For an obsessive cricket pilgrim or an ardent worshipper of batting’s celebrated binary data, there are 10,000 reasons to undertake the unexplored Ahmedabad-Rajkot trek. Very recently, during IPL 10, without much ado, the two cities got themselves a historic connect. Surprisingly, the event received undeserving aloofness. Such is the pace of this ’60-matches-in-45-days’ IPL rollercoaster that it makes you miss the trees, the woods and even the mountains.
Late evening on April 18, 2017, a few kilometres beyond Rajkot’s city limits, a 6′ 2″ Jamaican guided a ball to third man, to be T20’s first Mr 10,000. Three decades ago, on March 7, 1987, just outside Ahmedabad’s city limits, a 5’5” Mumbai batsman had also directed the ball — with a more correct and refined stroke — to the third man to become Test cricket’s ‘Neil Armstrong’. Those were austere times; 10,000, like the moon, was distant and dreamy.
Both Sunil Gavaskar and Chris Gayle are dreamers, and doers too. As for their batting DNA, there isn’t a twist or a tangle that’s remotely similar. The storyboards of the right-hander with the tightest defence in the game’s oldest format and the most destructive left-hander ruling cricket’s newest avatar have few common frames, the most fascinating being the geographical proximity of their ‘10,000’ moment.
The West Indian, who gets handsomely paid to rain sixes in T20 leagues around the world, ended up scoring his 10,000th run just 200 kms away from the Motera Stadium, the site where Gavaskar had lived a similar moment.
The two vastly varied journeys — from different eras — to the same destination chronicle cricket’s evolution. They also highlight the changing currency in the business of run-making, the monotony of the unending T20 itinerary, the lethargy of the over-fed fans and, most strikingly, the tragic devaluation of the 10,000.
Even today if you want to make a 40-plus Indian cricket follower first beam and then bore you to death with Gavaskar stories, just mention Ijaz Faqih. In the days following that Gavaskar Test, Faqih, the Pakistan all-rounder with a French beard, would become more famous in India than in Karachi. He played a big hand in India uncrossing its fingers, it was off his ball that Gavaskar scored his 10,000th run. For a nation on the edge, suffering a collective bout of those nervous 9900s, every Gavaskar stride on the cricket pitch was an event. Note for the younger fans: it was like Tendulkar’s ‘100 hundred’ wait, maybe slightly less agonising and the eventual relief much more celebratory.
In years to come, Doordarshan would dutifully lose the tapes of Indian cricket’s big moustache twirling moment from the very eventful and joyous 80s. Luckily, ‘the run’ had been speared so deep into the mind that it has stayed fresh. At 38, Gavaskar was stockier, looking every bit the father of an 11-year-old. The iconic ‘10,000’ picture — thankfully a few B/W photos have survived — shows him in mid-stride, sprinting down the pitch with his bat raised. He is bent double, almost at a right angle, his Panama hat-protected head buried in his chest. The pose has gravitas; worthy of being replicated into a stone sculpture and to be ceremonially mounted on a perch outside Wankhede. Even if carved in stone, the man who was known to never check the scoreboard while batting would look to be in a hurry, for he knew this was ‘the run’.
It’s been 30 years since that day, and Gavaskar is in a car, on way to the official broadcaster-organised ‘end of IPL Season 10’ party. Everybody calls him Sunny bhai these days. At 67, since his retirement in 1987, he has spent nearly twice the number of years in commentary box than on the field as a player. He has called countless games, a body of work that would have given him a headful of statistics. Though a few numbers, dear to him, rest on his fingertips. He starts by explaining how he didn’t need the scoreboard to tell him about his 10,000th Test run. “I knew that I needed 57 runs. I normally don’t look at the scoreboard. But once you reach a 50, you get an applause. At that stage you realise. If I’m not mistaken I got to my 50 with a single. So I was aware that now 7 more runs,” he says as the notorious Mumbai traffic gives him enough time to dwell on the day he took that one step that was to be cricket’s ‘5-digit’ giant leap.
“Once you get to that 10,000 it is absolutely magical. Magical because it had not been done before. Even 9,000 had not been done before, and I did it. But 9,000 is a four-digit number. 10,000 is a five-digit number, so it was almost like climbing Mt Everest for the first time,” says Gavaskar. With a soft chuckle he adds how the world only remembers the first-timers — Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
The mountaineering metaphor works but it isn’t truly apt. Unlike Hillary or Tenzing, Gavaskar didn’t have the time to enjoy the happy, heady vertigo while looking down from the roof of the world. The chilling solitude of the world’s highest point is in total contrast to the chaos of the sweaty, dusty, noisy Motera. Those days, the 80s, for the locals in Ahmedabad, a day at the game was as much about watching cricket as it was about hurling abuses and stones. Eye-witnesses of the historic Test talk about Pakistan players fielding on the fence wearing helmets. Pandemonium broke out in the stands after “the run”. As was the tradition during those good old days, fans climbed over the fences, jumped across the moat to give the Little Master company on Mt 10,000. For once, the act of the overzealous trespassers seemed justified. Most of India wanted to jump over the fence and reach out to Sunny.
The Indian Express issue, dated March 8, 1987, has a story ‘Sunny day in Ahmedabad’ on the front page. It speaks about President Zail Singh conveying his congratulation through the Gujarat governor. It also records Maharashtra CM SB Chavan’s pat on Gavaskar’s back and a charming best wishes telex message from the great MGR on behalf of the people of Tamil Nadu.
However, it’s an advertisement that best captures the pre-liberalisation era and the importance of the ‘10,000 moment’ for a nation with global aspirations. From the bottom right corner on the sports page, the makers of “Diamond TV Antenna Booster” paid “rich tribute to the finest cricketer the world has ever seen”. India could no longer tolerate weak TV signals and the frequent terrace trips to adjust the antenna on match days. The 1983 World Cup win, World Championship triumph in 1985, now 10,000; India wanted a better look at their superstar and an undisturbed view when history was being written. The booster business certainly had potential.
It was also the decade when less was more. 10,000 was a grand figure that attracted awe and attention. 10,000 on salary cheque made you the most eligible bachelor. It was also in 1987 that Sanjay Dutt starred in a modestly successful film called Inaam Dus Haazara, a remake of the Hitchcock classic North by Northwest. Be it on a film poster, a matrimonial ad, ransom note or some ‘Wanted’ notice on the wall; 10,000 had an unexplained ‘come hither’ mystic about it.
Still in his car, Gavaskar has a few 10,000 memories that never made it to television or the newspapers. “It was a slightly dazed feeling. But the thing I remember most is that we were in Ahmedabad. And it’s a dry place. But Kapil somehow managed to get some champagne! That was amazing. He was the captain, and he organized, with special permission of course, to get some champagne. I am not too sure whether today’s support staff and sports nutritionists would allow us to have even a sip of champagne in the middle of a Test match.”
Moving from the intoxicating Motera of 1987 to the much sober Rajkot of 2017. It is Game 20 of IPL 10, Gujarat Lions are playing Royal Challengers Bangalore. The concept of franchise loyalty hasn’t yet evolved at one IPL’s youngest venues. The jam-packed stadium doesn’t hide their love for the omni-popular visiting openers Virat Kohli and Gayle. The bonhomie on the sparkling terraces at this new stadium is in contrast to the edginess of the India-Pakistan Test from three decades back.
Before the game, Gayle’s West Indian team mate Samuel Badree reminds him that he is just 3 runs short of 10,000. The moment arrives in the game’s 3rd over bowled by Lions pacer Basil Thampi. An edge from Gayle’s bat flies to third man. The mishit is a rather sloppy final stitch that hems Gayle’s masterful T20 body of work. He is 37, a year younger than what Gavaskar was in 1987. His 10,000th run is a lazy jog to the non-striker’s end. He strides as if he is playing hopscotch with his little daughter. There’s no urgency, no anxiety or even elation. The giant screen does flash 10,000 but there is muted applause; it sounds more like a delayed echo of the roar from the last over when Kohli had hit three successive fours. Gayle too isn’t on his knees or striking the ‘Christ the Redeemer’ pose, like he does in his moments of joy. He is merely stretching his limbs while standing at the non-striker’s end. No one jumps the fence. There isn’t even a standing ovation. Like Faqih, Thampi wasn’t going to be a household name in Kingston.
A ball later, the world’s most-feared batsman, the black bandana peeping from below his helmet adding to his intimidating aura, hits a straight six. Rajkot raises the roof, waving those sponsored ‘6’ placards. Never ever has the celebration of a never-before-crossed-cricketing barrier been so brief, and so disturbingly low-key. Twitter did extend its #respect, as it does to even a pizza delivery boy who defies rain to bring home a piping hot meal on time.
After the game, which the Royal Challengers won, Virat interviews Gayle for the host broadcaster. He starts by asking: “Chris, how does it feel to open the innings with me?”
10,000 wasn’t on top of most minds now. Even at his home in Kingston, they weren’t really running on streets wearing “Universe Boss” T-shirts. The Jamaican Gleaner’s page one that day had stories about some financial scam and rising unemployment. None could do justice to Gayle’s achievement or capture what he was going through.
In his reply, Gayle sounded exactly like Gavaskar from 30 years back. Sunny had said, “The immense pressure on me is off with my completing of 10,000. I am elated. I will always be remembered for achieving it first.” Gayle too expressed the same sentiments. “I wanted this so badly, to get 10,000 runs, it was actually on my mind, so I’m glad. It’s a privilege to actually be the first person to get there.” That draining mixed feeling of relief and bliss, which can give you a life-long swagger, was common to the two pioneers who were the first to reach cricket’s rarefied level.
There’s an almost karmic connect between the two batting legends. On Gavaksar’s debut Test tour in 1971, fate would decide that Kingston would be his entry point to the West Indies. Aged 22, he would have his first international nets at Sabina Park, which is just a mile away from Rollington Town, where Gayle, an 8-year-old then, shared a couple of single beds with his five other siblings.
Son of a policeman, an immigrant with modest earnings, Gayle had a tough childhood. Writing in his autobiography, Six Machine, he mentions dinner on most days being a ball of flour and water. Birthdays were no better. “There are no cards and no cake, not where we come from. A birthday jus’ another day you hungry.”
Gavaskar had it much easier. They were upper middle class and privileged. In the early 60s, his father gave him Rs 10 for every ton he scored. “I remember one year when I almost put the household budget in disarray with my centuries. My father, however, was delighted and paid up cheerfully. Often, when he returned home in the evening, he would take out his wallet and ask me if I had scored a century and would be most disappointed if I said no.” That’s Gavaskar in Sunny Days.
Despite the vastly different surroundings that they grew up in, they would find somewhat similar guides on the way to the top. Gavaskar’s mother would get hit on the nose while playing tennis ball cricket with her son, an incident that would make the teen big-hitter spend the rest of the day playing the forward defensive shot. Gayle too would get his greatest cricketing lesson from a “special lady”, Miss Hamilton, his school cricket and football coach. She would talk to him about footwork, driving and technique to read swing.
But her biggest service to cricket was to allow Gayle to stand still, not insist on asking him to use his feet, letting him use his hand-eye co-ordination and that lanky frame to wallop the ball. T20 franchise owners from around the world need to honour Miss Hamilton with a hefty cheque some time soon.
While Gavaskar took 16 years to reach the mark, Gayle was there in just about 11 years and 7 months. The 70s star hit 26 sixes in his 125 Tests, Gayle had 17 in his highest T20 score of 175. His overall career 6 count is now approaching 750.
But these are men who chased different batting pursuits. Listen to what Gavaskar said in 1986 about his favourite way to send the ball out of the boundary rope. “If one smashes into the boundary, perhaps it is demoralising to the opposition. But I personally prefer the ball to just about beat the fielder because in that case the fielder has been made to run those 25 to 30 yards.”
If Gavaskar would kill you with a thousand cuts, Gayle did the damage by a wrecking ball. His other early influence was his enigmatic elder brother Michael, who would have warm beer for breakfast, leftover from the night before, and “smoke the bowling the next day”. Back to Six Machine. “Michael jumps the fence and strolls to the pavilion, fresh out of the nightclub … he had swagger. He can’t keep still. He’ll crash a boundary and then walk down the pitch, as if to tap the turf. Then the mouth. ‘Get back to yuh mark! I’m gonna kill’ …” He was Gayle’s hero, the biggest influence of his life. The little brother would redefine aggression, he wouldn’t give mouth but certainly kill bowlers from around the world. Even when the world’s best brains were bought by rival teams to stop Gayle, they would fail.
So why is it that the global superstar’s big T20 moment went unnoticed? Maybe, since his 10,000 is an aggregate of the runs he scored for 18 different T20 teams, there was nobody keeping a tab of the runs. The Gayle 10,000, maybe, just fell between the cracks.
But isn’t larger-than-life Gayle and the ‘10,000’ too colossal a feat to be missed? Gavaskar gives his reasons while calling Gayle’s 10,000 better than his. “When you look at T20 where you are barely getting 30s, to get 10,000 is fantastic. You are trying to make sure there are maximum sixes and boundaries. In that process you get out. You can get 20s and 30s, but this man scored a 175 as well. The connoisseurs don’t think it is cricket. Maybe that is the reason why it hasn’t quite gotten the publicity and the recognition that it should. But believe me, I think these 10,000 runs are probably a lot harder to get. So this guy is really the Universe Boss.”
Not just the connoisseurs, even the T20 die-hards cold-shouldered Gayle’s 10,000. Maybe, everyone was so busy enjoying the 6s that they forget the lone tower of runs dominating theT20 skyline. Besides, the world had changed. Like everything, 10,000 was also devalued. It was no longer magical. Its importance had shrunk in the minds of the game’s newer fans. That mesmerising five-digit had a diet version now. It had dwarfed into an unrecognisable hybrid of two digits and a letter. In its hurry to shorten things, cricket reduced 10,000 to 10k.