To say he was technically near-flawless, exquisite, is to wish we had in English a word less sciencey than flawless but minus the cheese of exquisite. © Getty Images

To say he was technically near-flawless, exquisite, is to wish we had in English a word less sciencey than flawless but minus the cheese of exquisite. © Getty Images

A fast track to grappling with the innermost psychology of being Sunny Gavaskar, with what’s palpable and what’s fiction, is to mention his unmentionables – or closer to the nub of it, his box. I don’t mean the 6×3×2 oblong inches of protective plastic. I’m meaning the irony of his box. Once lodged, in its correct place, Sunny’s box was the cue for his teammates in the dressing-room to go silent, give the little man clear air, let his three-blades-whirring helicopter brain launch itself into the contest ahead. Yet he never actually got hit on the box. There’s the irony. Such was the unbreachability of his defensive technique that Sunny’s box’s physical purpose was rendered N/A while simultaneously fulfilling an out-of-body need: for space, quiet.

Him never getting hit on the box isn’t quite fiction – more, imaginative guesswork in that I haven’t heard, read of and can’t feasibly picture him getting hit there, unluckily it isn’t an assertion built to run a stat-check on, and by wild quirk around the time I was hatching the start to this piece I glimpsed, on p. 337 of Wisden’s 1981 edition, and in the course of a 22 not out he made for Somerset against the touring West Indians, this: … and Gavaskar was laid low by a painful blow in the groin from Marshall; but he and Rose (six 4s) survived profitably. Rain prevented play on the final day.

That’s that then, another intro down the toilet, it happens – happens regularly, thinking and writing about cricket, or rock music, or any of the other inconsequential human pastimes that are nonetheless of rich emotional consequence, where the stakes are safely low yet the temptation so strong to speculate, to project meaning,put fake jigsaw pieces together, let imagination run loose.

Let’s suspend it – imagination. Indisputable, unshrinkable fact: in 1980, on consecutive Thursdays, the last Thursday of November and first Thursday of December, Sunil Gavaskar was out, for no runs each time, to no-name bowlers. Ditchburn and Slee were their no-names/names.

Worth re-saying it plain, its bluntest, for posterity’s-sake iteration –

Runs: 0.

Bowler: Ditchburn.

Runs: 0.

Bowler: Slee.

This information should have been recorded on pp. 951–2 of the Wisden of 1982. Except these couple of matches were played up-country, in Australia, and considered of such extreme inconsequentiality that Wisden left out the scorecards. A threeline score summary was all that ran. So no one noticed Sunny’s two curious 0s.

It was his 11th big international tour. His first tour had been to the Caribbean where the St Kitts customs officer’s eyes trailed down and took in the fluff-faced, mop-headed rare specimen of 5ft 4in, and then he asked Sunny what he did, and Sunny replied open the batting, and the customs man’s gut muscles rippled and hands started banging on his thighs like a young Bill Cosby. On his second tour Sunny encountered the fastest over of his life, from England’s John Price, and got out. Sunny on his third tour heard Don Bradman murmur tall batsmen can smash it but us little ones have the footwork, huh. On his fourth tour Sunny had his rib cage hit, by Vanburn Holder, and this time didn’t get out, though the bruise was blue 15 days later. In the gap between tours four and five the great Nawab of Pataudi, playing his swansong series, had his chin bloodied, a stadium shaking blow at Eden Gardens, and when Sunny scurried out there the Nawab’s lips moved meaningfully, or so it looked, then with what appeared a ceremonial gesture, a passing on of something, he handed Sunny his bat. On his seventh tour Sunny gave his wicket away carelessly in a three-day tune-up match, and such was the planeload of pandemonium on the plane his wife Pammi happened to be travelling on that the air hostesses, pilots, fellow passengers all demanded to know what the matter was with Sunny. There came two home summers’ hiatus, New Zealander Lance Cairns bending in Mumbai to pick up a ball Sunny had very gently tapped back at him except the ball was already past the sightscreen. On his eighth tour, persuaded by management to wear a chest guard, Sunny inside-edged the ball onto his chest guard and it ballooned from the chest guard to a fielder and Sunny, blaming the chest guard, hurled the chest guard. Wayne Clark was the bowler. After his ninth tour he was India’s captain. On his tenth tour he wasn’t. After his tenth tour he was. On that tenth tour he scored 221 runs at The Oval from 443 balls, not one of which, it was said, involved his feet being ill-positioned. By the beginning of his 11th tour, the tour that’s alarming and a puzzle, he’d climbed far enough in cricket’s legend that Channel 9’s promo posters glued onto streetside Australian rubbish bins read: GAVASKAR COULD HOOK ONE RIGHT INTO THIS BIN.

So the two 0s on two Thursdays – his conquerors were the Western Australian Country XI and the South Australian Country XI: a little slap? A crisis in his cricketing life? A crisis in his life life, the full whammy? Yes? – may have been a meaningless blip against irrelevant opposition. Alternatively, the irrelevancy of his opponents perhaps heightened the meaningfulness. The two 0s, it’s possible, were meaning-laden. Bear in mind Sunny at this time was averaging 56.35 after 63 Tests and only one other opener (the knight Hutton) in history had averaged so much after so many.

Keep in mind, too, Sunny: a man not going against the bowlers so much as playing within and inside and in tune to the rhythms of cricket itself. On letting a ball pass harmlessly he’d continue watching as it was relayed from the keeper’s hands to slips to the infielders to the bowler. The clock and the scoreboard: these, by contrast, he disdained watching, and he took not watching to extremes. Thus the hundred he later on-drove to tie Bradman’s 29 hundreds record was news to him, his batting partner Vengsarkar breaking the revelation by exclaiming, it’s your 29th, bloody hell. Between overs Sunny said not much or nothing to whoever his partner happened to be. Trance-like he’d stare through them. Statistician Dinar Gupte once observed him stare for five minutes through a glass of water placed in front of his eyes, concentrating on it, then walk out and bat. When a fielder apologised at day’s end for sledging him he would tell the fielder he hadn’t heard it, because he hadn’t. He was unsure whether nirvana was a state that truly existed: if it did, he felt, he was close. (Although dogs, big ones, little ones, unnerved him – trains too, after he was in a bad derailment.) He never wore anything new on a day he expected to bat and liked falling asleep to, say, Miami Vice in his hotel bed the night before. The four Test double hundreds he hit were each preceded by nights when he barely slept. Of his 443 balls at The Oval, he could remember only one afterwards: a Botham slower ball, he whacked it. Occasionally he would make half circles out of his hands, cup them round his eyes and, squatting, peer gunbarrel straight down the pitch to re-focus, re-focus. But this was only occasionally and it wasn’t apparent to bystanders that he had ever lost focus in the first place, or played a mis-stroke. To say he was technically near-flawless, exquisite, is to wish we had in English a word less sciencey than flawless but minus the cheese of exquisite. In Russian it’s nepogreshimiy, I’m told. Net practice: better avoided. And though Sunny had a wicketkeeping father and wicket-keeping uncle (Madhav, who wicket-kept his way into the 1950s Indian Test team), it was almost like he was above explicit advice (Good ball block, bad ball lagao!, preached Father Fritz at school; Get sideways-on, urged Englishman TS Worthington) or coaching. He was already up over the hills and far away. Nepogreshimiy – Sunny side up – meant his body close to the ball, and his bat close to his pads and body, no sunlight glinting through, his first movement backwards, every shot in the book an option, a sense of compactness and, above everything, unbreachability. Stumps stayed in the ground. Clive Lloyd lamented him standing there, wall-like; a calypso in Sunny’s honour said he’s just like a wall (and maybe English does have a word to rival the Russian one after all). Once every 8.4 months in Test matches, up to the start of his 11th tour, he would get out bowled.

Something – I’d be tipping the bounds of writer ethics to hold it back any longer – I should mention: on those two Thursdays, of the two 0s, when he was out to Ditchburn and Slee, he was bowled.

Little else about those Thursdays is definitively knowable. The game versus WA Country XI was in Geraldton (where he batted at No.10, a possible flag he was treating the proceedings lightly, or of some niggle or injury) and the SA Country XI match was in Whyalla (where he opened, as usual). None of the 22 players ranged against him across those two Thursdays had played first-class cricket. He was out first ball (0, bowled) and second ball (0, bowled).

An element of myth, who could deny this with any surety, stuck to Sunny. © Getty Images

An element of myth, who could deny this with any surety, stuck to Sunny. © Getty Images

I am pulled back to the notion: crisis? That air around him when he was batting, that forcefield, of total absorption. The unbreachability. It was good for the scoreboard, and it had non-scoreboard qualities too that were sensory, emotional, spiritual, moral – perhaps – noble. So to be bowled, breached, twice, like that … crisis? Maybe he stayed away from the practice nets, went in there ten minutes max, because you can tinker and tamper with technique but matters spiritual are better left well alone. Before his first trip to the Caribbean he gave a neighbour ten rupees to visit a local Hanuman temple, put flowers round the statue of the deity on Saturdays, and pray for Sunny. The result was 774 scarcely believable debut series runs, made even less believable by the old saw that seeing is believing and no Indians could see them (or hear them) – live TV coverage: nil; ball-by-ball radio commentary: nil – and from something being hard to believe, to that same something defying belief, it’s a small step, and so to the qualities spiritual, noble, etc, we have to add: myth. An element of myth, who could deny this with any surety, stuck to Sunny. As technology spread, people hugged transistors to their ears when he batted. Later they’d hover hours on footpaths outside the shop windows of TV shops. Whether separated by radio airwaves static or shop-window glass, a separateness persisted: a not-one-of-us sense. Of the many Sunny biographies out there, one has GOD in the title and another HERO in the subtitle. A picture section in the latter book shows Sunny with Rajiv Gandhi, Sunny with Queen Elizabeth II, Sunny with Mother Teresa, Sunny in a steel bed donating blood. There once was a little girl who lived in Kolkata and whenever a Test was on she purchased a photograph of Sunny, took it to a Kali temple, and prayed for him and for runs.

Then the stupendous batting average trickled slightly southwards, the humanly petulant and purportedly pennycentric shades of his personality came to seem marginally less unobtrusive, what once was gold yellowed, the myth frayed, he remained a sensationally rare and gifted batsman, his reign of not-one-of-us-dom sort of tailed of and he became quarter-normal. That process started on a Thursday – two Thursdays actually.

He was not, in Geraldton or Whyalla, wearing a helmet. This we know because he never wore one. This added to the nobleness. In a floppy white sunhat, no skullcap underneath – the skullcap that he had custom-made out of fibreglass was still three years into the future – he’d have walked out to bat into a haphazard breeze scything diagonally across a sun-blasted field. Parked Holdens would have been pressed up hard against the boundary fence, spectators sitting in some of them, still more spectators bent forward on flaking wooden benches, Jodies in dresses and brown leather-bellied Rods and children clutching out-of-season World Series Cricket paraphernalia, the mayor in his robes because it was a rare occasion that the international cricket caravan detoured out bush. I picture haystacks on the horizon, catch the stink of sea in Geraldton, an occasional kaboom and a subtle drifting smell from the coke ovens at the nearby steelworks in Whyalla.

Turns out Ditchburn, who had a first name, Ross, was an Australian Rules footballer of promise; Claremont Football Club had given him a footy to boot around the wheat farm, and when the ball got stuck up a tree that served as a goalpost he grabbed a .22 rifle to shoot the branch down, missing the branch and exploding the footy instead. Being a footballer, he’d have bowled flat-out, not much craft. As to Slee – three muted references to him are traceable, from three diferent sources, just a surname and a first initial each time, and never the same first initial: W Slee, S Slee, B Slee. Presumably S was a typo and Slee was a William who went by Bill. Big-boned, he sounds like. Sunny walked out, took guard on leg stump, and after one ball and two balls respectively he walked back, and sat, fishing out of his kitbag one of the two paperback novels he had put there for just such an eventuality and not glancing up at a single ball for the rest of the Indian innings.

Sunny’s best and favourite shot was the straight drive. Commentators, and Sunny himself, dubbed it the bowler’s-back drive. That’s how hard he slammed it – back past the bowler the instant he’d hit it – and that’s why it was his favourite, the way it deflated a bowler’s ego. However, the shot that lent shiniest gloss to his aura was actually a non-shot, the leave-alone, mastered as a boy in the Bhagirathi compound protecting three chalk lines on the garage door. It was based on pinpoint anticipation of the ball’s curve and his of stump’s whereabouts. He played (non-played) it with a crisp snap of the arms. That vivid portraitist Ramachandra Guha once watched, trembling, as Imran Khan bowled frighteningly fast with the wind at the Madras Cricket Club Ground and Sunny, non-fussed, non-played 11 out of every 12, or so.

He was the owner of a kick-arse hook shot but rarely unloosed it when captain, like now. Same with the cut, and he wasn’t really a puller; never perfected it, he felt. He had treasured and kept a jewel, the late cut, in his repertoire since witnessing, aged 14, Vijay Merchant do it. His cover drive was of the classic kind, convincing grown men that no matter the bird-brained ’80s superpowers and imminence of nuclear obliteration all was well with the world, though Sunny personally felt he sliced it. Not a glimmer of imperfection showed up in his leg-side flick: any ball near his pads and pitched short, halfway up or yorker-length got catherine-wheeled.

Here is the thing. He was out, bowled, on a Thursday, while trying to leave the ball alone – everything points to this, to him seeking to leave the ball alone and his head being in such a muddle that he sought to leave the wrong one alone. And it broke his stumps. And this sudden breachability, and the malfunctioning of his most hallowed and near-mythic shot (non-shot), and the fact that it happened against an unheard-of bowler, and in a flyblown match so insignificant even Wisden didn’t mop up the finer details, meant that when it happened again – happened the very next Thursday – that had to have been the moment when a little slap twisted into full-blown crisis. It was a stripping away of his understanding of who he was as a batsman, as a man. And it happened partly because he was a bit, I’ll re-say it, muddled. The Indian team aeroplane had touched down in Australia at 2.35am Perth time and Australians had been mangling his name non-stop since, suddenly calling him GavasKAR, whereas traditionally it had always been GaVASkar. Journalist Phil Wilkins, accompanying the Indians across sand dunes and sea-line every kilometre of their three-month journey, picked up the telephone to file his copy one evening and the copytaker started his story with: India’s captain, Sir Neil Gavaskar …

Sunny played nine holes at Wembley golf course, shooting 100: 64-odd over par. Teammate Kapil Dev, on the field, wore a bank heist-style white handkerchief below the eyeline and tucked into his hat to keep the flies out. Another teammate, Dilip Doshi, noticed Sunny’s woes and suggested he consult that magnificent technician Garry Sobers, now resident in Australia. Sobers took a look. Sunny’s body, sensed Sobers, was not in line with the ball and he was getting squared up outside of stump, at risk of snicking – or, by extension, missing.

He was the owner of a kick-arse hook shot but rarely unloosed it when captain, like now. Same with the cut, and he wasn’t really a puller; never perfected it, he felt. © Getty Images

He was the owner of a kick-arse hook shot but rarely unloosed it when captain, like now. Same with the cut, and he wasn’t really a puller; never perfected it, he felt. © Getty Images

The whereabouts of his off stump. The compass was faulty. Sunny had Pammi with him, also sister Kavita, also brother-in-law (and fellow batsman) Gundappa. Many players were saving their $7 breakfast, lunch and dinner allowances and going hungry or eating with Australian-based friends. Wilkins thought Sunny moody. The pitches were bouncy and Australia bred bowlers – Lillee, Pascoe – who were slippery. Photographer Amiya Tarafdar observed Sunny spearheading team practice. In the nets. That was a sign.

There is a cut-off line. It distinguishes the super-talented few who have played first-class cricket from the nameless billions who haven’t. Ditchburn and Slee did not now cross this line, and never could. Their cricketing careers would be on a highway to nowhere after this day. But for a couple of minutes, they kind of gatecrashed the line – bowled the god Sunny with a ball that few eyewitnesses saw and no one in the world remembers, except them. It’s available on instant replay if they close their eyes.

This piece has been about maybe some, none, all of this. Is it possible to stare at two old scorecards and accurately project meaning onto them, and out of them? If the jigsaw’s a fake, can the pieces still fit? More certainly, it is about reality and unreality, and it is written in real-time, with the writer as he writes this sentence not knowing whether the little bit that is left ahead will prove true or totally invalidate everything that’s gone before. Those thousands of prior words have contained not a single direct quotation, lest the biases inherent in a quote colour the evidence.

OK, one quote – plucked from the rest day of a Test match, years into the future, when Sunny was 51 not out and off-spinner Tauseef Ahmed one of the bowlers.

Said Tauseef, exasperated: “Bat hai ya deewar (does he have a bat or a wall)?”

. . .

Ditchburns are in the White Pages but Slee – Bill, it is – lived in Broken Hill for 50 years and takes some finding. Everyone’s always writing the search/futility/relief quest narrative thing so let’s keep that bull out of this china shop and cut to the finish line.

– “In Geraldton, wasn’t it? … Remember it vividly. Vividly. I remember the ground announcer announcing Sunny, as he comes out to bat, as the greatest batsman that’s ever played the game. And I’m the one bowling. It starts on leg stump and hits, maybe, of stump.”

– “Well, what can I say? Big crowd in Whyalla … Pretty warm … They batted first. Second ball – clipped the top of the of stump. Decent length. Decent line. Cut back a little. Through the gap.”

Sunny strained some rib muscles bowling during the warm-ups in Geraldton, where a powerful southerly blew and the outfield was fast despite the recently rained-on pitch being soft. A boy in a South Fremantle football jumper secured Yograj Singh’s autograph. From the bar to the press box was a trip through the male toilets, up a ladder, through a trapdoor. Ditchburn and the others rang the Indian team hotel that night, wanting to ask Sunny about the ball that had bowled him, but the receptionist refused them. In Whyalla the field was lush. On bowling Sunny, Slee leapt: higher than stump level, teammates reckoned. He was at a barbecue with the Indians in the evening, met Sunny, felt awed talking to him, drove back to Broken Hill on Friday, played cricket for his local team on Saturday, got married late Saturday afternoon – to Rosemary, they’re still together.

Sunny might have had the floppy white sunhat on, or it may have been his blue India cap.

Ditchburn was “an into-the-wind swing bowler”. Slee was “a fair size, yeah, 6ft 1, 95 kilos”.

The crowd was 2,100 in Geraldton and 4,200 (one male streaker: fined $70) in Whyalla.’

When Sunny was out bowled he was not attempting the leave-alone.

– “An agricultural-type swing towards midwicket. I think he came in a little later than he should have and the shot he played probably wasn’t one he’d normally play.”

– “He played at it. I reckon he didn’t think we would be that quick. Just played a push shot at it. It seemed to go through him before he got into position.”

Ditchburn believes he could have developed into a Simon O’Donnell-style all-rounder. “Then Claremont’s coach Mal Brown sort of said to me, you’ve gotta make a decision, cricket or footy. I’ve got no regrets, played in a footy premiership with Carlton, pretty exciting really.” Slee was “a young bloke, just getting a leg-in at the mines, starting to get, you know, 70 thousand, 80 thousand bucks a year. I wasn’t going to get that playing cricket in Adelaide. I could have come down to Adelaide and got an absolute pizzling. I was never monitored against the speed gun or anything. Bowled a good line and length at a fair speed. Nuthin’ special. Won the country carnival in my second year. Probably – you know – accolades. Couple of cricketer-of-the-years. Three premierships playing cricket. Four country carnivals. The Gavaskar story.”

“I don’t like to talk about it too much,” Ditchburn says. “But you’ve rung me.”

One person has access to both instant replays. Does he let himself shut eyes and look? Sunny confessed once, “That tour to Australia was miserable … It was not Lillee so much, Pascoe kept getting me” – which was almost certainly imagination wrong-footing him, and him projecting meaning, the right meaning onto the wrong people.

In saying Lillee and Pascoe he was thinking Ditchburn and Slee.

 

This article appeared in the eighth issue of The Nightwatchman. You can buy all copies here.