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Second only to Bradman, Gavaskar took concentration to realms untouched

By Harsh Thakor* 

On July 10th   we commemorate the 75th birthday of legendary Sunil Gavaskar whose name will shimmer till the game of cricket lasts, like an inextinguishable star in the galaxy. Indian cricket virtually revolved around him, who singlehandedly bore its mantle like no cricketer of his era. No great batsman faced as lethal fast bowling like Sunny, who broke batting records escalating a tempo unscaled since Bradman, in mythical fashion.
Gavaskar possessed powers of concentration at a magnitude unparalleled, with his technique was flawless, capable of mastering all types of bowling, in any conditions. His defence was impregnable and drives impeccable. In combating express pace, spin or the moving ball, Sunny was equally adept. I never saw batsmen leave a ball with such profound judgement as Sunil. He was equally productive on the back and front foot, and possessed every stroke in the book.
For determination to overcome adversity I doubt Gavaskar had an equal amongst batsmen.

Playing career

Gavaskar’s debut series in West Indies in 1971 was more prolific than any batsmen ever making a debut in the history of the game. A comet had arrived on the cricket field. Gavaskar compiled 774 runs at 154.80. Unlike his later years Gavaskar exhibited no reservations in hooking, driving and cutting the Calypso bowlers all over the place. He was with Dilip Sardesai the architect of India winning its 1st series ever in West Indies. Till this day Gary Sobers maintains that he never saw an overseas batsman bat better in the Caribbean or anywhere. In Trinidad he scored a double century with a toothache, revealing the bravery of a soldier. 
At Old Trafford in 1974 Gavaskar’s 57 and 101, in overcast conditions, taking technical skill to zones rarely climbed against the moving ball in overcast conditions.
In West Indies in 1976 Gavaskar scored two centuries at an average of 55.71. He was the architect of India making the then record run chase at Trinidad when India chased 406 runs in the 4th innings. His 156 in the 2nd test all but won India the test but for intervention of rain and bad umpiring decisions. In the final test at Kingston he scored 65 against the fieriest bowling on a wicket with cracks. 
In 1976, Gavaskar was a model of consistency in New Zealand against a lesser attack, but still tackled the great Richard Hadlee with great skill. He was not so successful against England in 1976-77 at home in spite of a marvellous century at Mumbai.
In Australia in 1977-78, Gavaskar scored 3 centuries in the first three tests, proving his skill on bouncy strips. The first two hundreds were scored in losing causes by the narrowest of margins while the last set up a huge victory. Strange coincidence all scored in 2nd innings, with Gavaskar found wanting with the wicket having plenty of juice in 1st innings. 
In a home series against West Indies in 1978-79 Gavaskar achieved mythical heights, scoring 732 runs at 91.5 with 4 centuries. His  205 runs at Mumbai was masterpiece, blending technique and strokeplay to perfection.His back to back hundreds at Kolkata all but won the 3rd test.
In England in 1979 Gavaskar was a model of consistency, aggregating 642 runs at an average of 77.42. He scored 61 and 68 in the 1st test at Edgbaston, 59 and 42 at Lords, 78 at Leeds before scoring an epic 221 at the Ovalin the 4th test. Facing 443 balls, it was a manifestation of cricketing perfection in heights rarely scaled, with every bad ball was dispatched for a four and every good ball treated on merit.
Gavaskar all but resurrected India from dire straits to the pinnacle of glory. He resembled an architect carving famous monument with his tool chiselled to perfection blended with concentration of a monk meditating. Bad umpiring decisions robbed India of famous win after Sunny was dismissed with India just 49 runs adrift from the record 4th innings target of 438 runs. Hard to describe how almost every scoring stroke of the knock elevated the pulse of fans in India.
In 1979-80, Gavaskar was the architect of India winning its first series against Pakistan in 28 years. Even if not as entertaining as Kapil Dev Gavaskar grinded it out in the middle  for eight hours to score 166 at Madras, to win the match for India. He also displayed high prowess on challenging tracks to enable India to win at Mumbai, and pull out of the woods from dire straits at Kanpur.
For the first time in his career Gavaskar faced such sensational loss of form on the tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1980-81, scoring only one 50,facing the likes of Lillee, Pascoe and Hadlee. 
In 1981-82 Sunny made a commendable comeback to form against England averaging over 62 with a monumental 172 at Bangalore, match-winning 55 at Mumbai and match-saving unbeaten 83 at Kolkata. His 172, was a virtual battle of attrition, occupying the crease for over 700 minutes.
In England in 1982 he was unsuccessful but for classical 48 at Lords, out of total of 128.against the moving ball, brilliantly fending of short pitched deliveries.
Facing Imran Khan at his best in Pakistan in 1982-83 Gavaskar scored   a classical unbeaten 127 at Faisalabad and elegant 83 at Lahore. 
He was a failure on the tour of West Indies in 1982-83 apart from a classical 90 in the 2nd ODI and unbeaten 147 at Georgetown. Noteworthy that his 90 in the ODI at Guyana secured India its first ever win in an ODI against the Calypsos.
In the home series versus West Indies in 1983-84 Sunny looked completely out of touch at Kanpur, Mumbai and Kolkata but in Delhi, Ahmedabad and Madras he elevated cricketing skill to its zenith. He made a virtual transformation of his batting style, from defensive to an attacking batsman. He displayed attacking aggression against Marshall, Holding and Daniel. His 121 at Delhi was scored in scintillating style reaching his hundred of a mere 94 balls, in the manner of a combing operation.
 At Ahmedabad his 90 ranks amongst the masterpieces by an opening batsman on a bad wicket. I simply can never forget his rattling drives and crafty pull and hook shots of Malcolm Marshall. His unbeaten 236 in dead rubber at Madras reminded one of a comeback of Muhammad Ali, taking determination and technical fortitude to scales of Everest.
He failed at home against England in 1984 and in England in 1986, but in Australia in 1985-86 matched the magnitude of his earlier best performances, averaging over 100. He scored big hundreds   at Sydney and Adelaide.
In the tied test against Australia at Madras in 1986 Gavaskar’s breezy 74 in the 2nd innings was an exhibition of the most dazzling strokeplay.
In his farewell series in 1986-87, playing Pakistan at home on a broken pitch at Bangalore he scored 96, where he resembled a farmer digging a well in a desert. Sunny dropped his hands down the bat taking batting craft to a height untranscended on a wicket with the ball turning square. 
I doubt even Don Bradman would have equalled Gavaskar that day. India lost the game by 16 runs, with the exit of Sunil literally sealing the hopes of an Indian win. There could have been no better illustration of the extent to which Indian cricket was carried on its shoulders, by Gavaskar.
Gavaskar bid farewell to his international career with a monumental 188 in a match between an MCC XI and World XI in 1987. It was an epic with technical virtuosity illustrated in heights rarely scaled. He was fortunate to be given a reprieve when looking plumb leg before to Malcolm Marshall before setting any runs on the board. 
Gavaskar ended his test career scoring a then record 10,122 runs and 34 centuries at an average of 51.12 in 125 test and 214 innings. Statistically he was the best since Bradman till then, and the best ever opening batsman.  At one stage he scored a century every five innings, scored over 1000 runs in a calendar year on 4 occasions, and a century in both innings of a game thrice.
In ODIs he scored 3,092 runs at an average of 35.13, with 1 century and 27 fifties.

Weaknesses

It must be stated that Gavaskar averaged only 43.6 in tests won and very few of his centuries won games for India. His partner, Gundappa Vishwanath was more effective in match winning causes, averaging 49. As match-winner he was overshadowed by the likes of Greg Chappell.
I am critical of Gavaskar often being over defensive and not escalating the tempo of the game when batting unlike batsmen like Virendra Sehwag.
Gavaskar was not as successful against the top Caribbean pace attack as batsman like Greg Chappell, Alan Border, Graham Gooch and Mohinder Amarnath. It is an aberration of cricket writers when they state that Gavaskar was the best performer against the Caribbean pace battery. 
Sunny scored 8 of his 13 centuries against West Indies against the weaker bowling attacks in 1970-71 and 1978-79. He also scored hundreds against a 2nd string Australian attack in 1977-78 and 1979. He was relatively inconsistent against the Caribbean pace quartet away and at home in 1983-84 averaging around 43, and scoring a fifty or a century in only 4 of his 20 innings, with his not outs enhancing his batting average. In the view of Andy Roberts, Gavaskar was not at his best on fast pitches ,on  which he rated Vishwanath  a better player.
As a skipper he was shrewd but at times ultra-defensive. India did defeat Pakistan at home in 1979-80 and England in 1981-82 being led by Sunny and drew a rubber for the first time on Australian soil. He also has to his credit leading India to win the World championship of Cricket tournament in Australia in 1985 which is a remarkable achievement. However India also faced humiliating defeats in Pakistan in 1982-83 and series losses against England at home and away.

Evaluation of greatness

Gavaskar won 53 votes by ex-players for a selection in an all-time test XI, more than any other great opening batsmen. Most Pakistani greats rate Sunny the best opening batsman of all times. 
During 1993 Mumbai riots he jumped out of his car to prevent Shiv Sena cadres from attacking Muslims, staying, Why don’t you kill me first?
Imran Khan  classed Sunny as the most compact batsman ever, while late Len Hutton, Viv Richards, Gary Sobers or even Martin Crowe who ranked Sunny as the best batsman of his time. Ian Botham, Mike Brearley and Malcolm Marshall  rated Sunny the best opening batsman of his day. Cricket experts like Cristopher Martin Jenkins and John Woodcock placed Sunny within touching distance of Bradman. Don Bradman may have been unfair in excluding Gavaskar from his all-time XI but by a whisker. To me most unfairly Dennis Lillee does not rank Gavaskar amongst his very best, on grounds of his being a relatively slow scorer.
In list of all time 100 cricketers, Cristopher Martin Jenkins ranks Gavaskar at 26th place just like David Gower, while Geoff Armstrong at 22nd place.
In my view, Bradman or Tendulkar would not have combated ferocious pace or short pitched bowling against a new ball, as courageously or with as adept skill, that too without wearing a helmet, as Gavaskar. However, I would place both ahead of Sunny, because of sheer impact. 
I would not class Sunny as an equal of Viv, considering the latter’s ability to turn the complexion of games. Noteworthy that Gavaskar had a better 4th innings average than Tendulkar. Remarkable that Sunny took on express pace bowling without wearing a helmet. On bad wickets technically in my opinion Gavaskar was the equal of Tendulkar, but still a better batsman in a crisis.
We must consider that Gavaskar bore the brunt of a weak team unlike Viv Richards with only Vishwanath playing a supporting role. To me still, if I had to back batsmen to score a century in any circumstances, my first choice would be Gavaskar. After Bradman I cannot envisage a batsmen re-writing test match record books within such a short span of time as Gavaskar.
On pure statistical merit taking into account bowling attacks faced there is a strong case for  Gavaskar being rated the best batsmen of his time, 2nd best test match batsmen to Bradman and best opener ever. However aesthetic or x-factor is where he arguably lost out to the likes of Tendulkar,Lara or Sobers.
 Weighing all factors, in my view Gavaskar ranks at 8th place amongst all-time great batsmen, behind Bradman, Hobbs, Viv Richards, Lara, Tendulkar, Sobers and Hammond  and on par with Hutton. 
Amongst opening batsmen I place him in 3rd place behind Jack Hobbs and Barry Richards. Hobbs was more proven on bad wickets and more impactful while Barry was more explosive and thus a better match-winner.

Post-career

Gavaskar has been a successful commentator globally after retirement. He has been a shrewd judge, but often could be rash, outspoken or over subjective or harshly critical, lacking the balance or polish of great commentators. 
He rates Andy Roberts the best fast bowler he faced, Gundappa Vishwanth the best batsman of his time and Rohan Kanhai and Viv Richards the best batsmen he has played against.
A moment always embedded in my mind was his gesture during the Mumbai riots in 1993 when he jumped out of his car to prevent Shiv Sena cadres from murdering Muslims by stating ‘Why don’t you kill me first”. It ignited the flame of resistance against saffron fascists.
---
*Freelance journalist 

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