This time of the year, in 1976 at Old Trafford, Michael Holding was making the Englishmen grovel. The story is well known, the pictures even more so. On July 10, Brian Close, chiefly, and John Edrich faced one of the most intimidating spells of fast bowling ever, led by Holding and backed up by Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel. [An interesting footnote, lost in the haze of the dark red cherry and its flying antics, is that Holding never actually got Close out in that Test – Daniel got him the first time and Roberts the second.]
It’s a story my elder brother, a cricket nut and decent Under-19-level paceman in Calcutta, told me many times when I was really young.
The Grovel Tour was in 1976. Five years after his other favourite story: Sunil Gavaskar’s debut series in the Caribbean.
Like most aspiring fast bowlers, Dada couldn’t think of a world beyond Holding and Roberts and Croft and Garner and Daniel and Marshall and Clarke … Also, like most fast bowlers, he reserved respect for batsmen – Close and Gavaskar right up among his top men – who could stand up to possibly the scariest men to have ever played the game.
If you think about it, when it comes to seminal ‘moments’ in Indian cricket, there can’t be many as significant as that 774-run saga Gavaskar scripted in those two months in the islands. Many of us talk about the twin triumphs of the year – in the Caribbean and in England – and always reference Gavaskar’s feat too.
For me, Gavaskar’s emergence as Indian cricket’s first superstar was the biggest gain from those wins.
India didn’t learn to win overseas with those two epochal victories; they just found out that they could. At their best, Garry Sobers & Co could be beaten. But for more frequent good showings in overseas conditions, India had to wait for three-or-so decades, when arguably their greatest bunch of cricketers ever came together. The wins in 1971, however glorious, were flashes in the pan. But Gavaskar was the real deal. In a world dominated by England and Australia, primarily, and West Indies soon after, here was an Indian who could fight the scrappy fight, with class and elegance, and win often enough.
No mean feat that. And, more than India as a team learning to win overseas that year, it was about Gavaskar, as an individual, showing individuals who would follow that it could be done.
Weren’t there great Indian cricketers before Gavaskar? Certainly. A healthy list it is too. And among Gavaskar’s contemporaries, perhaps even more, chiefly the spin wizards and, not to ever forget, GR Viswanath. And soon after, Kapil Dev, that Colossus among cricketers. But it was Gavaskar, the real master, just like a wall …
As a youngster, in the 1980s, I don’t think I appreciated Gavaskar like my brother did. He was so … I’d discover the word later: Khadoos. Nothing cool about him when compared to the intoxicating Kapil, who could swing the ball a mile and hit it double that distance.
Sure, the no-light-between-bat-and-pad picture was memorable, especially with enough room for a pack of dogs to rush through when his partner Krish Srikkanth took guard. The drives everywhere between mid-on and point were masterly, as were the cuts and the pulls. But, unlike now when a day of utterly attritional Test cricket seems so enchanting, in the mid-1980s, we wanted quick runs, big runs – if 24 runs needed to be scored to avoid the follow-on, it needed to be done with four sixes. That was Kapil, not Gavaskar.
No, the magic of Sunil Manohar Gavaskar was the sort that one had to grow into. People like my brother – 15 years older than me – or R Kaushik, my colleague, were fortunate that they could appreciate Gavaskar for what he was worth when he was in his prime, on radio and then on TV and (something I will always envy) being in Bangalore for The Last Test, the 16-run defeat to Pakistan when the Master of Centuries fell four short of No. 35. That was 1987. The real understanding of Gavaskar’s herculean skills would come later, much later, when old videos were all that were left.
A little like, say, being five years old when Rahul Dravid was at his peak. With Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly all around, it was easy for a young fan to not be excited about Dravid. Like Gavaskar in the time of Kapil and Srikkanth. It takes a little time. A dash of maturity.
Eulogies – there have been enough and more of those when it comes to Gavaskar – what new can one say? But in this Twitter-happy era, he has often been reduced to being a commentator who occasionally repeats his funnies, or being an alleged BCCI stooge. So his 68th birthday is as good a time as any to stop and re-admire one of the greatest cricketers of all time, a gentleman of immense class and grace – even outside the cricket field, and Indian cricket’s first real superstar. Not just in terms of mass appeal or style, but in terms of impact, and numbers, however much you might not care for them.