Sunil Gavaskar's epic last Test innings — exactly 25 years ago
Sunil Gavaskar’s sign-off from top class cricket was brilliant: hundred in his penultimate ODI, 96 in his final Test innings and 188 in his last first-class match against a world class bowling attack © Getty Images

It’s exactly 25 years since Sunil Gavaskar last played for India. H Natarajan recalls the Little Master’s epic effort in that final innings against Pakistan at Bangalore which has strange coincidences with Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th international hundred on Friday.

 

March 16, 2012: Sachin Tendulkar scores a mind-boggling 100th international century while on the threshold of retirement – the most difficult of them all, as the maestro himself admits later. But the joy of the staggering achievement is devalued by the fact that his team ends up on the losing side.

March 17, 1987: Sunil Gavaskar scores a monumental innings – arguably his greatest effort in Tests – in what was his final appearance for India. But the sheen of his epic knock is robbed by India’s defeat.

Twenty five separates the painful moments of two of India’s greatest cricketing sons. In fact, it’s exactly 25 years since that unforgettable day in 1987 when the original Little Master single-handedly carried the burden of his team – much like he had done right through his career.

Gavaskar was waging a lone battle in what’s the mother of all cricket rivalries. Four Tests between the two historical rivals ended in draws. The fifth and last Test was now in its final day – and it was anybody’s game. Pakistan had two aces of pace in captain Imran Khan and Wasim Akram, but India’s biggest threat to victory was left-arm spinner Iqbal Qasim and off-spinner Tauseef Ahmed. The Pakistanis knew, going into the final day of the series, that there was one hurdle – and a gigantic one at that – between them and victory: the battle-hardened Sunil Manohar Gavaskar, playing a defiant innings in what was to be his final hurrah in a fabulous Test career.

This was a beast of a pitch, tailor made for the spinners. Batting first on winning the toss, Pakistan folded up for 116 in under 50 overs. Left-arm spinner Maninder Singh playing havoc with seven for 27 in 18.2 overs after Kapil Dev packed off the openers in quick time. When Rameez Raja fell, the second wicket, Pakistan’s score was 39. Maninder then took seven of the eight Pakistan wickets that fell in a heap for the addition of just 77 runs.

The fact that Akram bowled just two overs and Imran five should give an idea about the quality of Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy track on Day One of a Test match. Though openers Gavaskar and Krishnamachari Srikkanth added 39 for the opening wicket, the Indian batsmen were no different than the Pakistanis, batting on vicious turner against two quality spinners. India lost ten wickets for 106 runs – the last seven for 43 runs. Tauseef creamed off five of the top six to have figures of 27-7-54-5, while Qasim ended the innings with 30-15-48-5.

India took a lead of 29 runs, decent in the context of the game, but they had to contend with batting last on a worsening wicket.

Pakistan fared slightly better in their second innings by scoring 249, but there were two important happenings that could not be missed:

1. In three innings of the Test thus far only one batsman had to the half century mark – Dilip Vengsarkar with 50.

2. Shastri’s four for 69 and Maninder’s 3-99 off 43.5 overs meant, 27 of the 30 wickets had fallen to the spinners.

Not a comforting thought for a team set a victory target of 221 on a vicious turner. When play ended on Day Three, India had lost Srikkanth, Mohinder Amarnath, Dilip Vengsarkar and Kiran More with 99 on the board. At the crease was Gavaskar with on 51 and Mohammad Azharuddin on seven. With just one specialist batsman in Shastri, the two all-rounders in Kapil and Binny and the two bowlers in Shivlal Yadav and Maninder to follow, the nation’s expectations was on Gavaskar’s shoulders – yet again!

The rest day that followed must go down as one of the most agonising days in the cricketing annals of the two nations. Anybody with even a passing interest in the game was hooked on to the Test. Sadly, I had to get on a flight and miss what was unquestionably going to be a gripping day’s play. I knew by the time I complete my air journey, the Test match would have been decided. I pressed the call button above my aircraft seat to summon the air hostess and make a request I have never made before or since. I told the hostess to ask the commander of the flight to keep us passengers informed of the proceedings at Chinnaswamy Stadium by asking ground control to feed him info from time to time and he, in turn, relay the info on the in-flight PA address – something that was duly obliged.

Gavaskar and Azhar raised hopes for a while by adding 24 runs when resumed after the rest day. But with the score at 123, Azhar was beaten by the pitch and offered Qasim a return catch.

Shastri, the last of the recognised batsman, walked out in the middle to join Gavaskar. They took the score to 155 when Shastri, just four runs to his credit after 49 defiant minutes in the middle, became another caught and bowled victim of Qasim. And when skipper Kapil Dev perished six runs later, the sixth Indian wicket, Gavaskar’s job was now seemingly “Mission Impossible”.

And then the last – and the biggest – hope was gone when Gavaskar was declared caught at slip out by umpire VK Ramaswamy – a poor decision – with 41 more needed for an Indian win. Gavaskar fell four short of what would have been a meritorious century.

The fact that Srikkanth, Amarnath, Vengsarkar, Shastri and Kapil – all superb players of spin – between them could score only 57 runs underlines what a minefield the Chinnaswamy wicket was. Only three other batsmen – Vengsarkar, Azhar and Binny – got into double figures and Mr Extras was the second highest with 27! Twenty two of those runs were byes as the ball spun square and bounced over wicket-keeper Saleem Yousuf’s head! Despite the degree of difficulty in batting, Gavaskar’s innings had eight fours – twice more than the rest of the ten Indian players in the innings.

India lost the Test by 16 runs – and with it the series 0-1. Tauseef and Qasim took four wickets apiece after Akram had scalped the first two; Imran did not even bowl in the innings in which only three bowlers bowled!

Eleven years later, against the same rivals in neighbouring Chennai, Sachin Tendulkar fell on the threshold of steering India to victory with an innings of 136 as India fell short of the target by 12 runs.

Gavaskar’s sign off from top-class cricket was as brilliant as his career. He had scored a hundred in the first innings of the series and a near hundred – worth a double ton, in reality – in his final innings. And when you put that alongside the fact that he scored one of the fastest hundreds in ODIs in his penultimate game and 188 in his final first class game against the likes of Malcolm Marshall, Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice at Lord’s, you know why he was the ultimate example of Vijay Merchant’s credo: Retire when people ask why and not why not.

Your deeds will live in our hearts forever, Sunny. Thanks for making us Indians proud.

(H Natarajan, formerly All India Deputy Sports Editor of the Indian Express and Senior Editor with Cricinfo/Wisden, is the Executive Editor of CricketCountry.com.. A prolific writer, he has written for many of the biggest newspapers, magazines and websites all over the world. A great believer in the power of social media, he can be followed on Facebook at facebook/H.Natarajan  and on Twitter at twitter/hnatarajan)