We were enthusiastic quizzers in our school days. On one of the occasions, we were asked “who was the first fast bowler to take 100 Test wickets for India?”
There were no buzzers. All hands went up in unison, and much to my dismay, another team beat us to it: “Kapil Dev”, they blurted enthusiastically.
To my surprise, the quizmaster smiled and announced, “no”.
What does he mean, no?
“The answer is Karsan Ghavri.”
There was a hushed murmur: Who is this Karsan Ghavri?
Ghavri was a player like that. He was a more than useful hard-hitting lower-middle-order batsman; with his deceptively long run-up and high leap, he bowled medium-pace, often managing to move the ball to a surprising extent; and when the ball got old, Ghavri switched to a short run-up and bowled fastish, accurate left-arm spin.
He remains one of the six Indian seamers to have taken a hundred Test wickets; 109 wickets at 33.54 does not sound amazing, but if one considers the facts that he often bowled in India, and usually bowled against the wind, it does not seem that bad. He had a deceptively fast bouncer, and often foxed batsmen with an abrupt change of pace.
Ghavri’s bouncers were famous even at international level. At domestic level, batsmen feared his bouncers. Dilip Vengsarkar recalls an incident when an Uttar Pradesh opening batsman came to the Bombay dressing-room before a Ranji match, touched Ghavri’s feet, and asked him not to bowl a bouncer at him!
Ghavri’s average is the fifth-best among all Indian seamers. Unlike the top four (Kapil Dev, Javagal Srinath, Irfan Pathan, and Zaheer Khan) he never got a chance to bowl against a minnow (only three of his 39 Tests were against New Zealand). Even after the legendary EAS Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Bishan Bedi faded out one by one, India had a decent attack led by Kapil, and well-supported by Ghavri and the spinners — Dilip Doshi and Shivlal Yadav, with the occasional appearance by Srinivas Venkataraghavan. Between them they formed a formidable foursome in the late 1970s and the early 1980s.
Ghavri was also a rather elegant, aggressive batsman; he could hit the ball hard, and managed to score 913 runs at 21.23 — marginally missing out on achieving that elusive ‘double’.
He believed in practicing and playing hard — very hard, in fact. However, for him ‘hard’ was restricted only to batting and bowling; he did not take fitness training and fielding very seriously. Kapil has mentioned about his ‘lack of athleticism’ and the fact that he did not ‘believe in training’. However, Kapil had been full of praise on Ghavri, because the latter, according to Kapil, ‘knew how to get runs and wickets’.
Born in Rajkot, Ghavri had migrated to Bombay at an early age to play harder cricket (after playing Ranji Trophy for Saurashtra), somewhat against his family’s wishes. He was, however, given a day job at ACC Cements, and the move was encouraged and influenced by the likes of Madhav Mantri, Bapu Nadkarni, KS Indrajitsinhji, and Polly Umrigar. As he became a regular name in club cricket, he was sucked into the competitive nature of Bombay cricket, which made him lift his game to a new level altogether.
Ghavri began his career in the keenly-fought 1974-75 home series against West Indies. It was the pre-Kapil Dev era, which meant that the Indian fast bowler’s slot was typically like a musical chair, and often depended on who the better batsman was. Even Sunil Gavaskar was used to open the bowling and take the shine off the ball!
After India had lost the first two Tests in the series, Ghavri made his debut in the third Test at Calcutta. Tiger Pataudi had opted for the two seam-bowling all-rounders — Madan Lal and Karsan Ghavri — and both of them impressed, taking crucial wickets to make way for the spinners who won the Test for India.
Ghavri played at Madras, and once again provided with an early breakthrough, which India won again. Ghavri also scored an unbeaten 35 in a crucial partnership with Anshuman Gaekwad that eventually turned out to be a decisive one. And then, in the fifth Test at Bombay, in Madan’s absence, Ghavri opened bowling with Eknath Solkar, and sent down 35 overs to pick up four wickets in West Indies’ marathon total.
The team management was impressed by Ghavri’s all-round display. However, he picked up an injury at the wrong time, and had an ordinary performance in the World Cup, and against New Zealand at home. He was still retained for three Tests in the home series against England. In the last Test of the series, India had left England to chase 214 on a turner at Bombay: as Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar took only two wickets between them, Ghavri picked up five for 33 (his first five-for) to reduce England to 152 for seven when time ran out.
He was an obvious selection for what turned out to be another hard-fought contest — in Australia. Ghavri played only three Tests, but picked up 11 wickets at 24.83 (including 7 for 138 in the decider at Adelaide), in addition to scoring a crucial 64 at Sydney. It was in this series that Ghavri troubled the Australian batsmen with his bouncers on a consistent basis, and even bounced to Jeff Thomson to avenge the bouncers the speedster had dished out to the Indian batsmen. When an intimidated Indian batsman allegedly tried to rein him, Bedi stopped the batsman and asked Ghavri to carry on. It was after this series that Bedi called Ghavri ‘a terrific team-man’ and a “captain’s man”.
The epoch of his career, though, came against West Indies in the home series of 1978-79. India won the six-Test series by a narrow 1-0 margin, but Ghavri made his presence felt. He picked up 27 wickets at 23.48 and a strike rate of 45.3. Boosted by the advent of Kapil, Ghavri led the bowling charts for either side in all the three parameters — wickets, average and strike rate.
It was after this series that Ghavri began to fade out, though he kept on assisting Kapil and the spinners on a consistent basis, doing enough to retain his place in the side. He was also a part of India’s disastrous 1979 World Cup side, where he performed as ordinarily as his team did.
He kept on delivering with the bat, though. He blasted a 99-ball 86 — his career-best — with 12 fours and three sixes against Australia at Bombay, adding 127 runs with Syed Kirmani. With India down at 69 for eight against Pakistan at Kanpur, Ghavri played a vital 45 not out, adding 48 with Yadav and 45 with Doshi, and eventually saving the Test for India; and then, in the Calcutta Test in the same series, he came out at 135 for seven, and once again played a crucial 37 not out to guide India to 205, putting the Test out of Pakistan’s reach once again.
When it seemed like Ghavri was on the verge of bowing out, he came back strongly in the Jubilee Test, remembered mostly for the heroics of Ian Botham (114 runs, 13 wickets) and Bob Taylor (43 runs, ten catches) with the bat, ball, and gloves, and Gundappa Viswanath’s gracious recall of Taylor. Ghavri turned out to be the lone fighter in a losing cause, picking up five for 52 in England’s first innings, and secured a spot for India’s tour of Australia.
India lost the first Test at Sydney by an innings, but Kapil and Ghavri took five wickets apiece in Australia’s only innings. He also added 57 for the ninth wicket in the second innings with his old mate Kirmani, but could not stop India from losing the Test. It was in this Test that he became the first Indian seamer to reach the 100-wicket mark, as he had Rodney Marsh caught by Roger Binny. With India eight down in the fourth innings of the second Test at Adelaide, Ghavri and Yadav batted for about half an hour to save the Test and take the battle to the final Test.
Ghavri came again with a crucial spell in the third Test at Melbourne. A strong Australian batting line-up required only 143 to win the Test. With both Kapil and Yadav injured, and Doshi barely able to bowl, Ghavri opened bowling with Sandeep Patil. Within minutes he had John Dyson caught behind. Greg Chappell was the next man in, whom Ghavri had dismissed him in the first innings. This time, Chappell had left his leg-stump slightly exposed; Ghavri saw the opportunity, and bowled Chappell round his legs for a golden duck. The inroads were made, and Australia never recovered from 11 for two, and were bowled out for 83 as Kapil took field on the last day braving an injury.
Surprisingly, he played only one more Test. In the next series in New Zealand, Ghavri was replaced by Yograj Singh and Binny in the first Test, which India lost. He came back in the second Test at Christchurch, taking a solitary wicket. Desperately looking for a victory, Gavaskar decided to go with three spinners in the third Test, which brought Ghavri’s career to an abrupt end. He was soon replaced by Madan, his first bowling partner in Test cricket.
Ghavri returned as the coach of Bombay, replacing Chandrakant Pandit. He later joined the Cricket Improvement Committee of the Mumbai Cricket Association. However, after being mal-treated by the committee, Ghavri recently went public, mentioning to the press that MCA had been treating ex-cricketers ‘like dustbins’; Ghavri resigned, along with other ex-cricketers like Balwinder Sandhu and Nilesh Kulkarni, and Milind Rege resigned at the same time as senior selector.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/
First Published: February 28, 2013, 8:06 am