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Saturday, October 24, 2020

Covid claims braveheart Chetan Chauhan

Conviction, courage and crisp cut shots defined the career of Sunil Gavaskar's former opening partner though century eluded.

Written by Vishal Menon | New Delhi | Updated: August 17, 2020 4:15:53 pm
Chetan Chauhan covidChetan Chauhan played 40 Tests for India. (File Photo/BCCI)

By his own assessment, Chetan Chauhan was not a master technician like his good friend and former opening partner Sunil Gavaskar. Neither did he possess the supple wrists of the legendary Gundappa Vishwanath nor those languid Dilip Vengsarkar cover drives that made him such a treat to watch. Instead, Chauhan made up for all these perceptible limitations in batting through sheer guts and conviction that helped him blunt the sharpest bowling attacks around the world during the 1970s and early 80s.

The fearless Delhi opener with plenty of gumption passed away on Sunday at the age of 73 from multiple organ failure, having tested positive for Covid-19.

Old-timers and journalists remember him fondly from his days as acting president of the Delhi & Districts Cricket Association (DDCA) when Chauhan, in his bright coloured t-shirts and shorts, would go out of his way to engage with scribes and budding cricketers at the Feroz Shah Kotla after his morning walks. Younger brother Pushpendra informed the Indian Express that before the lockdown was enforced, Chauhan would hit the gym regularly and closely monitor his calorie-count.

Chetan Chauhan also served as the DDCA acting president.

In order to understand the value that Chauhan’s batting brought to the Indian team, we must revisit his Test debut — against New Zealand in the 1969-70 season at the Brabourne Stadium. After blocking and prodding for close to 30 minutes, the 22-year-old opened up with a ferocious cut against Bruce Taylor — his first scoring shot in international cricket — that sped to the boundary. Over the next 39 Tests spanning a dozen years, Chauhan would repeatedly fall back on the cut shot to score the bulk of his runs.

Partab Ramchand, a veteran sports journalist, and someone who had watched Chauhan from close quarters would attest. “I think technique and elegance are slightly overrated when it comes to defining batsmen. Chauhan had his own way of scoring runs. Had that not been the case, he would not have scored all those runs against some of the best bowling attacks in the world. What defined him were his guts and those brutal cut shots. He was really strong square off the wicket,” he told The Indian Express.

Chauhan also had a pretty neat defence and above all, the ability to spend long hours at the crease to wear out opposition attacks. India had to wait for an eternity to find a similarly dour opener since his exit in 1981, even though Ravi Shastri performed this role, albeit intermittently, through the latter half of that decade.

Runs against the finest

Nevertheless, his career stats — 40 Tests with 2,084 runs and a top score of 97 against Australia in Adelaide at a middling average of 31.57 — were fairly underwhelming for an opener. The most vexing aspect was the lack of a three-figure score. Chauhan stands next to only Shane Warne in the list of most runs scored without a century. He did come close on several instances. Out of his 16 fifties, he has two scores of 90s and five in the 80s. Frustrating as it may sound, but Chauhan’s career was well beyond these banal numbers.

Underneath the not-so-glossy veneer were runs for which he had to toil hard for. Like the 88 he scored against a menacing Jeff Thompson on a fast-as-lightning track in Perth in 1977 or his 93 in Lahore the following year, against a Pakistan bowling attack that had Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz at the peak of their careers. Looking back, Chauhan’s efforts on both these matches may have been forgotten, partly because they had come in losing causes. Nevertheless, these were hard-fought, backs-to-the-wall knocks that illustrated his mental fortitude and courage.

Perhaps, his finest moment came on Day 5 of the final Test against England at The Oval in 1979. In pursuit of an improbable 438, Gavaskar and Chauhan went all out against an attack that consisted of Bob Willis, Ian Botham and Mike Hendrick, leaving an otherwise ice-cool captain Mike Brearley bereft of ideas. By the time Chauhan departed for a score of 80, the Indian openers had put on 213 for the opening wicket. It was a shame that the match had to end in a draw and India had to fall agonisingly short of the target by 9 runs, despite such an inspired run chase. A little over 18 months later at the pristine Adelaide Oval, he would quell Dennis Lillee, Len Pascoe and Rodney Hogg to register his highest Test score of 97.

Partnership with Gavaskar

That knock would mark the beginning of his love affair with Adelaide — he would later get contracted with the Adelaide Cricket Club as a captain-cum-coach of a team that had players such as Gordon Greenidge and Rodney Hogg — but it also reaffirmed a fruitful and long-standing opening partnership with Gavaskar. Together, they had stacked up 3,127 runs at an average of a shade under 55 that included 11 century stands. During the early 1980s, they were only the third most successful pair in Test cricket, behind Bill Lawry-Bob Simpson and Jack Hobbs-Herbert Sutcliffe.

Chauhan’s dollops of courage and ability to withstand the pressures exerted by top-class pacers would be the perfect foil to Gavaskar’s technically perfect orthodox technique. On the field, he would be his captain’s trusted lieutenant. During the 1981 Test in Melbourne, when Gavaskar decided to walk off in protest after being adjudged lbw to Lillee, he asked his opening partner to follow him back to the pavilion. “You are the captain and whatever you say I am behind you,” Chauhan quipped. Manager Shahid Durrani stepped in to soothe tempers. Better sense prevailed and Chauhan stayed back.

It was perplexing that his career had to come to an end in 1981. Considering that during the twin tours to Australia and New Zealand, Chauhan had registered two fifties, which included his highest score, and he was also the second-highest run-getter behind Sandip Patil. Off the field, though, he never displayed any after-effects from that omission. He remained affable and cheerful, greeting friends and reporters with a warm smile. In the absence of international outings, Chauhan turned his attention to first-class cricket, where he remained prolific, scoring over 11,000 runs with 21 centuries.

Diverse interests

His interests were not limited to the cricket field alone. Long after he had quit the game in the mid-80s, he shifted to politics, getting elected twice as Member of Parliament from Amroha in Uttar Pradesh under a BJP ticket. He also served as minister for youth and sports under the current Yogi Adityanath government. Before his tenure in politics, he was appointed manager of the Indian team — during their historic 2-1 win against Australia at home in 2001 and then during their acrimonious 2007-08 tour Down Under.

In recent times, he was also the acting president of the DDCA. Even though the faction-ridden association was constantly mired by dubious style of functioning and charges of fraud and embezzlement levelled at its directors, Chauhan came out of the tenure unscathed, and with a squeaky clean reputation. Following his tryst with the DDCA, he also served as NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) Chairman for an 11-month period that began from June 2016.

For someone with such diverse interests, and who had won several arduous battles against Lillee, Thomson and Imran, Chauhan lost out to the deadly COVID-19. The 73-year-old will forever be remembered for his tenacious knocks and those memorable partnerships he had forged with Gavaskar.

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