Only a select few knew on March 17, 1987, that it would be Sunil Gavaskar’s final day in Test cricket. The original Little Master had decided to call it quits from the longer version – he would still play One-Day International cricket with the World Cup at home a few months away as the final destination – at the end of the fifth and final Test against Pakistan at M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore.
The teams had played out four draws, several of them drab, when they arrived with the series on the line, and were greeted by a square turner. Maninder Singh spun Pakistan to their doom in their first innings, taking 7 for 27 to send them crashing to 116 all out. India themselves then collapsed from 126 for 4 to 145 all out, a lead of 29, as Tauseef Ahmed, the offspinner, and Iqbal Qasim, the left-arm spinner who was drafted into the XI in place of Abdul Qadir, took five wickets apiece.
Pakistan battled to 249 in their second innings, a much improved display on a surface getting progressively worse, so that by the time the last wicket fell, their lead was 220. India’s target, 221, was more than tricky, needing extraordinary efforts from a top order that read Gavaskar, Srikkanth, Amarnath, Vengsarkar, Azharuddin, Shastri and Kapil. As it turned out, India fell 16 short, bowled out for 204 with both Tauseef and Qasim picking up four wickets each.
Now, how’s that for cold? Ok, so it does give the impression of an exciting Test match, but it doesn’t start to do justice to the drama and the emotion and the tension spread over five days, encompassing the rest day that was such a charming feature in that day and age. India began the fourth – and eventually final – morning on 99 for 4, Gavaskar already on a masterly 51 and carrying the hopes of the nation, like always, with young turk Azhar for company on 7.
Gavaskar’s unbeaten 51 at that time was already the highest individual score of the match. Vengsarkar, who made an even 50 in India’s first innings, was the only other half-centurion from either team as quality spinners from both sides held sway. What made Gavaskar’s effort particularly special was that it came in the fourth innings with the pitch at its most demanding.
By the time he was eighth man dismissed, erroneously adjudged caught close in off Qasim, he had soldiered on to a fairly fabulous, magnificent 96. It was to be the calling card of a man who had made 34 spectacular Test centuries, the romance furthered by the fact that this 96, compiled in nearly five-and-a-half hours and off 264 deliveries, came in his final Test appearance and that too in a losing cause.
It is inarguably the greatest exhibition of sustained excellence with the bat on a fairly diabolical surface against two exceptionally skilled spinners but the man who produced that masterpiece remembers very little of that knock. As he settles down to watch AB de Villiers and Dean Elgar try to keep India’s spinners at bay on the third day of the Mohali Test, Sunil Gavaskar doesn’t look on indulgently, instead almost trying to put himself in the batsmen’s shoes and minds as he embarks on a virtual journey to master the turning ball.
He chuckles with the certain knowledge that he will trigger the disbelief juices in you as you ask him about how he erected that spectacular edifice of sensational defence and tremendous mental strength at the Chinnaswamy. “To be honest, I don’t recall much,” he tells Wisden India, the reading glasses perched at the edge of his nose, the laptop cradled with care and affection, his eyes primarily on the action but occasionally flitting to make contact with yours just so you don’t feel left out. “I just recall basically two deliveries because my focus, my concentration was such that I don’t recall much of that innings. I was just focussed on the next ball, so there was no time to think back on the previous ball and luckily I had got into that kind of state of mind where I wasn’t really thinking too much – I wasn’t thinking ahead at all, and I wasn’t thinking back.
“In 1976, during that famous or infamous Kingston, Jamaica Test, I had inadvertently, accidentally, discovered a technique where the short ball was not bouncing off the glove and that is simply because all the fingers in both hands had been battered so much by the pounding it had taken from the short ball that it came to a situation where I just didn’t have any strength to hold the bat, to grip the bat”
“And there were just two balls that I recollect. One was a delivery from Tauseef Ahmed, which pitched on the off stump and jumped up from a short of a good length – it just jumped up so quickly that it was like a bouncer and I shouldered arms and moved just a little (to his right, he gestures). It went under my left armpit and it also beat the wicketkeeper and we got some byes for that. And the next one I remember was a shortish delivery from Iqbal Qasim, who had bowled so well. He bowled a rare short delivery and I got so excited that there was an opportunity to score now that I tried to hit it too hard and hit it eventually straight to the fielder. Those two deliveries are the ones that I remember.”
Astonishing, really: 264 deliveries, eight fours, hours of stolid, solid stonewalling, and all he remembers is two deliveries? How do you get into that state of mind? Can you consciously embrace that state of mind? “Well, it happens not very often but when it happens, nothing really fazes you,” he tells you, a little more indulgent now. “I remember going into the Pakistan dressing room after the match got over to congratulate the Pakistan team. Javed Miandad, who had been standing at silly point all throughout my innings, came and hugged me and started to apologise for having said things to me. I told him ‘I don’t even remember what you said’, and he was surprised. While clearly I was – I am trying to recall now, many years later – able to hear some talk going on, my mind made me believe that he was talking to the wicketkeeper and not talking to me. So you get into this state of mind not very often, a couple of times, maybe three-four times in your career.”
While the mind was focussed on the here and now between overs, there was plenty of talk with the non-striker – Gavaskar had eight different partners during his epic. “At the end of the over, we would meet mid-pitch. We were all discussing stuff, which is what you do. Sometimes, in the middle of the over as well. So no, that was fine, that you can’t avoid,” he says as you ask him if he shut his batting mates out as well. “You need to be able to constantly talk to your partner – you are only two against 11 out there in the middle. So you want to come and talk to each other, that was happening every over.”
Not unexpectedly, irrespective of the result, a knock of that magnitude, under such trying circumstances, will take its toll – perhaps a little less if you are on the right side of the result, and certainly a lot more if you are on the losing side. “You feel a little drained by the end of the day’s play and that is one evening that you sleep very well,” again that little chuckle. “You sleep really early. You tend to sort of feel a little more, as the match day is gone, it tends to make you sleep a little bit early. So you feel just that mental tiredness come in maybe two-three hours after the game is done. And so, generally if it is a day game, you tend to sleep pretty early, about 9 or 9.30pm.”
By his own admission, it isn’t just the Bangalore innings that he has very little recollection of. The 29th Test hundred against West Indies at Ferozeshah Kotla in New Delhi in 1983, a raging counter-attacking innings in which the hook was brought out of cold storage, isn’t an innings that he has too many memories of, though he does remember how he got to three figures – “Drive to midwicket, off Macho maan (Malcolm Marshall)”. Nor does he have too many mental images of his 221 against England at The Oval in 1979, which means some of his best Test innings aren’t exactly imprinted in his memory.
“I don’t know why,” he smiles. “Maybe those were the innings where, as I said, my state of mind was such that I focussed on the next ball, I didn’t think back on the previous delivery.”
“I would just focus on the fact that I would play against A, B, C, D bowlers and what I need to do and basically what I don’t need to do. That’s what would occupy my mind. Even if somebody spoke to me, they would not get an answer because I wouldn’t actually have heard or even if I had heard, it wouldn’t have registered with me because I was already mentally out on the field although physically, I was still in the dressing room.”
But clearly, the Bangalore defeat to Pakistan is always fresh in memory, because he says in almost the same breath, “Just coming back to the Bangalore Test, I think we probably lost it because of the fact that there had been rain the previous day (the rest day) as well as on the morning of the game – early morning (day four). And while the pitch was covered, right around the boundary, it wasn’t very grassy. It was a little bit muddy and that’s where so many of these byes that went over the wicketkeeper or some of the leg-byes that went, they stopped just inside the boundary which otherwise on the previous days would have gone for boundaries because that particular part would have been dry. So when you lose by 16 runs, you realise that if those only had gone for boundaries, then the result would have been different!”
The Bangalore 96 was in stark contrast to his 121 at the Kotla against West Indies in 1983, made off just 128 deliveries with 15 fours and two sixes. It wasn’t just the strike rate that was staggering. The manner in which he teed off against Marshall, Michael Holding, Winston Davis and Wayne Daniel was awe-inspiring and totally unexpected. Just the previous week, in the first Test in Kanpur, Marshall had dismissed Gavaskar in both innings, the first time for a second-ball blob, though it was the second-innings dismissal that set off shock waves across the cricketing world.
Trying to fend off a short delivery, Gavaskar saw the bat knocked out of his hands and the ball ballooning up to backward short-leg off the bat where Davis held the catch. Out for 7. Out in uncharacteristic fashion. Out of his depth now, the know-alls proclaimed. So come the Kotla, Gavaskar responded in kind. With a scything willow as the strokes flowed unabated, the same cricketing world that doubted him a week back sitting transfixed as the free spirit that few had been witness to previously made a wonderful appearance. It was as if he had a point to prove. Did he feel the need to?
“You are right about that,” he offers. “There was nothing to prove in Bangalore (1987) but just to make sure that India won the match, that was the only aim. But at the Kotla, you are talking about the 29th hundred, there was definitely something to prove because the previous game, the bat had been knocked out of my hand and I just wanted to prove that that was just one of those things – that was one of my technical things where the ball didn’t bounce as much.
“In 1976, during that famous or infamous Kingston, Jamaica Test, I had inadvertently, accidentally discovered a technique where the short ball was not bouncing off the glove and that is simply because all the fingers in both hands had been battered so much by the pounding it had taken from the short ball that it came to a situation where I just didn’t have any strength to hold the bat, to grip the bat,” he explains as he leads up to the bat-being-knocked-out-of-his-hands incident. “And so when the ball would bounce up towards my face, I would just hold the bat loosely, with both hands. Now what it did was, when the ball would hit the glove, it would go flat down. It would not even pop say a foot in front, it would just pop down. But because it would hit my hand and because the grip was not there, the bat would spin out of my hand. But I would grab hold of it before it fell down. So that was the technique that I started to use afterwards every time I defended the short ball.
“I very seldom went to the pitch because I didn’t want to get prejudiced one way or the other. Very, very seldom did I go on and see the pitch. Even when I was captain, I would want to go only on the morning of the match rather than before because that is the pitch you are going to get.”
“In the Kanpur Test, that’s what I did. When the ball was banged in short, I just automatically loosened my grip on the handle. But the ball didn’t get up. It hit the shoulder of the bat and then it just completely flew up in the air. If it had hit my glove, it probably would have just taken the bat out but it wouldn’t have gone up in the air. But then, of course, there was so much of talk and comment about that, so I said I should now play the hook shot as well because the hook shot has an element of risk. But I thought I will play it because it got me into positions where I was being a little more positive than being defensive.”
Since he made a stunning entry into international cricket in 1971, with 774 runs from four Tests in his debut series in the West Indies, to that unparalleled 96 at the Chinnaswamy 16 summers later, Gavaskar was the glue that held the Indian batting together. There were the Viswanaths, the Vengsarkars, the Amarnaths and the Azharuddins, but this little man was the one who led India’s resistance from the vanguard, against the meanest of fast bowlers in the most alien of conditions.
Such responsibility for so long meant he deliberately tailored his game to suit the requirements of the team. That also meant some strokes had to be excised – that is no easy task, mind – and the hook was one of them. Between Kanpur and the Kotla, therefore, he must have played at least a few of those to shed the rust?
“No, I didn’t!” he says, then laughs a little as your eyes become saucer-like in wonderment. “There was hardly any practice. So, no, I didn’t practice it but my mindset was different. I just said I was going to play it. It was easy after that because it was playing the hook shot only to the balls that I thought I could play them to. There were other deliveries that I left as well. I wasn’t playing the hook shot off every bouncer, no.”
“As long as India is winning the matches, there will be no cause for alarm, clearly, but yes, I think it (problem against spinners) is something they need to look at because, really, to be able to score on all kinds of surfaces is what you want as your recognition as a batsman.” © BCCI
Tales of Gavaskar shutting himself out mentally the closer it came to going out to bat are legendary, but it wasn’t always the case, he reveals. “Not so much from the beginning, maybe, I don’t think so,” he says of his routines in the lead-up to starting an innings or a session. “But certainly, when I became the captain, I used to try and delay getting ready till the umpires went out. The umpires generally would go five minutes before you have to go out to the field, and that’s when I would really start putting my protective equipment on and get ready. As captain till then, even if it was just 10 minutes between innings, five minutes I would be giving instructions – batting order and what we should be trying to do. That’s what I would do in those five minutes. But generally after that, I would switch off. I would just focus on the fact that I would play against A, B, C, D bowlers and what I need to do and basically what I don’t need to do. That’s what would occupy my mind. Even if somebody spoke to me, they would not get an answer because I wouldn’t actually have heard or even if I had heard, it wouldn’t have registered with me because I was already mentally out on the field although physically, I was still in the dressing room.”
It’s not often that you get an insight into the mind of a master, so you are curious what his preparations entailed, and what they were based on – the pitch, the opposition, his own form and/or the overall expectations from millions of fans? “I very seldom went to the pitch because I didn’t want to get prejudiced one way or the other,” he says, matter of factly. “Very, very seldom did I go on and see the pitch. Even when I was captain, I would want to go only on the morning of the match rather than before because that is the pitch you are going to get. The previous day you could see a pitch which is different and then everything can change, the groundsman can do something and you have a completely different pitch the next morning when the game starts. But I certainly thought a lot about the opposition bowlers and the things that I needed to do and those that I should avoid.”
The pitch. Now, that’s the object of so much attention and scrutiny and censure and ridicule, particularly when India play on home patch. The Mohali pitch attracted a fair amount of interest, both in the build-up to the first Test against South Africa and during the three days that the game lasted. “Oh, clearly I think playing in different conditions, different pitches is the beauty of international cricket. International Test cricket, one-day cricket, playing in different conditions also is a test of your skill as well as your temperament. So to have pitches which are similar all over the world doesn’t make sense,” Gavaskar states firmly. “Clearly, some pitches that you play on in Australia or South Africa will have a lot more bounce and pace. Pitches in England and New Zealand, there will be a lot of seam movement. Pitches in the subcontinent, there will be a fair bit of turn. So these are different pitches where batsmen and bowlers, both, have to make the adjustments.”
“Due to limited-overs cricket, there is a desire from the batsman to impose himself on the bowling, that’s something they get used to. They get used to it because they play on surfaces, which are pretty good to bat on generally. They play at grounds where the boundaries are brought in. So even if they mistimed the ball, sometimes it goes for a six.”
His recipe for batting success on such tracks where the turning ball – and sometimes the one that doesn’t turn – is the biggest challenge is fairly simple. “Firstly, loads of patience,” he says of how to approach the task of batsmanship. “And secondly, footwork. Footwork just to be able to get to the pitch of the ball. We saw just now, a little while back, while AB de Villiers was batting very positively, getting to the pitch of the ball. He was literally getting so close to the pitch of the ball that there was very little chance for the ball to move, turn, do anything. That’s clearly the trick, to be able to do that.
“Once you start getting to the pitch of the ball, the bowler tries to shorten his length and that shortening in length means you get the opportunity to either play the cut shot, back foot cut shot, or the pull shot as well. So you are trying to create those opportunities by your footwork and that is the way to go, but you also need to be patient. You must not play pre-determined shots. You might think this is what I am going to do, the bowler might not bowl the ball you are expecting to play the lofted shot to. Or the lofted inside-out shot over the covers. The ball might be shorter and therefore you get out. So clearly, you want to react as the ball is bowled. You can be positive to the extent that look, if this ball comes along, then I will play this shot, which is fine. But it mustn’t be that I am going to play that shot, come what may, that’s a sure recipe for disaster.”
Which brings us to a question that is both uncomfortable and disconcerting. Is the art of batting on tracks such as the one in Mohali fast disappearing? “To an extent, you have got to say that because frankly, the technique has changed,” the man reputed to possess the best defensive technique of his time, perhaps of all time, offers. “The batting technique has changed to the extent that because of so much of limited-overs cricket, a lot of hard hands are seen even in Test cricket. A lot of jabbing and pushing is seen in Test cricket. What happens also with the weight of the bat is when the weight of your bat is heavy, you are trying to get some punch and power into your shots and therefore you are playing hard at the delivery. You play with the lighter bats, you can control your bat speed that much easier. So I think there is that little aspect as well.
“Due to limited-overs cricket, there is a desire from the batsman to impose himself on the bowling, that’s something they get used to. They get used to it because they play on surfaces, which are pretty good to bat on generally. They play at grounds where the boundaries are brought in. So even if they mistimed the ball, sometimes it goes for a six. So yes, I think the fact that they do that in the limited-overs format makes them believe that they can do it even in Test cricket. But I think the difference has also got to be in the ball – the white ball and the red ball. It is technically just the colour but I think the way the seam is made makes a difference. The seam for the white ball flattens a lot quicker than the seam for the red ball and therefore the red ball will do a little more, whether it is spinning, seaming, contrast swinging – whatever you might call it. It keeps doing a little bit more and therefore to be able to take on the bowler doesn’t become easy unless it is a real flat pitch where nothing’s happening and you can play through the line of the ball without worrying.”
India’s batsmen have had their fair share of problems in recent times against spinners of all ilk – Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, then Moeen Ali, Nathan Lyon, Rangana Herath, and now Imran Tahir and Simon Harmer. It isn’t as if they haven’t succumbed to spin earlier – Tauseef and Qasim in Bangalore, for instance, or Shahid Afridi in the Bangalore Test of 2005, John Bracewell much before that, and even Shaun Udal at Wankhede in 2006 – but now the collapses are coming far too often for there not to be a pattern. Surely, that is cause for alarm, not being able to handle good spinners on turners, or above-average spinners on good batting tracks?
“As long as India is winning the matches, there will be no cause for alarm, clearly,” that half-chuckle again. “But yes, I think it’s something they need to look at because, really, to be able to score on all kinds of surfaces is what you want as your recognition as a batsman. That the man scored against all attacks on all kinds of surfaces, in all kinds of conditions. But if you are not scoring runs even in Indian conditions because of the fact that the ball is turning – and by scoring runs, I mean hundreds. You can score your 50s, 60s and 70s, they are fine, nothing wrong with 50s, 60s and 70s, a half-century is a half-century after all. But there is nothing to beat a century. The true worth of a batsman has always been by the number of hundreds he makes and that is where all these factors – temperament, technique, everything comes into play.”
“I think playing in different conditions, different pitches is the beauty of international cricket. International Test cricket, one-day cricket, playing in different conditions also is a test of your skill as well as your temperament. So to have pitches which are similar all over the world doesn’t make sense.”
India have played so much on the road, and worked so hard to bat well on the road against the seaming, swinging, bouncing ball that in wanting to do well overseas, they might have sub-consciously overlooked the need to buttress their game against spin. “It’s just that generally, the way we are, we are looking so much for appreciation from overseas, that that makes us believe that we got to do well overseas and I think that is not such a bad ideal at all,” agrees Gavaskar. “You want to do well overseas because everybody expects you to do well at home. So you want to do well overseas but it should not be something that should weigh you down because you are going to play in conditions which are foreign to you, however much you might be travelling to that country, however often you travel to that country. It’s just a part of cricket that some series are played at home, some matches are played overseas.”
As someone ducks in to inform him that he is due on air shortly, you can’t resist but throw in one final question. We have seen the dead-batter, the swashbuckler, the solid, and, occasionally, the flamboyant. How would the real Sunil Gavaskar like to have played, ideally? Somewhat distracted with time running out, he still leaves you in no doubt which avatar he would have preferred, had he had the choice that he denied himself in the interests of the team and, at that stage, of Indian cricket itself. “I think it was probably a combination of all these,” he says. “But I guess the real Sunil Gavaskar would have been the one who would have liked to play like he played at Delhi.”