The first Indian hero - Sunil Gavaskar
The tenor of the title might insinuate different names to different people. To the connoisseurs it would ring ‘Gavaskar’, to the chest-thumping fan it would ring ‘Kapil Dev‘ and to the guys from my generation, the late 80s and 90s, it would be one name roaring into the ears – Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. I am a 90s kid, yet, I’m awestruck by the caliber of this batsman. The first Indian batsman to command respect from bowlers all over the world. For long, Indian batsmen were sitting ducks. But he set the ball rolling. The pace battery of the West Indies and Australia was galloping through the Indian ranks until he forayed onto the scene. He broke the glass ceiling and burst into the scene, thudding at the doors of international cricket. After he did, the tales were twisted. The newspapers carried news of an Indian scoring double hundreds and hundreds against the most venomous pace bowlers. The Indian spectators listened through them and were in awe. He was no attacker, his innings’ were no blitzkrieg. His batting was more of artistry and astuteness. It was a melody, magical and mesmerizing. It entrenched you, and before you could realize, you were hooked to it. The peppy numbers seldom surfaced and only the erudite were magnetized by it, or the vice versa. No points for guessing who I’m talking about! The one and only, Sunil Gavaskar.
The red ball was a fragrance to only a few Indian batters. To most batters, it was a foul odour. It was so putrefying that stuff near the nose hitherto befuddled Indian batters. An Achilles’ heel for ages, the short ball was troublesome for the Indians, and was the most common tactic adopted by oppositions abroad. The sight of the Indian batsmen half-ducking, swaying and being taken by surprise by the short ball is by itself abominable. Even with the protective gears today, the helmet with the perspex visor, the batsmen still succumb to bouncers and often take their eyes off the ball. Hooking or pulling a short ball requires acute skills. You need to get back and across, with the eyes fixed on the ball until the last minute. If you miss it you would be bogged down by a nasty hit on your helmet. If you missed it twenty five years ago, when the helmet was scant or the perspex visor was still yet to be invented, you would be in your grave by the end of the day’s play.
Malcolm Marshall, the deadly West Indian pacer was one of the most savage pace bowlers of his time. Possessing noxious pace, he would sprint in viciously and pitch one ball short at 150kmph and it would rise swiftly to the batsman’s head; a lethal delivery. The batsman, the artist he is, gets back and across, behind the line, and in a jiffy hooks it into the stands. The eyes are on the ball until the ball leaves the bat, and the follow through as majestic as it could get. All this action without a helmet, just a pair of sunglasses and a cap. If he had missed it by a whisker, he would have to be escorted out of the stadium in an ambulance, but seldom did such fear deter him. Aggression is defined as above. Aggression is mistakenly understood as sledging, dancing down the track or the mammoth heaves out of the park. Aggression lies in the batsman’s intent to hook such lethal deliveries without the protective gear. Aggression lies in his eyes, in the calm eyes of the little master, the original little master.
I was born after Gavaskar retired. Yet, I’ve heard and read volumes about his exploits on the field. I have never seen him get hit by the cricket ball, other than on his pads. He was astutely adroit and was a master of the cricket ball. The cricket ball was his football. He had full authority over it. Modern day batsmen are intimidated by pace and it is discerning to see them getting hit by the ball. It accentuates their inefficacy to counter pace. The greatest modern day batsman, Sachin Tendulkar, has been pecked by the ball a number of times. Gavaskar, on the other hand, was a master at negating pace and hence averaged 75-odd against the West Indies, the Australia of his time.
There are certain shots in cricket that demoralize the bowlers. The nuances of those are less known to the modern batsmen and the modern fan. A demoralizing shot for the bowler isn’t the helicopter shot or a six down the track. It is the straight drive showing the maker’s name. It is an ultimate insult to a fast bowler. It is a shot straight out of the coaching manual, which has on it inscribed the words of every cricket coach. Foot to the pitch of the ball, minimal gap between the bat and the pad, a straight bat and a fulsome follow through. In the game of cricket, there are very few batsmen who play this stroke as it is the most vulnerable stroke. Tendulkar, of course, brings tears to one’s eye when he plays that stroke. What is less known is that the shot was patented by Gavaskar. The artistry of the stroke, the mildness of the touch and the impact on the ball were just stupendous when Gavaskar played it against the pacers.
When Indian batting lacked tooth, he was the molar. He would grind the bowlers and often grilled them. He belonged to the ‘Bombay school of batsmanship’ and the sublimity of his strokes is a testimony to it. In an era when West Indies possessed the likes of Viv Richards and Gary Sobers, when Australia had Greg Chappell, when England had Gooch and Boycott, India too stood tall with Sunil Gavaskar in its rank; arguably the greatest of the lot. Everyone else who featured in that list didn’t have to face certain great pacers as they fell in their own teams. Gavaskar, on the other hand, had to face the best pacers of the world without the protective gear. And he revelled in that battle.
The artistry of his shots, the statuesque follow through, the delicacy of the touch, the romantic look at the red ball, the gaze till the last moment and his nonchalant presence transcended batting. He was a song, a melodious number, a clairvoyant. He was the first Indian hero.