By Somshuvra Laha

Sunil Gavaskar was the original Little Master in whose footsteps Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli followed as India’s great generational batters

Many legends have played the game. Few have made the mark that had a ripple effect for generations.

Batting extraordinaire and courage exemplified, Sunil Manohar Gavaskar was the original Little Master in whose footsteps followed Sachin Tendulkar and then Virat Kohli as India’s great generational batters. With an airtight technique built on the ability to concentrate for hours, Gavaskar wore down bowlers with annoying patience and a near-unbreachable defence before pummelling them into submission.

He was the most successful opening batter of all time, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Gavaskar arrived in 1970-71, scoring 774 runs in his debut series against West Indies, going on to score more than 10,000 Test runs in a 16-year career. And unlike many greats, he finished his career on a high — scoring his maiden one-day hundred in his penultimate game, a century in his last first-class match, and a resilient 96 on an unplayable Bangalore pitch in his last Test innings, all in 1987 when he at the cusp of turning 38. Mere statistics won’t even skim the surface of what Gavaskar meant to India at that time. Gavaskar was a thorough professional who was one of the first to show cricketers can have a life beyond cricket too. But more importantly, no one embodied the steel and spine in India’s batting better than Gavaskar.

Don Bradman was arguably the best batter of all time. But for the bulk of his career, he played only against England. The 90s and the 2000s gave us Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting, but they all wore helmets on pitches that were slowly losing their sting. Not Gavaskar or Viv Richards though. Gavaskar especially stood out in that context because he only relied on a skull cap and an impeccable technique to take on a terrifying West Indies pace attack in the Caribbean (which Richards didn’t have to), Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee in Australia, and bewitching conditions in England.

Sunil Gavaskar changes the field setting in a one-day match for India.

It was in the Caribbean that Gavaskar truy really made his name. So much so that Lord Relator wrote an entire calypso on him. “Jeejeebhoy, Wadekar, Sardesaid, Chandu Borde — these names inspired me to write a song. And then when Gavasakar came, he was playing the best that we had to offer in terms of the fast bowlers. But he beat everybody,” he told HT in an interview in Trinidad in 2016. “In Trinidad there’s a thing called Badge on. Badge on is like a hooligan who isn’t afraid of anybody. And when Sunil played here, he showed he wasn’t afraid of anybody. Fans loved him so much because he wasn’t afraid of anybody. That is why I wrote about him. He won a lot of hearts because of his approach.”

The skill was top-notch too. No one had a more balanced stance than Gavaskar during his time. He wasn’t tall and so bounce was always considered his nemesis. But keen eyes and nimble footwork helped Gavaskar almost always get into a comfortable position. To fuller and length balls, he relied on a straight bat, high elbow, heavy bottom hand, and neat follow-through that ensured the weight was perfectly transferred into his silken drives. He had almost every shot in the book but Gavaskar’s greatness was exemplified in his judgment and restraint. He was an accumulator of the greatest order but also India’s last line of defence on the most conspiring of pitches.

A case in point was the Bangalore Test of 1987 where Pakistan’s off-spinner Tauseef Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim, the leg-spinner, were spinning rings around India on a devious pitch. Chasing 221, India were 123-5 but Gavaskar was dogged in defiance in his last ever Test innings, relying only on his technique, to graft to 96 before India lost by 16 runs. Pakistan captain Imran Khan called it the best innings he had ever seen.

He scored 34 Test hundreds to go past the great Bradman but more Bradmanesque were his the feat of scoring a hundred and a double hundred in Port of Spain in 1971 (he became only the second batter in history to do it after Dough Walters), becoming the first Indian to score over 700 runs in a series and the first debutant to do so, scoring 221 at The Oval in 1979 when India almost chased down 438 in over four sessions or the 236 that stood as the highest Test score by an Indian till VVS Laxman bettered it in 2001.

Gavaskar could be stubborn at times. His leadership and tactics too were often mired in controversy. Like when he had batted 60 overs for 36 runs in a 1975 World Cup match because he had felt England’s 300-plus score was unattainable. And then in 1981, he almost forfeited a Test after getting into an altercation with Australian umpires. But he also fought for India’s pride in countries where previous teams were lambs to the slaughter. At a time when batting in India was still in an aspirational stage, Gavaskar was at par with the world and still striving for perfection.

When in flow, there wasn’t a more reassuring sight than Gavaskar with the bat.

1971 - 1988