It’s his loud warm laugh that I would miss the most though it was that laughter that once dragged him into a hostile battle with Australia’s Jeff Thomson in a Test in Sydney. We had bowled out Australia by tea on the opening day and Thommo was perhaps angry that he was called in to bowl so early in the game. A light drizzle was freshening up the pitch and he was letting it rip at 90-95 mph. He fired a short rising delivery outside off and Chetan went for his favourite square cut. The ball flew off the top edge, one bounce to the third man boundary, and Thommo was staring at him mid-pitch when Chetan laughed.
There is a story behind that particular laugh. Chetan was lovingly called Masturr, said with a Marathi inflection in Mumbai cricketing circles due to his professorial look and a philosophical bent of mind. The nickname carried into the Indian team. Right through that series, the players would pull his leg over his love for that square cut. “Masturrr, if anybody bowls short at you, you would cut them; if you connect you are going to get a four, if you edge it, even then a four over slips’ – was the refrain. And so, when that top edge flew to the third man boundary, the team erupted on the balcony.
At the Sydney ground, the visitors dressing room is closer to the action than the Australian one which is at the far end of the arena. Both of us could hear the loud guffawing and shouts of ‘Masturrr’. That’s why Chetan had laughed but he had come into eye contact with Thomson when he did that. Thommo thought it was a mocking laugh and went, “What the f*** is funny about that shot?” He went across, marked a cross on Chetan’s forehead and said, “that’s where I am going to hit you. Let’s see if you can still laugh after that”.
As Thommo continued to glare and spray words, Chetan told him, “I am a Rajput, you do what you have to do, you go bowl”. And I am telling him in Marathi, “Masturrr, he doesn’t know what Rajput means, let it go, don’t lose your concentration.”
A furious Thommo now started to bowl like the wind. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that the slip and gully fielders were now standing 30 yards back. He went all out at Chetan who fought on bravely. It was a gutsy knock and only later, after he had got out and was in the dressing room, that the team realised he had been playing with a broken finger. Thommo had jammed his fingers with a nasty delivery but Chetan had bravely carried on. He was then taken to hospital.
That attitude endeared him to me. The laugh, the courage, the skill, the guts — that was Chetan Chauhan, the man, the batsman.
Masturr had a nickname for me – Barkya! In Marathi, it means short or slim fellow. Of all the opening partners I have had, Chetan was the one who would walk up to me by himself to tell me that I was doing something wrong. Others would tell me if I asked them — Anshuman Gaekwad was very good and would always be spot on with his observations — but perhaps since he was my senior, Chetan would walk across to tell me if he spotted something wrong. And he would say it in a very light, casual way. “Barkya! Halka bahir sa or cross …” (You are playing outside off or playing across the line). He was a steadying influence on me.
I remember sitting in the stands at the Cricket Club of India when Chetan made his Test debut against New Zealand in 1969. His second scoring shot was a six, his first and last in Tests — It was a hook, a shot that I didn’t see him play much after that. He was someone who was very aware of his game, its limitations and strengths. His top hand was around the handle, the back of his palm would face him and the top hand would get locked up as a result. It meant his leg-side game was a touch restricted and he would score a lot more on the off-side with that rasping back-and-across square cut his attacking shot. I had seen him bat in inter-university days in Mumbai and then we played together for West Zone as well. There were a lot of openers in Mumbai cricket then. I was playing at No. 3 as Ramesh Nagdev, a flamboyant batsman who later migrated to California, and Sudhir Naik would open. Midway in his career, after his bank transferred him to the capital, Chetan started to play for Delhi and had great success there.
The partnership I cherish the most with Chetan was the 192-run stand we had against Pakistan in the 1978 Test in Lahore. We have added more runs at the Oval — 213. But this was in front of a hostile crowd. It was lonely out there, two of us against 40,000 people, or so it seemed at times. We had been shot out for 199 in the first innings and Pakistan had made a huge score in response (539 for 6 declared). It was a tough time when we walked into bat, we kept encouraging each other, and there was a bit of gaalis and sledging going around. On Day 4, we had reached around 160 or so when there was a break.
There was just a small passage between two dressing rooms and a Pakistan player, who was friendly with us, came and told our team that “Tum log ab mar gaye” (You guys are gone now). When some of our players asked him what he meant, he said that their senior players have spoken to the umpires.
Chetan and I would soon find that out in the middle. I was at the non-striker’s end when Javed Miandad bowled one outside off stump. Chetan was on 93 and looking to square cut but he aborted that shot, with the bat well above the ball which went into the wicketkeeper’s gloves. They appealed and it was given out. I was livid and turned to the umpire, who just shrugged his shoulders and walked away. Next over, I was given out caught at silly point when the ball had gone off the pad. Two set batsmen had gone but our batsmen still carried on fighting. There were a few more iffy decisions in the rest of the game and we were bowled out around the tea break on the last day. A match that we could have saved was eventually lost. But the partnership with Chetan in that hostile atmosphere would stay in my mind.
Another memory comes through. Once, I was having some problems facing Australian spinner Bruce Yardley as he had a slight stutter in his action and I would invariably end up playing a touch too early before the ball arrived. So, I asked Chetan if he would mind taking on Yardley while I face Len Pascoe. He had this lovely sheepish smile on his face when he said, “I wanted to tell you that earlier but didn’t as you might misunderstand me!” Pascoe, of course, was a very fast bowler who seemingly liked hitting batsmen with his bouncers.
Chetan was a very popular and enormously respected player in our team. He was gutsy, calm, and a wise senior who was always willing to go the extra mile to help anyone in the team. I am going to miss his laughter the next time I go to Delhi and his affectionate call, “Barkya! Aa gale mil (come, hug)”.
(Sunil Gavaskar, the former India captain, spoke to Sriram Veera)