Sunil Manohar Gavaskar celebrates his 60th birthday today at the Sathya Sai Baba Ashram in Puttaparthi with his parents. In this tribute, his ‘nanamama’ former India wicketkeeper-batsman Madhav Mantri, talks about his legendary nephew.
I am 88 and in the twilight of my life. But July 10, 1949 is a date I will remember till my death. It not only marked the day Sunil was born, but also ushered in a world of happiness for all of us.
That he became a famous cricketer is another story altogether, but things could have been different. Sunil stayed in the maternity home with his mother for some days after his birth. His kaka (Narayan Masurkar) from Rajkot had come to see the baby. A day before he left, he paid a second visit to the hospital. He looked at the baby and suddenly asked my sister if she was sure it was her son.
Masurkar had earlier spotted a mark on one of Sunil’s ears and this time around, it was gone. An alarm was raised and after hours, Sunil was found asleep in the lap of a fisherwoman in one corner of the hospital. The babies had been swapped by mistake. Much later, when I asked Sunil about the incident, he laughed: “What would have happened Nanamama… I would have gone to the sea and netted 10,000 fishes. I had to create a record.”
Those growing years
As a kid, Sunil was very fond of table tennis. During his stay at his Grant Road house, he would go to Proctor YMCA everyday. He was very athletic and enjoyed the sport. It was only after he joined St Xavier’s school that he began taking cricket seriously. He was in the junior team and that triggered his passion for the game. Moreover, his father was an active club cricketer and my sister would often play with him.
One Sunday, I was preparing to leave for a game when Sunil walked into my room. He was fascinated by the caps in my kitbag and very excitedly, asked: “Nanamama, can you give me one?” I replied: “I have won all these. They are not to be gifted.”
Two years later, I found Sunil eagerly waiting for me in the verandah one day. His school team had won the Giles Shield. “Our school has presented us with a sweater and a cap,” he said. Sunil should have gone home to celebrate, but he waited to show me his cap. It was just the beginning of a long journey.
Books and beyond
Sunil is an avid reader and be it breakfast, lunch or dinner, he invariably has a book in one hand and eats with the other. Right from an early age, he read all types of books, including cricket books and autobiographies. But reading books alone didn’t gift him an impeccable technique. Whenever he found himself out of form (as an India player), he would come to Dadar Union club and practice for hours. I clearly remember he would call Mumbai pacer VS Patil and ask him to bowl at him in the nets. That boosted his confidence.
Sometimes, when he struggled against any particular bowler, he would walk down and ask his partner at the non-striker’s end about his mistakes. So the other batsman had to be attentive. That’s how Sunil perfected his technique --- by sheer hard work, dedication and relentless practice.
When the Alvin Kallicharran-led West Indies came to India in 1978-79, Sunil played one of the gutsiest innings of his life. It had rained in Bombay the previous day and West Indies put India in at the Wankhede (in the first Test between December 1 and 6). Sunil opened with Chetan Chauhan. Sylvester Clarke was unleashed, but the Windies quickie failed to remove Sunil before the latter scripted a magnificent double century on the second day.
The next morning, when I went to the dressing room to congratulate him, Sunil showed me a piece of paper. It was a letter from Vijay Merchant, who was commentating. He was so impressed by Sunil’s innings that he wrote a letter that night to be delivered to Sunil the next morning.
Merchant’s one principle was that he never invaded the dressing room. He was against disturbing any player during a match. But I insisted that it was a special occasion and that he should congratulate Sunil personally. When he met Sunil at the end of the day, the first thing Sunil asked was: “Vijay bhai did you watch my entire innings?” We both were taken by surprise. Sunil continued: “Tell me, when I was on 197, Norbert Phillip bowled a bouncer and I hooked it to the fine leg boundary. What was wrong with my shot?”
None of us expected such a question. While we celebrated his double, he was brooding over that one miscued shot, though it took him to the 200-run mark.
Boycott or Gavaskar?
During the 1977-78 series against Australia, Sunil scored three centuries. The Australian media went gaga over him and dubbed him the most successful opener of his era. But Ian Chappell begged to differ. In an interview he said that Sunil was good but England opener Geoff Boycott was better. Reacting to Chappell’s comments, Don Bradman hit back saying that Chappell had forgotten both Gavaskar and Boycott were technically sound batsmen, but what elevated Sunil was his ability to score runs quickly as opposed to Boycott’s over-cautious approach.
Best wishes from Miandad
It was 1987 and Sunil was playing his last Test in Bangalore against Pakistan. The Chinnaswamy pitch was crumbling and the ball was turning viciously. But Sunil was steadfast and played a superb knock of 96 in the second innings before being dubiously given out. At the end of the match, Javed Miandad came to congratulate Sunil. The Pakistan batsman, Sunil later told me, said: “We abused you so much, tried to distract you, but you were not bothered. It was a great knock mate.” Sunil replied: “Though you won the match, I passed the test. And you are not getting a second chance.” That was Sunil for you.