He might have been one of the greatest batsmen of all time, but Sunil Manohar Gavaskar’s name generally conjures up visions of patient attrition rather than impertinent attack. And there is good reason for this. The original “little master” was known for his immaculate technique and his ability to grind opposition bowlers to dust by playing cricket that was technically immaculate and relatively risk free. No, he was never as dull as Boycott generally was, but neither was he considered a free flowing spirit of the sort Vivian Richards was. Yes, he would take advantage of a loose ball but he was more likely to block a good delivery than think of scoring off it. Interestingly, he was a relatively aggressive batsman in his early days. He was never reckless, but he did have a penchant to attack. However the burden of being the team’s leading batsman and a spell as captain, seemed to have made him curb his attacking instincts and instead focus on wearing down the opposition from the mid 1970s onwards. The most significant sign of his change of approach was his decision to cut the hook out from his batting arsenal – he played the stroke often in his youth, but as the years and responsibilities piled up, he preferred to simply duck under bouncers or weave out of their path.
Such was Gavaskar’s dedication to defence that when he came out to bat for India on October 29, 1983 a number of younger cricket fans did not even know he was capable of aggressive batting.
Many of them did, however, feel that the great man’s best years were behind him. After being the mainstay of the Indian batting line up for almost a dozen years, Gavaskar was finding himself under the radar as a batsman for perhaps the first time in his Test career. He had had a poor series in the West Indies in 1983, followed by a World Cup in which his contribution to the India’s stunning victory cause was a highest score of 25 in six matches. Yes, he had batted well against the touring Pakistan team after the World Cup, but that had featured a bowling attack in which not even a single bowler had a hundred Test wickets to his name. When he did come up against the West Indies pace battery in the first match of the 1983-84 series, he was dismissed for a duck in the first innings and did not make double figures in the second, being caught after the bat was knocked out of his hand by a fierce Malcolm Marshall delivery. It was the method of the second dismissal in particular that made many wonder if Gavaskar, notwithstanding his brilliant record against the West Indies, was the right player to take on the likes of Malcom Marshall, Michael Holding, Wayne Daniel and Simon Davis.
So when he walked out to open the batting with Anshuman Gaekwad at Delhi on October 29, 1983, not too many expected anything special. He was one century away from equaling the record for the most centuries scored in Test cricket – 29 by the great Sir Don Bradman – but even the most rabid Gavaskar fan among my friends was simply praying he would survive till lunch. “He has to get at lest fifty runs,” he muttered. “If he lasts till lunch, he would have at least 35-40 and the bowlers would be tiring. This is the Kotla wicket, so he can then pick the ones and twos and get some form. But he has to last till lunch.”
Yes, the pitch was relatively docile and yes, the boundaries were on the shorter side,but whatever the thousands in the stadium (and the millions following on radio and television) expected, it was not an explosion of strokeplay.
And yet that is exactly what was delivered. And delivering it was a man who many felt had forgotten how to attack.
Within minutes of the match getting underway, Malcom Marshall had dug one short at Gavaskar. Viewers ducked instinctively. Gavaskar got into line, and then with a swivel that would have done Nureyev proud, hooked the ball to the fence. After a second of “did he just do that” shock, the crowd erupted. Marshall himself looked surprised, but then smiled wickedly. A few deliveries later, another bouncer was served up. And once again, Gavaskar hooked. And hooked well. The hour of play that followed remains one of the most surprising in the history of Indian cricket. The Indian team that had been battered in the first Test literally flogged the fastest and best bowling attack in the world to all parts of the ground.
Or rather one player did.
In a little under an hour, Gavaskar had screamed past his half century – it had taken him a mere 37 deliveries. The hooks were the most spectacular, but it was not just the bouncers that were punished. Anything outside the off stuff was either driven, or wonder of wonders, square cut – imagine square cutting a delivery traveling at close to ninety miles an hour.
Gavaskar dared. Gavaskar did.
It was dazzling and unreal. Everyone who watched it felt it was too good to last for long. Yet it continued. To the extent that West Indies actually had to bring on the part time spin of Larry Gomes to try and slow down the scoring which was rattling along at close to five runs an over – something that was unheard of in those days (in fact, even in one day internationals, it was a rarity, especially against the West Indies). Gavaskar’s response was to clout Gomes into the crowd for a six.
The commentators on the radio went almost hoarse – they had no other way of being heard above a crowd that had moved from being edgy to ecstatic. And the Little Master was not finished yet. The shots kept coming – drives, cuts and yes, the hook surfaced time and time again. Contrary to what many believe, Gavaskar did not bring out the hook for this particular match but had been using it against Pakistan a few weeks earlier, but that was against a relatively tame attack. Hooking the West Indian pace attack was akin to surfing a massive wave…without a surfboard.
Gavaskar dared. Gavaskar did.
Shortly after lunch, Gavaskar flicked a ball through mid on to the fence – a classic Gavaskar stroke – and was returning to take strike when he saw that Dilip Vengsarkar the non-striker had stopped mid-pitch and was holding out a gloved hand. He looked at him in slight confusion, at which an affectionately exasperated Vengsarkar exclaimed “Bloody hell, it is your 29th!” After which, a dazed Gavaskar raised his hand to the crowd that had was applauding in a frenzied manner – the man had not known his own score (something he was guilty of quite often – he claimed knowing the score distracted him).
A few days after speculation that he was past his best. A few hours after his most ardent fans had just hoped he would last till lunch and get a fifty, Sunil Gavaskar had equaled Sir Don Bradman’s record by scoring his 29th Test century. And he had done it at a rate that was staggering – he reached his hundred off 94 deliveries, making it the second fastest Test hundred by an Indian, and one of the ten fastest centuries in Test cricket at that time. And of course, those who loved statistics were delighted to point out that he had scored his 29th century on the 29th day of the month!
He was ultimately dismissed for 121 by – of all things – a seemingly straightforward off break by Larry Gomes. But he had not just reminded his critics of his abilities but also wrested the momentum of the series back from the West Indies. He had also – for a while at least – loosened the hold Malcom Marshall seemed to have on the Indian batsmen. The West Indian speed merchant finished the innings with 1-105 off 24 overs, mostly having been mauled by a man who was known for being a defensive player. The match ended in a draw but in a dramatic change of events, the West Indies had been put on the back foot.
The innings was not a one-off. Gavaskar repeated the dose in the next Test with arguably one of the greatest Test innings ever played on Indian soil – on a dodgy pitch at Ahmedabad, he once again hammered the West Indies pace attack for an amazing 90. That was however the last time his aggression worked in the series – he failed in five innings in a row, the last being an innings so reckless as to border on the irresponsible. He duly reined himself in. And scored an unbeaten 236 in the final Test against the West Indies to beat Bradman’s record. Normal service had been restored. But the interval, while inconsistent and at times bizzarre, had been brilliant.
A lot of people recall it as the day when Sunny became Sehwag, the man who would redefine the opener’s role in Indian cricket in the 21st century. But my Gavaskar-crazy friend summed up the awe and shock that people felt best later that evening: “It was as if Bapu had given up non-violence and decided to launch a lathi charge…”
Gavaskar dared. Gavaskar did.