Sunil Gavaskar at 75: The OG Little Master who knew no fear | Crickit
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Sunil Gavaskar at 75: The OG Little Master who knew no fear

Jul 10, 2024 09:13 AM IST

Throughout his legendary career, Sunil Gavaskar showed pluck and plenty of steel, bringing a sense of belief to Indian cricket

Mumbai: Last month, as India played Pakistan in the high-profile 2024 T20 World Cup match in New York, a video of a different kind went viral on social media. Microphone in hand, Sunil Gavaskar broke into a jig during the pre-match show, while the DJ blasted ‘Lungi Dance’ at the stadium. His infectious energy rubbed off on co-commentator Wasim Akram too. The Pakistan legend joined the Indian great in showing off a few impromptu dance moves, and the two finished with a high-five.

Sunil Gavaskar looks on during the ICC Men's T20 Cricket World Cup West Indies & USA 2024 match between India and Ireland at Nassau County International Cricket Stadium. (Getty Images via AFP)
Sunil Gavaskar looks on during the ICC Men's T20 Cricket World Cup West Indies & USA 2024 match between India and Ireland at Nassau County International Cricket Stadium. (Getty Images via AFP)

The great, grooving man celebrates his 75th birthday on Wednesday. His enduring zest for life continues to astonish everyone.

Gavaskar’s pursuit of excellence and child-like enthusiasm in all that he does has been extraordinary. Having attained legendary status as a cricketer, he has remained a role model in his post-retirement years. Whether as a commentator, analyst, or columnist, he has shown the same consistency that characterized his batting prowess during his playing days.

India is now an undisputed superpower in cricket. Gavaskar’s contribution in the country’s climb to the top is significant. Right from his debut Test appearance in 1971 against West Indies in West Indies, he set out to transform the perception of Indian cricket. He faced fearsome fast bowlers without a helmet and scored a sensational aggregate of 774 runs in eight innings at an average of 154.80. It is a standard against which almost every new Indian batter is judged.

Gavaskar took to international cricket like fish to water, scoring half-centuries in each innings on debut, followed by centuries in his second and third Tests. But what made the cricket world sit up and take notice was his 124 and 220-run knocks in the final Test at the Queen’s Park Oval.

The feat earned him the respect of the batting fraternity.

“We were very good friends right from the first day when I met him at The Oval when India beat England. I was the first one who went and met him. He was a huge name at the time and had scored a double century in the West Indies. I call him ‘Master’. We were in the world XI team together. He is like a brother to me,” said Pakistan batting great Zaheer Abbas, who was dubbed the ‘Asian Bradman’ for his prolific run-scoring. “It’s nice to know that he has turned 75. I wish my friend the best. Happy birthday to him.” The Pakistan batter too was a rising star then and had already hit a double hundred (274) at Edgbaston in only his second Test, in the 1971 series.

Facing West Indies’ dreaded pace battery was one of the toughest challenges of that era. Gavaskar made his mark against them. It earned him love and respect worldwide and he became a huge hit with the West Indies crowd. Calypso -singer Willard Harris, famous as Lord Relator composed a song on India’s epic 1971 win and the line ‘We couldn’t out Gavaskar at all’ is now legendary. Gavaskar scored 13 hundreds in 27 Tests against the West Indies. It was a show of guts and steel, averaging 65.45 with a tally of 2749 runs. Indian cricket was no more about spin and skills, Gavaskar showed Indian batters had plenty of steel too.

Dilip Vengsarkar, who has shared many partnerships with Gavaskar, sees him as a batter who could score hundreds at will. “He has played against the best attacks in the world. In the 1970s and 1980s, every team had quality bowlers. He faced those bowlers with a lot of skill and guts, it was quite exemplary, especially after fielding one-and-a-half days. On the second day when everybody was tired and the bowlers were fresh, he handled it beautifully. It was top class.”

Gavaskar’s senior, Chandu Borde, has witnessed how the opening batsman’s performances helped change the world’s outlook of Indian cricketers.

“As a batter he showed courage and sound technique. In those days there were no helmets, bowlers could cross the front foot line because (front foot) no-ball was not there that time. The way he faced pace bowlers was amazing!,” exclaims Borde, who was one of India’s leading players in the 1960s, playing 55 Tests from 1958 to 1969. “Because Gavaskar performed so well it helped his teammates too.”

Vengsarkar concurs. “The non-striker also gains in confidence. Agar samne wala darr gaya toh doosra bhi hilta hai (If your batting partner is not playing with confidence, then the other batter also gets affected). It was a huge plus (to play with Gavaskar) in my formative years in international cricket and for Mumbai as well,” says Vengsarkar, who played 116 Tests for India and was a No 1 batter in the world for a long time in the mid-1980s.

Vengsarkar, who played with Gavaskar right from his club cricket days at Dadar Union Club said Gavaskar had excellent temperament. “His concentration was phenomenal, and he had a great hunger for runs. The thing is he always played within his means, that’s why he could score all those runs, taking risks and once he was in the zone, he could score a hundred at will.”

Gavaskar played in an era when India was far from the dominant force they are now. Playing teams like England and Australia was intimidating. Sledging players from the sub-continent was common. “The Indian players were concerned about playing against them (England, Australia and West Indies),” says Borde.

“In the past, a lot of importance was given to the English teams, the entire cricket was sort of controlled by them. Now, it has changed quite a lot. Our Board is also very confident, the players also now are not afraid of anybody. But in the past there was sort of pressure when we used to play against England, Australia or the West Indies fast bowlers.”

“The game has changed a lot after the media, particularly television, came into play. In cricket, players like Gavaskar expressed their views and that helped. The lack of belief disappeared. When we did well in the ODI matches (winning the 1983 World Cup), our confidence level shot up. Now they are dominating cricket.”

Syed Kirmani and Gavaskar’s careers almost ran parallel to each other. Kirmani, who is one year older, has known Gavaskar from their school cricket days. The two spent a lot of time together on the cricket field, Kirmani being the wicket-keeper and Gavaskar at first slip. Their partnership was at its best in the 1983 World Cup. “Our catching behind the stumps gave us confidence,” says the hero of the win, Balwinder Singh Sandhu. “We knew if it takes a snick or edge, Kirmani and Gavaskar will take it. We didn’t drop a single catch which went behind the stumps.”

Kirmani remembers the risks of partnering the team’s star batter. “I was fortunate to bat alongside him a few times. I remember the 1983 Test match in Chennai against the West Indies. West Indies were annoyed because the umpire did not give Sunny out. Sunny did not walk until he was given out because there were many instances when he was wrongly dismissed. (Michael) Holding was furious, and took that anger out on me.”

For Vengsarkar, Gavaskar’s best innings was the 90 he scored in the 1983 Ahmedabad Test against West Indies, in a total of 241. “On a bowler-friendly track against the West Indies, he got out on 90. I think that was a very fine innings.”

Till Sandhu got to see his hero in flesh and blood for the first time in 1976 during a local match, he had a slightly different mental image of Gavaskar’s physical stature - such were his tall feats in the West Indies. “Only when I first saw him in a match that I realised he was not very tall.”

At the 1983 World Cup, Gavaskar was slightly short of runs but he chipped in with valuable suggestions and was brilliant with his slip catching. “He was not in his best touch but while fielding he would come over and say, ‘sahi line dal raha hai’, or would tell Kapil, ‘get this bowler to bowl now, bowl a little slower’. He would come up with the right suggestions at the right time,” said Sandhu.

It is a trait Gavaskar, now 75, continues to carry well after his playing days.

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