Sunil Gavaskar was involved in fair bit of controversies from his time as a cricketer and a commentator Photo Courtesy: Getty Images & The Hindu

Sunil Gavaskar, despite his defensive style of batting, had a career full of controversies both on and off the field. On his birthday, Abhishek Mukherjee re-lives a few.

There is something curious about the two champions of Mumbai batsmanship: while Sunil Gavaskar was the epitome of defence on the field and combative off it, Sachin Tendulkar was exactly the opposite — aggressive to the core with the bat and mostly non-committal in his personal life.

Here, on Gavaskar’s birthday, let us look at the on-field controversies Gavaskar had been involved in.

1. Heavy Snow at Lord’s

John Snow had helped England regain the Ashes; Sunil Gavaskar had set up India’s maiden series victory in West Indies; it was supposed to be a battle of two forces, both on the rise. Chasing 183, India were reduced to 21 for 2 before Gavaskar had settled the ship to some extent with Farokh Engineer.

During the partnership, Engineer pushed the ball and ran for a quick single; Gavaskar (in pads) and Snow (well over six feet) — men of completely contrasting frames — ran towards the striker’s end with different intentions; then Snow crashed into Gavaskar.

Snow later wrote in Cricket Rebel: “Gavaskar was doing the one thing all batsmen are taught and expected to do when they find themselves in that type of situation…namely run over the ball.”

Gavaskar wrote in Sunny Days: “I found to my surprise that he was level with me, and, with the ball nowhere near him, the hefty fast bowler gave me a violent shove. Now, Snow is a well-built fast bowler with strong shoulders, so that poor little me had no chance!”

Snow added: “As I made contact and Gavaskar started to fall, I could sense the shocked silence in the MCC committee room. I knew I was going to be in trouble.”

Snow later apologised for the incident but was still dropped for the next two Tests. Gavaskar, too, gave Snow the clean-chit.

2. The inexplicable crawl

Four years had passed. Gavaskar was back at Lord’s again, this time in the first ever World Cup match. Few gave India a chance when they were set 335, but one expected retaliation; India could have gone down fighting; instead, Gavaskar went into a mysterious shell of sorts.

To cut things short, Gavaskar batted through the innings, scoring 36 not out after lasting the full 60 overs. Srinivas Venkataraghavan, India’s captain in the match, later said in an interview to NDTV: “It left a very, very bad taste. He let the team down, the spectators down, the spirit of the game down. I don’t know what happened to him.” Ted Dexter was furious: “Nothing short of a vote of censure by the ICC would have satisfied me if I had paid good money through the turnstiles only to be short-changed by such a performance.”

But what did the man himself have to say? He wrote in Sunny Days: “There were occasions I felt like moving away from the stumps so I would be bowled. This was the only way to get away from the mental agony from which I was suffering. I couldn’t force the pace and I couldn’t get out. Towards the end I was playing mechanically.”

3. Shakoor Rana takes centrestage

Mike Gatting was certainly not the first cricketer whom Shakoor Rana had a run-in with. Rana had apparently allowed the much-feared Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz to overstep and bowl wide enough to be considered illegal. He had even stopped batting and had signalled Bishan Bedi to arrive at the ground because there was a twenty-minute difference between the umpires’ watches.

Finally, when Rana warned Mohinder Amarnath for stepping on the “danger zone” while batting, Gavaskar could not take it anymore and had a dig at Rana. Rana refused to take field the next day unless a proper apology was issued. Gavaskar was forced to apologise: there was too much at stake, since the series was the first between the rivals after a 17-year hiatus.

4. It took a Wing Commander

There are two ways of looking at the MCG Test: India won the Test, thus drawing a series on Australian soil for the first time; it was also the Test where Gavaskar had his infamous spat with Dennis Lillee. Australia had taken a formidable 182-run lead, but Gavaskar, in company of the reliable Chetan Chauhan, added 165 for the opening stand.

When a ball from Lillee (“slow motions showed that he had a thick edge on to the bat,” said Syed Kirmani) took his edge and hit his pad. Rex Whitehead’s finger went up. To quote Chauhan, “Lillee went up to him and showed that the ball had hit the pad first and then the bat, which I thought was not right. Gavaskar was struggling for runs on that trip, and then he got a half century. He was getting a lot of stick on that tour and he wanted to get a big score. In that series, there was a big contest between him and Lillee.”

Gavaskar decided to walk out, asking Chauhan to follow him. “You are the captain and whatever you say I am behind you,” said Chauhan. It took some coaxing from Kirmani to convince the team manager Wing Commander Shahid Durrani to step in (“I literally pushed him to do it”). Chauhan stayed, Dilip Vengsarkar joined him, and that was that.

India did not forfeit the Test. They won it. Years later, Gavaskar told Sportstar: “I have to admit that it was an absolutely inexcusable behaviour on my part, for whatever the provocation, I should have kept my cool as I was the captain of the team.”

5. Tussles with the Maverick…

The Pakistan tour of 1978-79 had ended the career of EAS Prasanna, and had reduced Bishan Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar to shadows of their earlier self. As Bedi’s career faded out, Dilip Doshi broke through, a debut that Bedi had no issues with. Unfortunately, when Doshi got injured in New Zealand, Gavaskar summoned rookie Ravi Shastri.

Bedi was not amused; he mentioned that Gavaskar had violated the procedure, since he carried out what had always been the manager’s responsibility; he also accused Gavaskar of favouritism. “Did Gavaskar get Bedi axed?” ran the headline on Sportsworld. “If Bishan has a grievance, I am most surprised. When I first saw the article, I thought Sportsworld had started a jokes column,” he later said.

The rift continued, and when Gavaskar was refused entrance by the Lord’s stewards, he gave up a lifetime membership offer from MCC. Bedi responded by writing an open letter, mentioning that Gavaskar had led down all Indians in England, which included the Indian touring team. A bemused Mohammad Azharuddin, then leading India, had said he was completely clueless about this.

It is almost hard to believe that Bedi, once a huge fan of Gavaskar’s, had actually christened his first son Gavasinder.

6. Clash of the Titans

Gavaskar was the man who showed India could compete. Kapil Dev taught India to win — a journey that started when the 23-year old replaced Gavaskar at the helm after India’s 1982-83 horror show in Pakistan. The relation between the two legends, however, was quite good to begin with, with Gavaskar trying to help Kapil with his action in a Wills Trophy encounter between Bombay and Wills XI.

Gavaskar’s form deserted him in the 1983 World Cup, and he pulled out of consecutive matches against Australia and West Indies. Gavaskar never got to know whether he would be picked for the Zimbabwe match at Tunbridge Wells despite Vengsarkar’s injury against West Indies. According to Man Singh, the manager, he got to know at the last moment from a journalist, and was dismissed early. There was another issue when Kapil had asked Gavaskar to “get some runs”, but Man Singh’s tact came handy.

Gavaskar was not happy when Kapil had declared the innings closed at Madras later that year: there was no question of a result, but Gavaskar, batting on 236, was denied the chance to go for a triple-hundred. Two seasons later, when India were fighting to save a Test at Kotla on Day Five against England, Kapil walked out, hit everything that was bowled at him (including a six) and got out trying to loft one off Pat Pocock.

A livid Gavaskar met with the selectors, and following a consultation with the Selectors, Kapil was dropped. Calcutta greeted Gavaskar with chants of “No Kapil, no Test” and things turned murky. But that is another story.

7. Countering the Colonel

The Gavaskar-Vengsarkar clash was not as easy to identify or explain as the Gavaskar-Bedi or the Gavaskar-Kapil ones, more so because they both hailed from Dadar Union. It had started off with the Indian tour of Sharjah in 1982 — one that involved exhibition matches. The immigration officers made the cricketers wait as a handful of film stars were given priority.

Vengsarkar, still young, protested at this, and was made to wait. Gavaskar and the rest of the team carried on, not waiting for Vengsarkar: the 25-year old was deported, and Gavaskar did not utter a single word in condemnation. The relationship between the two deteriorated.

Vengsarkar had turned up late in the 1985-86 contest against Baroda at Wankhede; he had landed in early morning of Day One after participating in Ramesh Saxena’s benefit match at Jamshedpur. What followed was something Vengsarkar had not expected. In various conversations they told the following to H Natarajan:

Vengsarkar: I had requested Sunil to allow me to come late for the match as I’m not used to late nights.
Gavaskar: Yes, Dilip did make the request, but I clearly remember telling him to be present at the ground before the toss.
Vengsarkar: Sunil never mentioned anything about the toss.
Gavaskar: If three other players (Shastri, Mohinder Amarnath and Gavaskar himself) who came on the same flight as Dilip can come on time, why not him? And don’t forget, he is a one-down batsman.

It can still be debated who was at fault. The fact remained that Vengsarkar was dropped for the match. The rift continued.

8. Shunning the specialist

Doshi had played 33 Tests, 30 of which were under Gavaskar’s leadership. Doshi was a crucial tool in Gavaskar’s repertoire, used to take wickets, contain runs, and when in dire straits, to waste time. Despite that, there were differences and Gavaskar’s persistent preference of Shastri over Doshi, leading the bespectacled tweaker to call Gavaskar “bogged down in personal likes and dislikes” and “either evasive or flippant”.

As mentioned above, Doshi had been replaced by Shastri on India’s New Zealand tour. Doshi had a spinal fracture (no less), but, to quote KR Wadhwaney from Indian Cricket Controversies, Gavaskar showed “no sympathy”, and merely asked: “Where is the X-ray?” Wadhwaney added: “When he presented him an X-ray, Gavaskar did not even glance at it.”

Dr John Hislop had mentioned that Doshi was ruled out for a month, which meant that he would miss the first Test of the series. Though Durrani had asked for Rajinder Goel, Gavaskar insisted Shastri be flown in. Despite Doshi’s return to fitness, both Shastri and Doshi played the next two Tests, and with time Doshi faded out from the scenario.

When Gavaskar was asked about India’s historic win at MCG, Gavaskar praised the efforts of Kapil and Shivlal Yadav. When a journalist asked him “What about Doshi?” Gavaskar responded with the same question: “What about Doshi?” The amicable Doshi, the man who was always sporting to the many pranks his teammates pulled at his expense, was not amused this time.

Doshi also took the flak when Gavaskar had ordered to take his own time to bowl in the dreary tour of 1981-82. Gavaskar was severely criticised for atrocious over-rates. David Gower recalled: “I remember endless discussions over field placings with Dilip Doshi, seemingly taking place after every ball, with little or no change after each discussion.”

What was Doshi’s take? He wrote in Spin Punch: “Gavaskar had told me that if I failed to follow the code, he would simply take me off and put Shastri on to bowl. My attacking instincts were further curbed by such defensive instructions…When I was being singled out for my slow over-rates, I feel strongly that Sunil Gavaskar should have defended me publicly. After all I was carrying out his orders. His only defence appears to have been to counter by saying that the opposition was also bowling slow over-rates.”

Come Pakistan, and India got away with a draw in the first Test at the Gaddafi Stadium. They had scored 485, and Doshi had returned a haul of five for 90. His captain, however, was not impressed. Devendra Prabhudesai wrote in SMG: “The left-armer had already been deeply hurt by what he had perceived of a deliberate attempt by the skipper to devalue his five-wicket haul at Lahore. According to him, Sunil had hinted that his five victims had thrown their wickets away in the dash for a declaration, and hence, it wasn’t appropriate for Doshi to take the credit for them.”

The Test had as good as ended Doshi’s career. R Sriman later wrote in The Times of India: “Doshi did not enjoy the confidence of his skipper, who almost humiliated him by the manner in which he handled him…Doshi did not get the field he wanted…he was almost a mental wreck and thoroughly demoralised.”

9. The Garden of Eden

Eden Gardens had come prepared for the Test against West Indies in 1982-83. Gavaskar had equalled Don Bradman’s tally of 29 Test hundreds, and they had come to watch him get his 30th. Unfortunately, Gavaskar was caught-behind off the first ball of the Test to Malcolm Marshall. India recovered from 63 for 6 to reach 241, but let West Indies slip away to 377 from 213 for 8.

Gavaskar switched gears when India came out to bat on Day Three; he chased a wide one from Michael Holding and was caught-behind for 20; India were 36 for 5 at stumps, and an irate Calcutta crowd pelted stones at the Indian team coach. He was also accused, for whatever reason, of selfishness for attending the launch of Idols, his second book, on the rest day (India were bowled out for 90 the day after).

His wife Marshneil was not spared either. Gavaskar later wrote in Runs ’n’ Ruins: “What got me hopping mad, and something I will never forgive, is the crowd throwing fruit and rubbish at my wife…Here were people who talk about culture and respecting women, throwing fruits at the wife of a player who has played for thirteen years. And for one bad shot? When everybody else had also failed? Why her? It was not her fault.”

Years later, Gavaskar’s version changed slightly. He later wrote in War of the Willows (a Cricket Association of Bengal souvenir): “There is a misconception that I was upset because of such an incident. I asked her but she said there was nothing thrown at her. Maybe nobody had a strong or accurate throw!”

Gavaskar’s animosity towards Eden Gardens increased, but what happened at the same venue against England in 1984-85 defied logic. With the series levelled 1-1, Gavaskar won the toss and allowed India to bat on; and on; and on; and on. The crowd slumped into a stupor of sorts; they stopped booing; Gavaskar decided to bat on till the second session of Day Four.

Wisden lambasted Gavaskar, calling the decision “perverse”. The fact that Kapil had been dropped for the Test did not help towards lifting the sour mood of the crowd. When Gavaskar eventually made a brief appearance outside the dressing-room, the crowd went up in unison: “Gavaskar out, Gavaskar out…” to go with their “No Kapil, no Test”.

Gavaskar eventually declared after a 200-over crawl of 437 for seven. Some issues cite that he was asked by the police to do so. Wisden, however, gave him the benefit of doubt: “Gavaskar subsequently denied that police had warned him there was a threat to law and order should he delay the declaration any longer, though it was broadcast as a fact by an Indian commentator on BBC radio.”

Stones and fruits were thrown at the man. Mid-Day published Gavaskar’s own version: “He argued that he didn’t declare because he had set a target of 450…the wicket had rolled out well and no miracles were expected on the last two days. ‘Why should I expose our regular bowlers for long unnecessarily?’”

Ron Hendricks, however, was not very kind on his report filed by The Indian Express: “The India skipper, who commands a substantial fee for each Test appearance, should learn to spare a thought for the cash customers instead of adopting postures that can kill the goose that lays the golden eggs of cricket.”

The person who was the happiest about the proceedings was David Gower: “I was happy to have drawn the game and happy to put the pressure onto my opposite number, knowing that he was not a great fan of Calcutta!” Gavaskar, in response, called Gower “a preacher”.

10. Not quite Lordly

The year was 1990. As mentioned above, Gavaskar had been denied entry to Lord’s. The stewards (not among the politest, one must add) did not allow him through Grace Gates. Gavaskar surrendered his MCC membership as a result, which had led to a caustic comment or two from Bedi.

It took several years before Gavaskar decided to take up the invitation again, thanks to some insistence from the then MCC President — another MCC, Michael Colin Cowdrey. Something was, after all, not right between Gavaskar and the hallowed venue.

11. Racism? Well, maybe not

Gavaskar’s attitude towards the Australians is not something he has ever made an attempt to hide. Writing for India Today he called the Australian behaviour “awful”, and added: “Someday, some other hot-head guy might actually get down and you know whack somebody who abuses him”.

It was nothing out of the way, barring a rather harsh remark he made about David Hookes, who had passed away three years before in a bar brawl. Gavaskar wrote: “There’s the example of the late David Hookes. Would the Australians who use that kind of language on the field, and not all of them do, in a bar and would they get away with it? Would they have a fist coming at their face or not?”

However, he apologised shortly afterwards in a breakfast show on ESPN.

12. The argumentative southpaw

Raghuram Bhat had taken eight for 123 to rout Bombay for 123 at Chinnaswamy in the 1982-83 Ranji semifinal. Sudhakar Rao’s 155 not out then lifted Karnataka from a precarious 195 for five to 470, which included a 91-run last-wicket stand with Bhat. Gavaskar demoted him down the order, and did not emerge until Bhat had reduced Bombay to 139 for 5.

Sunil Gavaskar played left-handed and finished with an unbeaten 18 for Bombay in the 1982-83 Ranji Trophy Semi-Final Photo Courtesy: The Hindu

To combat Bhat’s left-arm spin (“the ball was turning square”, Gavaskar later said) batted left-handed; the match had been decided for all practical purposes, but Gavaskar prevented an innings defeat. He remained unbeaten on 18, Bhat claimed 5 wickets, and Bombay finished on 200 for 9.

Bhat was in awe, as were most people present at the ground that day. A few others, however, were not impressed: some accused him of making it a point to show, almost demean his colleagues on how to counter Bhat (who returned a haul of 13 wickets in that match).

The other accusation was even more baffling: it was not “right” to adopt such strategy in a crucial match.

13. The Nightingale who did a Sharapova

Not exactly a controversy, but when it came to a verbal retribution, Gavaskar was never one to back off. To quote Sudhir Vaidya from Daily Post India: “During India’s tour of  Pakistan in 1978, Noor Jehan had arrived to witness the Test match and when one Pakistani official tried to  introduce Sunil Gavaskar as India’s most popular batsman, Noor Jehan had said, ‘I don’t know any Sunil Gavaskar, I only know Zaheer Abbas!’”

Three years later, when Gavaskar met Lata Mangeshkar in Pakistan, the Indian manager Maharaja Fateh Singh Gaekwad introduced the team to Ms Mangeshkar. When the Maharaja asked whether Gavaskar knew Noor Jehan, Gavaskar responded with the words: “Nahin jeehum to sirf Lata Mangeshkar ko jante hai” (“no, Sir, I know of only Lata Mangeshkar”).

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)