SUNIL GAVASKAR: 50 AND NOT OVER
Recently, Sunil Gavaskar, the greatest sportsman in Indian history, completed 50. Then, to continue the cricket simile, as the applause that accompanies every milestone in his career slowly faded, he took fresh guard and continued towards 100. That's Sunny Gavaskar all right, all the time pushing forward, never giving up, never giving away his wicket easily. I met him a day before his birthday, in his crowded professional management Group office at Everest Chamber, Tardeo.
The previous day, he had flown out to Hyderabad to what turned out to be his last visit to his dear friend, M.L.Jaisimha. "My hero was my hero till the end," he said to me. "Not once did he complain, not once did he let anybody know about the tremendous pain he must have been in, he bore his illness stoically."
We sat in a little cabin he shares with his partner Sumedh Shah. There were two chairs and one desk, I sat in Sumedh's chair, the legend sat in his own chair opposite me. And we began the birthday interview. We began from the beginning, "Every young boy in Bombay plays cricket, as every young boy in Punjab plays hockey, or used to. Of course, I had a big incentive in that my uncle, Madhav Mantri, played for India. And my father played a lot of club and office cricket. I used to go and watch him. I played my first match when I was in the fifth standard -- an inter-class match in the quadrangle of St. Xavier's school, on half matting. Only half the pitch was covered with matting -- the batsman's end.
But in those days they used to play a lot of first class matches on matting -- Ranji Trophy matches inter-school, inter-university. It was only in the last 1960s that the cricket board decreed that they should all be played on turf. I played my first Harris Shield match in 1961, that was for the under 19s, and the Giles Shield match for the under 16s after that. No, I did not open, I went in no. 9 or 10. Both Milind Rege and I played in that and I suppose it didn't speak well for the cricket standers of St. Xavier's to have 12-year-olds representing it.
But in 1959, the school had won the Harris Shield for the first time in its history that was a great boost for us. The coaches were all padris. Fritz, he was an Indian priest though he had a German name, and Father Serkis, he was English. Coaching meant he would open a book on how to play cricket and tell us when the ball comes this way, then play like this, when the ball comes that way, then lagav. He never told us that when Malcolm Marshall is bowling at your face, the ball coming like a guided missile at 100 mph, then pray to God."
If the school did not have a good team, the one at the St. Xavier college was great. In those days, and earlier to that when Russi Mody, Polly Umrigar and Nari Contractor were among its students, St. Xavier's was the premier cricket college in the city. Now it has fallen on sad-bad days, beaten by Jhunjhunwalla and such things.
In Gavaskar's time, they had Ashok Mankad, Kailash Gattani, Milind Rege, ten out of the 11 players were playing in the Ranji Trophy, may not all for Bombay but for Saurashtra Gujarat etc. The eleventh player was our Sunil Gavaskar. But by the time he had started opening the inning, in fact from his second year in school, he had become an opening batsman. The batting machine had started. I asked what exactly made him become an opening batsman.
He said: "I can't recall that far back, but I suppose there was nobody else to open."
Inter-university zonal tournaments followed, he played three first class matches, and then he was selected to play for India, in 1971 and to the West Indies with Wadekar's team. He had an injury and could not play in the opening Test, but was there in the second test and after that it was history. About the first test, he said: "Even if I was fit, I don't think they would have played me, they had a settled opening pair."
I asked him about the tours he enjoyed. Both the '71 tours to West Indies and then to England, Wadekar's triumphant tours (to my mind they have been India's greatest triumphs, World Cup '84 comes after that), again West Indies in '76, Australia '77, '80-81, they were happy tours, great fun. What made them happy tours? It depends on the person. Now many people you have in the team with a sense of humour, people who can liven up the dressing-room, people like Vishwanath, Madan Lal, Kirmani, Sandeep Patil, Eknath Solkar, Farrokh Engineer, playing practical jokes, having the ability to say something funny, lighten the tension.
And they were all friends, just about everybody. And players from other countries, Tony Greig, Ian Botham, Zaheer Abbas, Ian Chappell, though he did not play too much with him, but now they were doing the commentary together. He recalled the Master Series in '95, when they all met after a long gap. It was a fantastic experience most the time. I remember also. I remember the times Sunil Gavaskar would come out to bat. Like a patched up knight in King Arthur's court, gloves, pads, arm bandaged, hair struggling out a skull cap. He was facing some of the fastest bowlers in the world and he went out fully equipped to do battle. I remind him about that.
"Yes," he said, "now there are medicines available. Earlier, if you broke a wrist bone, you were out of cricket for six months. You got a test series once in a year-a-half and you did not want to miss it because of injury. I had my right index finger fractured in '74, in fact, I had the same finger broken thrice. I missed three tests against the West Indies. So I had my own gloves made, with extra padding over the fingers. And I devised a primitive arm protector to take away a little bit of the impact when the ball climbed up, missed the gloves and hit the forearm.
Yes, there was a skull cap also, I used it for the new ball, past '83. Mike Brearley wore one under his England cap. I got the address from him of the manufacturer and got it made for myself. For three or four years, it lay around, I never used it. Then past '83, I started using it.
There is a story attached to it. After the Bicentenary Test - the MCC bicentenary - they asked me for a souvenir. I gave them the skull cap, and they put it in the Lord's museum, along with other cricket memorabilia. Some years later, an American neuro-surgeon was being shown around Lord's and was taken into the museum. He was shown the different types of bats, how they evolved from curved bats, other items of historic interest, and his eyes fell on the skull cap, lying in a corner display.
What is this?
That would have meant we would not have been celebrating Sunny Gavaskar's 50th birthday.
I asked him who had turned Sunil into Sunny. Was it the family or had it come with cricket?
Discipline was strict, if you did not turn up for a match half an hour before the toss, you were dropped, and it did not matter whether you were a club cricketer or a Test cricketer. If you played a bad cricket shot or bowled a bad line, you were immediately told about it, and you were also taught how to correct yourself. I do not know whether that discipline continues, but Mumbai cricket is definitely not what it was. Gavaskar agreed, Mumbai cricket is struggling as it never had to struggle before.
One reason for this could be that a lot of top cricketers are no longer playing local club or even inter-office cricket. So, playing in a Mumbai tournament is a little below the top level. It makes it difficult for the selection committee to judge a player's real worth. I asked him how he felt when his records were broken, one by one. "For a second or two, there is a tinge of sadness. But the fact that records are meant to be broken is something that has been drilled into you over the years, so you accept. It makes a difference when a good player breaks your record, you feel happy, not so when some flash-in-the-pan, who doesn't deserve to, does so."
I asked him what made him retire when he did retire.
And how did he get into commentary?
He mentioned Rahul Dravid, who did a small stint at the World Cup final. He was quite superb for a first timer. And he talked of how TV commentary itself has changed. Earlier, they used to tell them to do the minimum of talking, let the pictures speak for themselves. Now they encourage them to speak more.
The logic is: The TV is on in the living room, showing a cricket match, the housewife is in the bedroom, doing some work, in between, she passes through the living room to go to the kitchen. At the moment, if the commentator is talking and says something exciting, she will stop to watch. And if when she stops to watch, it happens to be the last ball of the over, she she will see the commercial that immedlately follows. The advertiser has got his mileage. And it is the wives who buy, not the husbands, they only watch cricket.
Did Mrs. Marshneil Gavaskar watch a lot of cricket?
And what about young Rohan Gavaskar's cricket?
Now he has watered down his ambition a little. Raj Singh, and the people from Chikal Wadi, my old friends, keep telling me Rohan is a better fielder than his old man. That can't be true, I have taken more than a hundred catches in Tests. But Rohan's love for cricket has been there since childhood. We never had to buy him toys. All he wanted was little bats, pads, balls. He would go to sleep in the night with them under his pillow. Even now he has a fascination for brand new shiny balls. He brings them home from matches."
What about himself? Did he keep any mementos?
Then during a Test against the West Indies in Madras, I left the autograph book with Larry Baichan, the left-handed West Indies batsman, to organise autographs of his team. The West Indies lost that match, and at end of the day, Keith Boyce, the fast bowler with a quick temper, came in, very angry, some decisions had gone against them. He smashed everything in the dressing-room , threw the autograph books around, then picked them up, tore them into little pieces, took them to the toilet, threw them in, and pulled the flush over them. I stopped collecting after that."
There was much more but it was end of play for me. And for Sunil Gavaskar, it was the beginning of another 50 years. He was taking fresh guard as I left. Thank you Sunny, thank you for the best cricket years of our lives.