To understand the impact of Sunil Gavaskar, one first needs to understand the gradual decline of Indian sports in the 1960s.
India had won the gold medal in hockey in every single edition of The Olympics from 1928 to 1956, then silver in 1960, and once again gold in 1964. There was a gold medal in football at the Asian Games of 1962. And Milkha Singh had missed the bronze medal at the 400m by a mere 0.13 seconds.
But all that was in the past. The second half of the 1960s was, by and large, a dry phase for Indian sport. The first generation born in India were of age now. They needed a hero who could make them believe that India was competent enough to take on the best in the world.
Despite the immense popularity of cricket in the country, India had not tasted consistent success – and that is being polite – till then. They had won 3-1 in New Zealand in 1967-68, but New Zealand were the weakest side in the world at that point. Take that away, and India’s last four overseas series – starting 1959 – amounted to 17 defeats in 17 Tests in three different continents.
The mantle of captaincy had been passed over to Tiger Pataudi under disturbing circumstances in the West Indies in 1961-62, when Nari Contractor copped a career-ending blow on the head by Charlie Griffith mid-tour. The series had also marked the exit of Polly Umrigar, the man who held all sorts of Test batting records for India till 1970.
While a much-respected leader, India never won a series under him against any country, home or away, other than New Zealand. He was also a member of the royalty – a class the average Indian could respect from a distance but not quite relate with.
By selecting eighteen cricketers in the 1969-70 home series against Australia, Vijay Merchant’s selection committee had already sent out a message that they were keen on youth. India’s 1-3 defeat in the series – one where almost every match was marred by crowd disturbances – prompted them to take two decisions that would go on to alter Indian cricket history: they replaced Pataudi with Ajit Wadekar and selected Gavaskar.
All of us know what followed. Under their new captain, India won their first series in West Indies, their first ever in a major country. Gavaskar amassed 774 runs in four Tests with four hundreds. The aggregate remains a world record by anyone in a debut series.
There was little doubt that India had found their first cricketing hero. True, they had seen their cricketers win battles, but they were at home; and success at home, while sweet, does not capture the imagination. The thought that one of their own, a middle-class youth barely in his twenties, could tame the West Indians at their den, was more inspiring than anything Indian cricket had seen till then.
True, the West Indian side was not the strongest. In fact, Garry Sobers was the only bowler of note in their attack. The support cast included a debutant Keith Boyce; a three-Test-old Vanburn Holder; and near-obscure names like John Shepherd, Grayson Shillingford, Uton Dowe, Jack Noreiga, Inshan Ali, Maurice Foster, and Arthur Barrett.
Add to that the fact that the West Indies did not win a single series – home or away – between 1966 and 1973, and the win does not seem that impressive today; and neither does the performance.
But then, we need to remember the backdrop, the barren decades India had encountered till the 1970s. And to put Gavaskar’s performance in perspective, the entire Indian team managed just five overseas hundreds between them in the entire 1960s.
The Indians found more reason to cheer when they won a series in England months later. This was more significant than the West Indian triumph for two reasons: first, England were the strongest team of the time; and secondly, generations of people who had witnessed British rule in India were still there to cherish the moment back home. And a year and a half later, India would beat England again, this time at home.
India had suddenly become a force to reckon with. For the first time in their history, they could no longer be dismissed as pushovers, for to push them aside, the opposition bowlers had to move that diminutive yet resolute immovable object at the top.
Gavaskar did not taste success on that 1971 England tour. In fact, he seldom would in England despite his 221 at The Oval in 1979. But the seeds of belief in Indian hearts had already been sown.
It took him five years to score his first hundred at home. By then India had won another Test in New Zealand – no longer minnows – and West Indies. And in 1977-78, they won two more in Australia against a significantly weakened side (though they lost the series 2-3). Overseas Test wins, while still not common, were now not as unbelievable for Indian fans as they used to be.
It was on the Australia tour that Gavaskar went past Umrigar’s Indian record of 12 Test hundreds. He scored hundreds in three of their wins, at Auckland, Port-of-Spain, and Melbourne, and 49 in the fourth, at Sydney.
While there is little doubt that success in any team sport is an outcome of performances of entire teams, fans back home could not help but notice the correlation between Gavaskar’s success and the teams'. It could, after all, hardly be a coincidence that Gavaskar’s rise among the pantheons of greats ran parallel with India’s first Test wins in most countries.
True, there was no Richard Hadlee at Auckland; West Indies fielded three spinners at Port-of-Spain, none of them great, and Jeff Thomson’s support cast was not competent enough to challenge most contemporary sides. But they were hundreds nevertheless, hundreds in countries Indians had never tasted success in the pre-Gavaskar era.
As the 1970s rolled into the 1980s, Gavaskar, now into his thirties, had been scoring runs in a way no Indian ever has. And with every hundred rose the expectations of the millions back home.
Umrigar’s numbers did not seem relevant anymore. For a country obsessed with milestones, setting Indian records did not stamp Gavaskar’s authority in the annals of cricket history. That happened at Delhi in 1983, when he scored his 29th Test hundred to equal Don Bradman’s tally.
Scyld Berry paid the highest possible compliment by refusing to compare the two men: “How can the opening batsman for one of the weaker countries in the modern era be compared to Australia’s No. 3 who batted after Woodfull and Ponsford in the days of yore and spin?”
One cannot help but try to read between the lines here. Nobody (barring Jack Fingleton, of course) had dared to challenge Bradman’s right to the throne. And here was Berry, who, while not outright questioning Bradman’s position at the top, made it clear that it was no longer undisputed.
Gavaskar went past Geoff Boycott’s world record aggregate of 8,114 Test runs in the next Test. Two Tests later he scored 236 not out, the highest score by an Indian then; it was also his 30th Test hundred, a new world record.
Months before all this, at Lord’s, Kapil Dev had held the World Cup aloft. While he had a disastrous tournament, Gavaskar was a part of the team alright. And clad in a black sunhat, he led India to title glory in the 1984-85 World Series Cup in Australia.
The headgear, of course, was part of the Gavaskar aura that captivated the nation throughout his career. Taking on fast bowlers was one thing; but to take them on without donning a helmet when it had become mainstream was another thing altogether.
Years later, Gavaskar revealed the cause behind this. An avid reader, he often fell asleep while reading, which led to the weakening of his neck muscles. A helmet might have slowed his reflexes against bouncers.
Weak neck or not, however, it remains a fact that he did take on the fiercest of fast bowlers in a sunhat. Later in his career he would wear a fiberglass skullcap inside that hat, but that never hampered the romance around him.
His utter refusal to bow down – a sharp deviance from his give-the-first-half-hour-to-the-bowler persona – was perhaps as inspiring to the fans as his reluctance to don the helmet. Over years he would take every opportunity – on the field, behind the microphone, in his numerous columns – to establish the fact that as a nation India were not inferior to any other.
With a bat for a bayonet and an utter refusal to budge from the crease, this was perhaps what he had tried to establish throughout his career.
Thus, it did not come as a surprise when he opened the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture with “Namaste, Mr President”.
While this has attained ridiculous proportions at times (slamming Mike Procter as a racist in the aftermath of the 2007-08 Monkeygate scandal, for example), it had also helped instill a sense of pride and refusal to bow down in subsequent generations of Indian cricketers.
Gavaskar finished with 10,122 Test runs and 34 Test hundreds. When he retired, nobody else in the history of Test cricket was within 2,000 runs of his career aggregate. Barring Bradman and Sobers, nobody had scored more than 24 hundreds either.
Analysis will reveal some flaws in his illustrious career: of his 13 hundreds against West Indies, four had come in his debut series, two in 1975-76, and another four in the home series against a Packer-hit side, none of which had an excellent set of fast bowlers; three of his five hundreds on Australian soil came against a not-too-good in 1977-78 and the other two against a group of freshers in 1985-86; and so on.
But that does not take away the fact that he was the one who led India’s rise to a position where they can look at the greatest sides in their eyes. He inspired a generation of batsmen that would go on to be hailed as the Fab Four by fans across the world.
The second week of July is a dangerous time for Indian cricket fans to browse through their social media feeds. Online wars between fans of MS Dhoni and Sourav Ganguly, India’s most significant cricket captains before Virat Kohli, are rampant.
Ganguly and Dhoni have led India for a significant part of the new millennium, but they had the advantage of growing up in an India that knew they could compete with the best in business. As had Sachin Tendulkar, whose meteoric rise in the 1990s was swifter than even Gavaskar’s in the 1970s.
For before all that, setting up a launching pad for subsequent generations and creating records to be broken by Tendulkar and subsequent generations, there was Sunil Gavaskar, who turns seventy today.