasion, actually sat one bench away from each other. I remember the unpleasant habit that some of us had, of chucking ink-balls at the shirt backs of the boys seated on the benches in front. Sunny, being among the shortest in the class, was invariably seated in one of the front couple of rows.

Shirish Nadkarni (left) and Sunil Gavaskar, clicked at Hamilton, New Zealand, in February 2019. Image courtesy: Shirish Nadkarni

Shirish Nadkarni (left) and Sunil Gavaskar, clicked at Hamilton, New Zealand, in February 2019. Image courtesy: Shirish Nadkarni

I am not yet certain of whether Sunil got to know who it was that often ruined his uniform shirt from the back, but he certainly ended up extracting substantial retribution from me for my juvenile delinquency.

We were both named in a short list of 20 candidates for a berth in the school's team for the Giles Shield (junior) inter-school cricket tournament. Our school's Sports Director, Father Joachim Fritz, who doubled up as our English teacher, was a tall, brooding priest with a prognathous jaw and a perennially truculent manner. However, his intimidating presence concealed a golden heart. He was also a passionate sports-lover, who had predicted as far back as 1963, when Sunil was still shy of his 14th birthday, that the boy would go on to play for India.

Under Father Fritz's eagle eye, we were invited to parade our cricketing wares at trials on the school ground, to prune the list down to 15. I fancied myself as an off-spinner in those days, and would have been expected to joust for a berth in the team at the expense of Milind Rege, an off-spinner of genuine class, who was Sunil's best friend right through school and college days, ended up being captain of the Bombay Ranji Trophy side, and would undoubtedly have played for India if heart trouble had not laid him low at an absurdly young age.

The task I was assigned at the trials was to bowl an over to Sunny. Initially, when I bowled full, he danced down the track, and lifted me twice over my head, for the ball to crash on the school wall. When I shortened my length in an effort to disturb his rhythm, he lay back and either late-cut or flicked me to the ropes. A sumptuous off-drive also punctuated the monotonous boundary sequence. I think I ended up conceding 28 runs in that single over, albeit not quite as much as the toll that Ravi Shastri was to take off a similar bowler, Tilak Raj, several years down the line.

At the end of the trials, I watched from a distance with a modicum of glee as Father Fritz tore into the apple of his eye. He berated the downcast Sunny soundly for lifting the ball over my head on two occasions. According to the priest, Gavaskar needed to keep his strokes all along the ground, so that he never gave bowlers even the whiff of a chance of him holing out to a catch on the boundary ropes. Cricket aficionados who have watched Sunny's full career will readily admit that the man never forgot that lesson, and rarely lifted the ball.

After raking Gavaskar over the coals for his cricketing indiscretion, the good priest strolled over to me, and I braced myself for some worthwhile advice. That certainly was forthcoming as Father Fritz, who had some respect for my love of the language demonstrated in his English classes, stuck out his famous jaw, put his arm around me in what he thought was a fatherly manner, and thoughtfully murmured, "You know, Shirish, you should stick to English. You turn phrases far better than you do cricket balls!"

Predictably, when the final 15-member team was announced, mine was one of the five names from the original short list of 20 to be omitted. Sunil, Milind and Co went merrily on to pocket the Giles Shield in the 'Battle of the Roses' against Bharda School, which was like Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli's Shardashram Vidyamandir of that era, more than half a century ago. I like to think that it was the lethal combination of Father Fritz and Sunil Gavaskar that diverted my attention permanently in the direction of badminton, at which I had a bit more of success.

Nevertheless, cricket remained our primary sporting interest €" indeed, our lifeblood €" as we matriculated from St Xavier's High School, and went on to become complete and proud Xavierites by successfully seeking admission to St Xavier's College, just around the corner from the school. And while the Xavier's badminton team fought manfully against the likes of Sydenham and Elphinstone for the inter-collegiate team championship, the Xavier's cricket team went on to contemptuously decimate the aspirations of Siddharth College, and indeed, every other college in the city.

What a magnificent cricket team St Xavier's College boasted of! It was a veritable Ranji Trophy side; indeed, several members of the team €" Gavaskar, Rege, Kailash Gattani, Ramesh Nagdev, Ashok Mankad, Atul Mankad, Atul Mehta and Mahipendra Singh (Lolly), to name just eight €" had, within a couple of years of joining the college for the four-year degree course, had already made their way into different Ranji sides. Gattani played for Rajasthan, Mehta for Saurashtra, and the Mankads for Bombay.

Numerous cricket commentators have buttonholed Gattani as the most talented medium-pacer to have never played for India, and blamed it on his outspoken nature. Still others have lamented the fact that opening batsman Nagdev was selected in the Indian Test team on just one occasion, but was not included in the playing eleven, and was dropped from the side for the following Test without being given a chance to showcase his talent. Frustrated by this scurvy treatment, he eventually migrated overseas, and never returned to play for, or in, India.

Picture to yourself a sort of "Super" Krishnamachari Srikkanth €" with the same phenomenal hand-eye coordination and raw striking power; only a couple of notches higher, and with a reliable defence, to boot! Also, with the approach of a Virender Sehwag €" "If a ball is there to be hit, it must stay hit." That was Ramesh Nagdev; and Sunil has acknowledged in one of his books the prodigious talent of his St. Xavier's College opening partner.

It was a treat for us cricket-mad Arts students (even as our Science counterparts slogged it out in the chemistry laboratories), to hop across the road from the college, crowd the tents that served as the dressing room for the players, and revel in the manner in which the opposition was being slammed for six. I distinctly recall one match in which our college, batting first after winning the toss, had reached 210 for no loss after the two-hour pre-lunch session.

For the record, Nagdev was batting on a rambunctious 140, Gavaskar was giving him company with a polished, if relatively subdued, 62, and there were eight extras. Imagine, if an individual score of 62 in a 120-minute session appeared sedate, it was only because it paled in comparison to Hurricane Nagdev's pyrotechnics. Sunil was stylish, with an organised defence; his partner was an unstoppable locomotive!

It was that impregnable defence which earned Sunny a national call-up for the tour of the West Indies in early-1971, only a short while after he had followed his bosom-buddy Milind Rege into the Bombay Ranji side. Thereafter, his 16-year sojourn in international cricket (1971-87) has been so well documented that there is little I can add that is not already known about the original Little Master who became the world's first cricketer to cross 10,000 runs in Test cricket, and ended up with 10,122.

Even so, let me set down a couple of pointers about Sunny that set him apart from even the best and most accomplished to have graced a cricketing field. One was the timing of his retirement. Very early in his career, he had declared that he would hang up his bat when he was still at the top, and not when he was being invited to drag his career out only in the interest of shoring up his batting statistics. "I want to retire when everyone is asking 'Why is he going?' rather than 'Why is he not going?'"

The batting great eventually called it a day in 1987 when he was still right up there in the cricketing stratosphere, having produced arguably his greatest innings, and one of the finest knocks in the history of Test cricket €" a battling 96 against Pakistan on a beast of a wicket at Bangalore's Chinnaswamy Stadium, where the ball was turning square, the occasional spinner bouncing over the head of the 'keeper, and the odd one scuttling low along the wicket in true Madan Lal "sursuri" style!

If Pakistan ended up winning that Test by a wafer-thin margin of 16 runs, it was because that pint-sized Rock of Gibraltar had produced a demonstration of technique, temperament, concentration and courage, the likes of which had never been seen before. Sunny defied the impressive Pakistani attack, comprising Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Tauseef Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim, for more than a day, and was indeed unlucky to be given out to a poor caught-at-slip decision.

In this sphere of retirement timing, Sunny is definitely one-up on one of his most illustrious contemporaries who painfully limped to a world record despite his bowling having lost its bite at least a couple of years earlier. Gavaskar is also ahead of another all-time great who virtually slipped into his place in the cricketing arena, and finished with the longest international career of any Indian cricketer. It was traumatic for the latter's legion of admirers to watch the final two career years of this cricketing genius who had taken batting to the status of a fine art.

The second unique aspect of Gavaskar's career was the fact that he fearlessly took on the world's fastest bowlers without much protective gear. His mantra was to keep an eye on the ball all the way, and ideally sway out of the way of the most lethal of bouncers, with a grave tilt of the head that would madden the bowler who had put so much effort into the delivery. He used to wear an elbow guard in his latter years after suffering a painful blow on the bone in Australia; and in his latter years, he wore a self-designed fiberglass skullcap under his floppy hat while batting.

The fact that the makeshift helmet could have been worn more for psychological well-being than as genuine protection against being struck on the head was made clear after the skullcap that Sunny had donated to the MCC Museum was examined by a specialist who dryly remarked, "It is quite apparent that Mr. Gavaskar was never hit on his head during his career; this thing could not have saved him, if he had been!"

Despite his monumental cricketing achievements, Sunil remained a great fan of badminton, and has repeatedly said that he hated to miss watching the matches of former All-England champion, Prakash Padukone. He declared that he adored the game that helped him stay fit, and he applied his natural ball sense to play the sport with a fair degree of skill.

Sunny was part of a group that included former Asian junior champion and six-time Maharashtra state champion, Gautam Thakkar, and Dr. Ajit Pai; they would play for an hour every afternoon like clockwork at the Bombay Gymkhana. Much as I would have loved to play regularly with them (I did join them on a couple of occasions), my work timings did not permit me such a luxury. The group fell apart when two of the core members passed away, and suitable replacements could not be found.

I must clarify here that my six decade-long relationship with Sunil Gavaskar was not built on a base of close friendship that school batch-mates (nay, classmates) could be expected to share. Yes, we have always been friends, but never on the level that Sunny reserved for Milind Rege or Gautam Thakkar.

In my capacity as a journalist who has covered several Indian cricket tours in the distant past, during Gavaskar's best years, it was essential that I maintain a certain reserve, so that I could write without bias of any sort. I have always maintained this fierce independence as a writer. Thus, on my part, it was a sort of reserved hero-worship, as much for his cricket and badminton as for the fact that he has served as Sheriff of Bombay, while he has always maintained an air of restrained, yet indulgent, camaraderie with me.

That, for you, is Sunil Manohar Gavaskar. Much more than one of the world's greatest cricketing legends. Shrewd and successful businessman. Writer and author, who still runs regular cricketing columns, and has written several books on the game. Ace raconteur, being equally fluent in English, Hindi and mother tongue Marathi. Fit and dapper, stylish and poised; intelligent and capable. One to be loved, respected and admired.

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